One man’s conversation is another man’s story.
June 5, 2016
I WAS HEADED OUT to make a couple of presentations at a Writers Conference. It was a big event with speakers from all over the country, and I was honored to be there.
When the Conference chairman called me, he asked, “What do you want to speak on?”
“Storytelling,” I said.
“How about the power of storytelling?”
“How about the magic of storytelling?”
“Either is fine.”
So I’m speaking on one or the other.
In reality, there is no difference.
As Phillip Pullman once wrote: After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.
I understand more than anyone.
I grew up in a world occupied by storytellers. Their stories were better than books. Their stories became books.
I would sit in the back of Mr. Wyche’s Country Store while men played dominoes, or at least talked of playing dominoes, and traveled the forgotten roads of their memories.
A little truth.
A little fiction.
A little fact.
I sat on the back end of rowboats in the sloughs of Caddo Lake – me and a hook, a cork, and a worm – and heard real fishermen talk of exploits past and present.
I sat in the darkness of a storm cellar my father had dug on a farm near New London during the time of thunder dusters and tornadoes East Texas.
Our world was thick with oil derricks.
The winds weren’t always kind to them.
So we went underground – our neighbors came knocking as soon as they heard the first rumble of thunder in the sky, saw lightning strike the oil fields, and told stories until the night was quiet again.
In the South, yesterdays count. No one forgives. No one forgets.
In those days, storytellers did not know they were telling stories. They were simply carrying on a conversation.
I never outgrew their stories. Nor did I ever stop listening to conversations by the side of the road.
My travels over the years have never been measured in miles, only in people. The places I’ve gone, the sights I’ve seen, the mountains I’ve climbed, the rivers I’ve crossed, the back roads I’ve walked have never been as important as the people I’ve met along the way.
Their voices stay with me. So do the stories they have told me.
The voices may come from down the road, at the counter of a diner, on the bar stool in a beer joint, sitting in the front yard of a mountain cabin, along a stretch of spun-sugar sand, back in the darkness of a pine thicket, amidst the downtown traffic jam of a city at sundown, or from the faint memories of a distant past.
Everyone who crosses my path when I travel has a story to tell. It may be personal. It may be something that happened last week or the year before. It may have been handed down for more than a single generation.
On numerous occasions, I’ve simply sat for awhile with the oldest man whittling and whistling on a courthouse lawn, spent time with the ladies who fight to preserve our past and our architectural heritage, or bumped into strangers who have elbowed their way into chili cookoffs, chicken fly-offs, rattlesnake milking, chitling struts, or watermelon thumps. I even watched a Miss Victoria contestant stand on her head with a mouthful of pennies and hum Stars and Stripes Forever.
Those voices, those stories reflect the personality of the land itself.
Mountains fade into the distance. Beaches are timeless. The tides come and they go, but once they have gone, they are gone forever. The town I’ll never forget today is forgotten tomorrow. The city is an abstract sculpture of steel and glass, but so is the next one, and the next one.
Voices remain eternal. Some people collect coins and stamps, model ships and lighthouses, driftwood and sea shells, cars and boats, paintings and homemade crafts.
I collect stories. I find them most when I listen to other voices while traveling to other towns.
Not all of the places are on the map.
Not all of them want to be.