Column: Tell Me a Story

When my father tells a story, you need to duck. His hands flail as he waves his arms, so impassioned is he about the tale he is telling. It has become an ongoing joke in my family. He’ll gesture wildly, as he tells a stranger about the time in Florida when Swedish supermodels needed to borrow his boat. Or when he tells the one about the mahi mahi that almost won the fishing tournament. Or the time we ate dinner with Buzz Aldrin.

There are several things I inherited from my father. A distaste for mustard. Wide feet. A passion for the outdoors. And a love for telling stories.

Yet, my father and I are very different in the way we deliver stories. My father isn’t a terrific writer. I, on the other hand, prefer paper to a podium. While my father is better at delivering a punch line, I’m better at developing an opening sentence on the page. Oftentimes, we tell the same stories. But we tell them in very different ways.

I believe my writing has improved over the years because of listening to my father. Live storytelling is much more honest and riskier than writing. My father’s re-enactments are physical and energetic in a way I can’t be with my narrative. I’ve watched him completely win over an audience with an intriguing introduction. I’ve watched him befuddle his listeners with an over-dramatic ending. In many ways, he tests the waters of a story through his pitch. And I copy what works, and omit what doesn’t.

Most of us know a great storyteller. Maybe it is the local butcher who really belongs on The Tonight Show. Maybe it is Uncle Frank who tells riveting war stories. Maybe it is your daughter, who can turn a mundane school account into a wild adventure. These people shape the way we tell our own stories, both consciously and subconsciously. (I have vowed to never use the word “literally” again after an ill-fated blind date with a man who “literally” thought every story he told was “literally” ridiculous.) Good storytellers are people who are worth listening to. They are people whom we count on to entertain us at dinner parties. They are much more interesting than their Facebook updates.

Art Sharkey is one of these people. I met Art years ago when he was taking a local workshop on memoir writing. I was a guest speaker at the workshop, and I quickly learned that the memoir writers had much more advice to give about storytelling than I did. Art was particularly memorable because he was so unassuming. A former Thetford innkeeper, he had a demeanor that was understated and polite. Yet when Art read his memoir, his eyes became alive. Everyone at the workshop could feel his emotion. He drew us in and kept our attention until his final word.

So, I was thrilled when Art was chosen as one of the speakers at the AVA Gallery’s storytelling event, “The Mudroom.” As he took the podium, I put down my drink and leaned in to listen. His tale began with a fairly grim account of a gray day in London. However, about two minutes into his story, he spoke of sneaking into the back entrance of a bar called The Yellow Submarine after noticing a hullabaloo outside the door. Art Sharkey himself had crashed the Beatles’ premiere party. And the way he told the story, we were all there with him.

I’m thrilled that live storytelling is making a comeback in today’s crazed “virtual” society. The success of NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour is evidence that at least some still like to sit back and listen to personal tales. (Most of my friends have at least a dozen Moth downloads on their iPods for long drives and even longer workouts.)

And now this appreciation for storytelling has found its way to the Upper Valley. A fairly new event, “The Mudroom” at the AVA Gallery invites local storytellers to speak on a particular topic to a diverse audience of friends and strangers. (At the inaugural event in September, the theme was “Getting Schooled.” In November, the theme was “Law and Order.” This March, it will be “Spring Fling.”)

I appreciate The Mudroom because it allows people to tell their stories in their own words (and with their own gestures.) There are no egos. No judgments. No grammar snobs. No pretenses. Instead, it is a “come as you are” event, filled with surprises and honesty.

As long as I am a writer, I will seek out live storytellers, whether at local public events or in the privacy of my own home. With every word they utter, they inspire me … for better or for worse. While my father tells the story about the Swedish supermodels for the umpteenth time, my mother will roll her eyes, my sister will tune out, but I will listen closely. For every time he tells the story, I hear something new.

Rebecca Munsterer is the author of The Littler Rippers, a children’s book about skiing in Vermont.