Saturday, August 4, 2012

Tell me a story...

I am sitting here, barefoot at a table outside of Coffee Bean, with an outline for a new blog essay about the power of stories, but I have been stuck at the outline. Why? Not because of writer’s block. No, for the reason I usually get distracted…a good story. At the table next to me sit a middle aged man and woman. The woman was telling a story of some East Coast friends she had who moved to a mountaintop property in the area. They garden, use solar power, earn most of their money at the farmer’s market, and believe in conservation, yet their neighbors hate them. Why? Because the modest house they built blocks the ocean view of the other neighbors, who thought that particular property was open land and would not be built upon. It was utilized by teenagers for a prime dirt biking place. The plot thickens. The neighbors sought a way to oust the East Coast friends, but they had purchased the property legally. I need not go into the details of the vindictive neighbors, all of which I heard. Yet as I was sitting, with half of my mind listening to this story and the other half contemplating my seeming writer’s block, I suddenly realized that it was not writer’s block at all. I was distracted by writing an essay on the power of stories simply because I was eavesdropping on a story.

Stories have a power in the lives of people all over the world. They are the shape we give to the experiences that happen to us. They are events strung together to form a coherent whole. For the purposes of this essay, I do not see them as fabrications or falsehoods, but a positive force that underlies our lives. We get together with friends to hear stories. We tell stories about ourselves to the people with whom we interact. We devour books and movies. Even our Facebook profiles tell a story, usually about who we want to be.

Even as a child, I was drawn to stories. Before I could read, I would sit for hours and look through books. I don’t remember the time passing, or even what stories I constructed out of the pictures I viewed, but I do remember sitting with a pile of books around me, completely absorbed. I view this in my toddlers today. Even my beloved wild child will sit for twenty or thirty minutes, totally engrossed in books. Some of my favorite teaching memories are the times I listen in and hear the stories they imagine as they turn the pages of their favorite book. I can only imagine that this is how I sounded when I was their age. I guess I have a propensity for listening in, which is maybe not the best inclination when other people are having a private conversation in a coffee shop, but I see it as evidence of how drawn I am to a good story, or even a developing story, as in the case of my toddlers.

Human beings are drawn to stories because they have the power to be an escape from the reality of our own personal stories, or as a force to empower us to grow in our own stories and to make them better. After I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, my inspiration to follow my dream to be a writer was renewed. As I reread The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien, I am inspired to go backpacking again and see natural beauty, like the cave of Henneth Annûn. Stories are the essence of our humanity, and in that way they connect each one of us.

I will end these thoughts with another story, of a time when I witnessed this connection that crosses cultures. During my time in India last summer, our group toured an incredible fortress and palace outside of Jaipur. Our tour guide was friendly, and a friend of mine from the group and I struck up a conversation with him about how India and America share a common element in our cultures: a love of stories. As the rest of the group explored the myriad courtyards, the three of us talked about the great stories in our cultures. Our conversation progressed to the fact that our group was a group of college students, and our tour guide asked us about our majors. I told him that I was majoring in English and he was clearly confused. To him, a major in English did not make sense for someone who obviously spoke English. In that moment, surrounded by ancient beauty, where every stone could tell a story of its own, I suddenly realized how to explain my major to this young Indian man. When he asked me, “Why are you majoring in English?” I replied, “You could think of it as majoring in stories.” I could see the understanding emerge in his eyes, and in that moment he understood my choice of major better than many who share my culture. Our shared love of stories helped us to understand each other’s lives.

Every element of our lives is a part of a larger, worldwide story, and I love that. That is why I read voraciously. That is why I want to be a writer.

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