Almost everyone thinks they’re a storyteller and that there’s little to retelling something seen or heard.
This is not true. Our unique ways of telling stories are born in us. Believe this by watching babies and toddlers in how differently they express themselves.
When my nephew, Rod’s son, Tripp, was 2, he visited our house for a birthday party. No sooner had he come in the front door than absolute chaos broke out. Mama — Tripp’s beloved babysitter — dropped to the floor from the power of an aneurysm. My sister and I flew into panicked reaction. She ran to Mama. I called 911.
As the minutes dragged and we waited for the ambulance, I looked up the staircase. Four steps from the top, Tripp sat with his hands folded in his lap. He wasn’t upset. Yes, concern was in his eyes but more than concern was curiosity. He studied every movement, watched every tear that fell and listened to each word uttered and the desperate prayers pleaded.
At 2, he was seeing the first story he would ever tell and, instinctively, he knew to gather the words, actions and emotions. He will remember always. That day he learned that to be a good storyteller is to first recognize a good story.
I rise up from a family of incredible storytellers. That’s the Appalachian in us. The Scotch-Irish.
If you join our family Sunday dinner table, bring your best game. You will be sitting in the midst of people who are more than award winning storytellers — just about all of us have won some award for storytelling including 15-year-old Zoe who won $50 for her essay on Veterans Day — we are passionate. Just as Van Gogh chose carefully the colors and textures he painted, we choose carefully the colorful imagery and the textured language we use.
My husband, Tink, has been nominated for numerous Emmys for primetime writing. He won one. If you ever want to see it, we’ll dig it out from behind the fireplace tools, but we’ll have to wipe away the firewood ash and dust. He’s proud of the win but it also set the bar higher so he works every day to be better.
But come Sundays, around a table of fried chicken, creamed potatoes, biscuits, gravy and okra, the winner of the most prestigious storytelling award of all sits in quiet awe. He often leans forward, his hands folded tightly under the table, and listens intently as someone regales.
It is with a certain amount of pride that I offer this unvarnished truth: any one of 10 people can spill forward with a captivating tale as we pass the biscuits and black-eyed peas.
I’m trained, even educated as a storyteller, but family are farmers and others are educated in different fields. I’m dramatic and bold with my stories, as you probably expect. The others, though, are gentler. They tell their stories with fetching lines, strong imagery and compelling dialogue.
Softly, understatedly, they begin to tell. It happened in the hayfield. Or a Friday night football game. In the churchyard after Wednesday service. And quite often in the funeral home. The funeral home has always been a source of stories for my family.
The story will come from the way the person died, or how the family acted (or misacted) or something a neighbor said as he was passing by on his way to the casket.
Never is a story told around that table that isn’t interesting, informative, entertaining and almost always has a laugh or two attached.
Though it’s hard to pick, my brother-in-law, Rodney, is my favorite storyteller. He sets the beginning with a look. Comical. Eye roll. Or deep sadness.
I asked about a plane crash he witnessed then pulled the pilot out. Sorrow covered his eyes and he stared out the window.
“That was murder,” he said firmly, quietly.
After a minute of gathering his thoughts, the story began.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “Let Me Tell You Something.” You can sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.