1.33 Storytelling

ALGONQUIN PARK, ONTARIO: Over the labour weekend, I went camping with a bunch of friends. This is not an entry about camping, as they say, whatever happens out in the woods, stays in the woods. We sat huddled around the fire under a tarp, trying to stay dry. Except for the required work – keeping the fire going, making food, collecting firewood, etc. – there really wasn’t much to do except sit around and talk. Tell stories.

I had trouble sleeping on the ground in a sleeping bag. I woke up early in the mornings, the sky still dark, and went for long walks in the woods with my friend’s dog. There was a strange dialogue between my feet and the forest floor, an urban dweller used to dirty alleyways and the rumble of streetcars. Unsure of what to do with all this clean air. My mind kept coming back to the stories we tell each other.

Out in the woods, we had nothing but words.

I was reminded of Bruce Chatwin’s book Songlines, about the Indigenous Australian concept of navigation. They would travel across the land by following words of a song. The songs would describe the path and by singing the appropriate sequence, one could traverse across hundreds of kilometers.

The songs were stories that used the surroundings as its lyrics.

I was also reminded of a young boy that I teach and an older man that taught me. Over the summer, the young boy went on a family trip and he took me traveling with him. Not literally, but through his stories. Every week we would work together, he would take me to the hills of Spain, the mountains of Switzerland, the beaches of France. These were experiences he will probably remember his entire life and I felt privileged that he shared them.

I’ve spoken at great length about my experiences at the Humber School for Writers. My teacher, Wayson Choy, used examples from his own life and the lives of others to illustrate his lessons. The difficult concepts he was trying to illustrate became simplified, specific and easily digestible.

Young and old: They used stories to communicate and connect with others.

Stories are everywhere: Billboards, commercials, television, movies, two people talking on the subway. Places have stories – have you ever stepped into a room and felt that something had happened within those walls? You might not know what, but your imagination knows.

It is slowly becoming essential for me to share stories. I am becoming more comfortable with it. And now, the world has opened up, become smaller and we have the wonderful opportunity to speak, exchange, learn and listen to those we might not have had the chance to hear.

Buried in the back of the appendix to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers was this:

"When I was done, I was ashamed, because I had written what I saw as a much too revealing and maudlin thing, overflowing with blood and sentiment and a simple bare longing for people who are gone. The book was seen by its author as a stupid risk, and an ugly thing, and a betrayal, and overall, as a mistake he would regret for the rest of his life but a mistake which nevertheless he could not refrain from making, and worse, as a mistake he would encourage everyone to make, because everyone should make big, huge mistakes, because:

a) They don’t want you to;

b) Because they haven’t the balls themselves and your doing it reminds them of their status of havers-of-no-balls;

c) Because your life is worth documenting;

d) Because if you do not believe your life is worth documenting, or knowing about, then why are you wasting your time/our time? Our air?

e)Because if you do it right and go straight toward them you like me will write to them, and will looking straight into their eyes when writing, will look straight into their f**king eyes, like a person sometimes can do with another person, and tell them something because even though you might not know them well, or at all, and even if you wrote in their books or hugged them or put your hand on their arm, you still would scarcely know them, but even so wrote a book that was really a letter to them, a messy f**king letter that you could barely keep a grip on, but a letter you meant, and a letter you sometimes wish you had not mailed, but a letter you are happy that made it from you to them."

Self-indulgent, maybe. Necessary, I think so.

The appendix was available in a limited run of the book. Eggers was justifying what he wrote and wanted to speak directly to his detractors. This knocked me over when I read it years ago and it had such an effect on me that I had to quote it in full here.

As the appendix went on, the font continued to shrink, you could feel the nervousness in the writing but I felt it was courageous. Someone needs to come along every once in a while to remind us.

It took me seven months to post these blogs so others could see them. Once I made it public, the sky did not fall and no one threatened to sue – yet. I still don’t think my life isn’t particularly that interesting but all this provides the opportunity to share my experiences.

What I have learned through this experiment is that by sharing with others, the depth at which I understand something as mundane as a haircut or as intense as the G20 takes on a greater meaning. Deepens. And other people feed my curiosity about the world by telling me their stories. There is an exchange, and the more we share, the more our understanding expands.

If you are interested, please leave a story of your own.