There was a very specific moment when I realized that I wanted to be a storyteller. I was in the West Pacific, nearing the end of a stint as a volunteer teacher, and I was sitting shotgun in a small, white pickup-truck, listening to a woman who had become a very dear friend to me.
She was filled with stories. A native of the island, she had taught me about the ocean—about the culture, the language, the food, and life in that place. Her perspective as a local who had studied abroad, and her ability to share that perspective so eloquently, was one of the most valuable things to me as I navigated my way through that sometimes tumultuous year.
And in that specific moment, as the small, white pickup-truck was climbing up the twisted streets to the only town in the nation, she was talking about racing along the same roads when she was in high school.
But she was also talking about a hundred other things at the same time. She was talking about the politics of the republic—about teenage angst, law enforcement, ambitions, family relationships—about cycles and rhythms of living—about the beauty and tragedy of progress.
And although I had heard so many of her stories before, it was then that I realized what it was about them that made them so different from those of others—what it was that made her a true storyteller: she was never just telling one story. While they were all very specific to her experiences, her stories were always resonant. They were layered—intricate—descriptive and typical but prophetic and pedagogical. She mined so much wisdom from her memories, and elements of myth dripped from almost everything she said. And you could tell by the way she told her stories that she knew this. And that was the most important thing: she was able to recognize the value in what she spoke, and to overwhelmingly speak only those things that were valuable.
Because whenever we speak we assert the value of what we are saying.
Before I got to know her very well, I had spent a lot of time thinking about words. A lot of time talking—teaching—speaking, a lot of time in silence and solitude, and a lot of time putting ink on paper, slowly and sometimes arduously. Journals, letters, notes—I became obsessed with the catharsis, but also with the restraint, of what it meant to say more by saying less. When I had the opportunity to get to know this woman, and to hear how she weaved narrative and wisdom, and how she spoke life into people, it was exactly what I had been searching for.
Being a storyteller, as I’ve come to understand it, involves a great deal of honesty with yourself and a great deal of responsibility to others. Because there is so much noise out there. So many people are shouting through digital bullhorns about things that are supposed to matter, and if you are going to enter the fray of communication in the age of Facebook, you better have good reason to believe you have something worth saying. It takes a great deal of objectivity to look at one’s own work, whether it be writing, design, or any other form of creative communication, and judge whether it is worth anybody’s time. But that’s what you have to do.
And until that point you’re never gonna be any better than that person posting thoughts to a blog that only a handful of their most bored friends read.
On a Christmas Eve, at a crowded table, a story is told.
It isn’t one of silent nights or stars so bright—it isn’t one of peaceful shepherds or learned men—but it does have something to do with the child. At some point.
The gathered crowd is silent. Riveted.
The storyteller is articulate. Lost.
And the tale, so foreign, is boring into my head.
Words from another place and another time, inflected by pain and the most elemental emotions, travel the infinite distance into that part of my mind so recently devoted to a defeated thought.
Spaces are readjusted, lists are rearranged, and a structure—a pattern—a direction—is slowly becoming visible.
Hundreds of loose threads are beginning to gather.
Another tale is beginning to be spun.
A world is dislodged.
A gift is given.