A Story Teller’s “Luck”

March 9th, 2012

My friend Claudia has a devout and loving following on Facebook (and in real life too, where she’s clearly adored by pretty much everyone who meets her–but real life is so 1990’s, don’t you think?).  Almost every day she posts an incredibly funny anecdote about her life, and people rush to comment in response, and usually at least one of them will write something like, “It’s amazing how funny things happen to you all the time. Nothing interesting ever happens to me.”

Now, I happen to know (from a many-decades-long friendship) that Claudia’s life, while filled with love and laughter and activities, is hardly a Life Lived on the Edge.  Like many of us, she trots a fairly well circumscribed path, from home to school to supermarket to various athletic events to social engagements.  She is, admittedly, a warm and outgoing person who likes to chat people up, so, yes, she may engage in more interactions in the course of her day than some of us, but still, there’s nothing unusual about the way she lives her life or the path she treads.

The humor, dear Brutus, lies not in the event but in the telling of it.

In other words, it’s not what’s happening in her life that’s so special–it’s how she takes the mundane and turns it into entertainment.

What makes some people better storytellers than others?

Well, for one thing, they recognize a good anecdote when they see one.  Things happen to all of us during the course of a day.  Some of them are worth retelling.  Some aren’t.  A good storyteller knows the difference.  A bad storyteller can’t discriminate and is as likely to tell you about the left turn he couldn’t make as he is about having been mistaken for Harrison Ford.

Secondly, good story tellers know how to make a good story great.  They leave in the details that add spice and humor and reject any that weigh it down. Recently I was at a gathering where someone told a story that should have been absolutely riveting, but, sadly, he just wasn’t a masterful story teller, and his wild adventure became a slow series of “and then I . . .”s.  My husband and I shook our heads over all that wasted good material.

Finally, good storytellers know how to exaggerate for comic and dramatic effect.  If your story is about wasted money, it may be more exciting to make it a hundred dollars on the line, not ten, and if it’s about people staring at you, it’s funnier if it’s an entire roomful of strangers, not just a couple.  This, by the way, is why it’s difficult to tell really great stories when your kids (and sometimes your spouse) are around: they have a way of correcting your exaggerations that can just kill your anecdote. “We weren’t waiting for half an hour, Mom.  More like three minutes.”  A really good story teller knows to leave the kids at home . . .

This all connects back to writing of course.  It’s easy to say, “I have nothing to write about,” or “Where do other people get their ideas?” or “My life is too boring to provide me with material.”  But that’s the literary equivalent of saying, “Funny things happen to Claudia, not to me.”  Recognize a good story, make it better with the right details, reject the boring, exaggerate and embellish, and find a world of adventure in every day life.

 

  • Irene Dawn says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this little homage to the wonderfully kind and charming Claudia. I agree completely that it’s the clever turn of a phrase that makes the fresh observations of her life so much fun to read. Claudia watches and listens and then reports back. But it’s how she presents this to her followers that is pure magic.

  • Claudia Reilly says:

    I was feeling very low tonight and you made me feel special and alive and loved. Thank you.

    You’re a remarkable writer who understands people who are children, who are in their 20s, who are in their 50s. You look at life with the compassionate humor of a modern Jane Austen. You give us a sense that whoever we are, we can face life and find ourselves, our passion, our love.

    Thanks for all the great novels and insights and for mentioning me today.

  • Jane says:

    This is wonderful. So very well said.

  • Susanne Senk says:

    Claudia and I became friends when we were 11 and 12. I couldn’t read well because I was dyslexic or had scotopic sensitivity (they didn’t test for either back in those days). Later in life (30’s) she sent me a well written letter. I worked for hours to return an equally good letter, or at least I tried to. I could hear Claudia’s voice in that letter, and I still do to this day in all of her Facebook posts. It’s a real treat! Eventually I finished college. I credit Claudia for never judging but always inspiring me!

  • Claire says:

    That sums Claudia up, Susanne: an inspiration who guides you but never judges you.

  • Doug Lane says:

    Great storytellers often have a nose for a story, as well. Millions of Germans fought in WWI, but only Eric Maria Remarque wrote All Quiet on the Western Front. Millions of American fought in the Civil War, but only Stephen Crane, who had not yet seen any war but had only heard his elders’ stories, wrote Red Badge of Courage. Henry Miller wanted to become a storyteller, but confessed that he became a writer who told stories about not being able to tell stories. Isaac Singer, after living in NYC for 40 years, said he felt he did not know Americans well enough to tell stories about them. Instead, he told stories about immigrant Jews living in NY or Miami, or Jews in pre-Holocaust Poland. The great Greek poet C P Cavafy died in 1935, but felt more comfortable writing about Greeks in the ancient Mediterranean, 2000 or more years ago. Joyce got the hell out of Ireland as a young man, yet set almost all his novels and stories in Dublin. Bukowski lived in and wrote about people and parts of LA no ambitious Hollywood writer wanted to see, hear, or think about. They were a literary gold mine for him. Emily Dickinson scarcely left the 2nd floor of her father’s house in her later years…..yet left 1500 poems behind for the rest of us to wonder at. I could go on. Claudia respects the material that is available to her, and has the talent to weave it into something wonderful. And funny. And true. “Art is a lie which tells the truth.” —Picasso “All creation is destruction.” –Picasso “I know nothing, nothing, except from the outside. …I have to guess at everything.” –Joseph Conrad “To write well about a place you’ve got to hate it the way a man hates his wife.” –Faulkner I could go on.

  • Claudia Reilly says:

    I love Doug’s reply. And my dear friend Susanne, the amazing artist of Colorado who never made fun of me for being poor: Susanne was a brilliant artist at 12 and always told riveting stories. We trudged to junior high in snow higher than our thighs and I never felt cold because I was so gripped by the stories she told of Paul McCartney and art and life and her dad’s science laboratory in the basement. PLUS she invited me over to meet her drop-dead gorgeous cousin in college (I lied and said I was 17 when I was in junior high — he knew I was lying but never called me on it) and after he played “Leaving on a Jet Plane” for Susanne and me, he urged me to read HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES if I truly wanted to understand life. I remember turning to Susanne and saying, “The book is so hard!” She said, “I believe in your Claudia! You can finish it!” Talk about a truly remarkable friend! <3

  • Ben Bass says:

    Beautifully said, and that goes for the comments as well.

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