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I recently discovered a lovely Tumblr called “the great untold,” which is a collection of opening lines from the greatest tales never told. It reminded me of a story a beloved great aunt told me as she drifted in and out of senility. The story was long and convoluted; a mashup of several memories rather than a single tale and as it meandered along my attention was beginning to drift when a single sentence pierced my soul.

“Of course,” she said, “that was when the lieutenant’s monkey got out.”

It remains the greatest punchline I’ve ever heard.

So much is contained in that sentence: a magical sense of other-ness, exotic climes, a bygone age, a yearning for lost Empire, my aunt’s delightful deadpan pragmatism, her sense of decorum and her secret, irrepressible love of mischief. And everything’s better with monkeys.

Neil Gaiman says that there are only four words every storyteller wants to hear: “…and then what happened?”

We’re losing the ability to tell stories. I don’t know if it’s a consequence of the over-communicated self, continually babbling into phones and on Facebook about minutiae, or maybe it’s that less people read novels, but it seems to me many of us lack the ability to create narratives about our own lives. Being the articulate author of your own story is important, not only because it reminds you that everything is a choice, that your story is the consequence of choices you make, but also because it’s so damn tedious not to be. Those interminable tales with no clear purpose and no end in sight, no sense of having edited the irrelevant or selected only the choicest anecdotes for the listener’s pleasure. Assigning equal weight and significance to everything is the hallmark of a desperate bore.

I think it’s fundamentally disrespectful; I have enough pointless shit and tedious detail in my own head without having to take on someone else’s as well. Telling a good story is a way of demonstrating your desire to please and entertain your interlocutor. A story is a gift.

Bring back the lost art of the raconteur.

The reminiscences of elderly people often return to a particular place and time.  Caring for people with Alzheimer’s or senility, I noticed that the events of many years ago seemed more real and relevant than the present to them, and those were the stories they wanted to tell over and over again. When the mind starts to disintegrate, it’s as though we seek refuge in the time we lived most intensely in the past. Those happy times comfort us, shore us up against the dying of the light.

I wonder what that time will be for me, and whether I’ve already lived through it.The Lieutenant's Monkey

4 thoughts on “telling stories

  1. This post was *so* good that I hit the “subscribe” button. Storytelling is deeply special; I think that it’s one of those things that helps us to dive more deeply into our brains and to discover our hearts.

  2. It was all going swimmingly well and I was nodding in agreement when the following sentence struck fear into my heart Cathie:

    “Being the articulate author of your own story is important, not only because it reminds you that everything is a choice, that your story is the consequence of choices you make, but also because it’s so damn tedious not to be. ”

    Of course I agree and I have often failed to go anywhere near my blog for this reason.

    As Truman Capote said: “Writing stopped being fun when I discovered the difference between good writing and bad and, even more terrifying, the difference between it and true art. And after that, the whip came down.”

    Then I remember that the only way to get better at anything is by doing it.

  3. “A story is a gift.” My mother’s people hold only verbal history. Their tales are not written in books but sung in songs, narrated in stories and depicted in their art.

    I was brought up to listen to the elders tell the same stories over and over again. We sat and listened and questioned as if this was our first time to hear it.

    This is because a story is a gift. An essential and meandering part of our history.

    Hopefully, we aren’t really losing that.

  4. Beautifully put, as always.

    People often don’t have the time anymore to sit and listen to the ramblings of their grandparents or older friends and family.

    They roll their eyes and give each other ‘she’s at it again’ looks across the table.

    I’m a storyteller, I think. I do it to entertain, to make people laugh. I’m quite good at accents and they make people smile.

    Regarding writing – for me, it’s like laying bare my innermost thoughts and I am terrified they will be rejected and criticised. To my mind, if they are criticised then it’s really me who is being criticised. I am not sure I’m strong or resiliant enough, for that.

    So tell me, how do you overcome this feeling?

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