Telling Stories

I’m sitting next to Frank at our weekly gourd band practice. Frank is a journalist. He writes a local history column for the paper in his Kentucky town. He has a love for old railroad songs, for quirky folk customs, for community music.

During a pause in our attempts to draw tunes out of our crazy assortment of gourds, Frank asks me about a local storytelling event that took place the week before. A couple members of the band, myself included, had skipped practice to go the event, to listen stories, to tell them.

“You would like it,” I say. “You’re a good storyteller.”

He shakes his head. “I’m not a storyteller.”

This from a man who tells stories for a living. But I understand: he was thinking of stories as things people make up, fictions, fairy tales. O’Henry short stories.

“Not fictional stories,” I say. “True stories, personal stories. About real things that really happened. To us.”


I don’t know if the explanation brought him closer to the idea or pushed him further away. It’s daunting, the prospect of sharing personal stories in a live setting, with an audience, most of whom you don’t know. It’s also powerful. Very, very powerful.

Our local storytelling event is new. We follow the basic Moth guidelines of brevity and first person, but we are not a Moth event, and we allow notes, even reading, if that’s what the storyteller needs to get up in front of the group. We want people to get up. We’re good listeners. We put away our devices, give the storyteller our attention. We bring adult beverages and share them. Some of us want those beverages before we speak. No judgment.

We put our names into a hat. Or a bowl. Whatever is handy. Then we draw names, and one by one, people get up and tell their stories.

Some of the stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Others have no real structure, they’re just loops of emotion and a search for understanding. No narrative thread, just connecting dots, one thing happens and then another. Life. Connection. It’s what we come for, though nobody has actually said as much, at least not to me, perhaps because to do so might break the spell, might make the whole thing seem forced, like a 12-step meeting. But I do believe it’s what we seek when we show up each month, ready to listen, ready to speak.

And we find it. Somehow, just by telling our stories. It’s astonishing.

And it makes us cry. Every time.

I don’t tell Frank about the crying. I’m not sure it’s a strong selling point. But it ought to be.

After a few more attempts to bring our gourds into tunefulness, we set them aside and sing a cappella. We’re not pros, but we know how to listen, which is what matters most when you’re making music with other people. We sing the same song again and again, working out harmonies on the fly, leaning in to hear the voice next to us, the voice across the circle, finding our note, or not finding it, going a little sharp or flat. Or a whole lot sharp or flat. Nobody is chastened for getting it wrong, and by the ninth or tenth time through, we have something, and then we just keep going, because it’s magical and we don’t want to stop.

Sometimes I feel bereft. The world is on fire, and I don’t know how to fix what’s broken. But I am suffused with these stories. These songs. These connections.

This life. This astonishing magic.