Monday, April 11, 2011

The Art of Storytelling

Two perspectives on storytelling have always irked me a bit. One is the distrust some people have of anyone who can tell a story well and likes to do so; fearing that they are lying in some way. Another is the individual who can’t tell what good storytelling is and often launches into the most boring and minute details while telling you a “good story.”

I just finished reading Pat Conroy’s 2010 novel “South of Broad.” It is definitely a well-told tale; part love letter to the city of Charleston, South Carolina and part the epic adventures of some high school misfits, who remain friends into their varied and often tragic adulthoods.

I truly enjoyed the read, although, as famous and acknowledged a writer as Conroy is, I found myself chafing occasionally at the dialog of supposed teenagers and frequently at the horrors they all endure together and separately.

The true nugget of the novel, for me, was one passage that completely illuminated what good storytelling is; a snippet near the end of the book.

“While she inspects the house, I spot a lone magnolia blossom high in one of her trees and scramble up to retrieve it, feeling older with every branch I climb. I break off the flower, the first of the season, inhale its sweetness, and decide it was worth the climb. I hand it to Mother and am delighted when she pins it to her hair.”

This is the main character Leo King describing a moment between him and his mother. Here’s where the true craft of storytelling comes in: the women never claws through her purse for a hairpin or rushes back into the house to find one. In one fell swoop, Leo hands the flower to his mother and she pins it in her hair.

Such a thing could not happen in real life. There she would have to find a means of pinning that flower to her hair. As readers, we do not want to be dragged through the tedium of that task and so we accept the movement from hand to hair, just like that. That’s how we prefer it.

It is not a lie, in any shape or form; not even by omission. It is simply the grit of actual living that has been culled from the moment. It’s also necessary. If we told the truth – in all its tiresome itemization – a story would never be told, a novel never written. All forms of narrative would be far too long, and we would fall asleep in the telling, both teller and listener.

Praise be for the great storyteller! For eons, around the campfires of old, in the courts of kings and before the television screens we have embraced this gift, without always acknowledging that it is at the core of our being – either to tell a story or to listen to one.

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