Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Some twenty years ago I worked with a young man whose determination to be right about everything overtook every conversation we had.  It was annoying and revealed the sin of a genuine lack of curiousity, but he was bright and handled a lot of technical issues well, so generally we got along.  One day the conversation turned to reading, and he said he only read business books.  I offered that one of the greatest pleasures in life is a good novel or memoir.  "Why would I waste my time on just reading a story?" He stated more than asked this.  You, I thought, are truly a lost cause.

I once heard (or more likely read) the best way to get to know someone you meet at a dinner party is to ask them to tell you about the last time they fell in love.  It's not something I have tried, but I do believe almost everyone is interesting in some way, and I never tire of hearing the personal narrative of years unfolding. I suppose I learned this from my mother, who draws people out and remembers the most astounding details, even years later, about people she has known or even met just once. 

The best memoirs aren't vulgar tell-all stories, but they do offer up the details, the reasons behind questionable decision-making, the run straight off the cliff, the particular wrong turns taken in those lives not of those who follow convention, but those of the ones we want to read about. 

..maybe it was the monkfish liver, the trippa Milanese, the marrow bones--he lightly scratched me from the shoulder to the wrist, one long, slow light scratch with his fingernail the long distance of the tender back part of my arm and I, electrified, turned around to finally take a look at this guy whom I had barely registered until now.  It was ballsy and accurate, that scratch; two qualities I find particularly appealing.

--Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones and Butter. 

David Isay is the creator of StoryCorps, one of the most compelling spots on NPR.  He's been at it for ten years, recording conversations between people who are connected in profound ways.  I'd say he has my dream job, except that if I did his work I would probably never stop crying.  A husband tells his wife about being the only survivor of a disastrous shipwreck on Lake Huron.  Two women who have been best friends for three decades talk about what they mean to one another.  The connection and discovery of her authentic self by an 80 year-old woman through her deep bond with her grandson is another recording. 

When asked in a recent interview whether the kinds of stories he was hearing had changed over the past ten years, Isay was categorical: absolutely not.  When asked about their lives, he said, people talk about love, about death, about meaning.  I hope that the world has knocked the corners off my once-young friend's certainty and he now has enough humility to understand that our stories are what give shape to our lives. The themes are universal, but the details make us unique. They are what make us human.   

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