Maybe It Wasn’t The Booze
Do we repeat our stories because we don’t always know what we want to say but we need to try to say it?
In every family there are lessons you learn without anyone ever teaching them to you. In my family, one of those lessons was that Grandpa repeated his stories, especially when he had a half-empty glass of whiskey in his hand. We all knew the story of when he met the Atlanta Hawks basketball team in the airport- they were on the same flight with him- and they bonded over leg room problems. My grandfather was the poster child for “hail fellow well met”- affable, charming and easy to talk to in an airport lounge. I’m not surprised he chatted up a basketball team. I certainly knew the story front to back.
I had always assumed that the contents of his glass was the reason he retold this story. If I sit still and close my eyes I can hear him say “The Hawks” in his Boston accent…(imagine extra space between the “a” and the “w”)…but the other day I was struggling to write and it occurred to me that maybe my Grandpa’s habit of retelling stories was more than just the drink talking. Maybe we all retell stories, to some extent. I present you with the following “evidence.”
Exhibit A: An Author’s Repetition: Not in a bad way…
Anyone who has read Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield in quick order might be forgiven if they all morphed together in your mind into one story of a boy orphaned and raised by a revolving door of monsters and well-meaning but inept benefactors, fluctuating between poverty and wealth, bedeviled by the moral choices between honor and status, and inevitably being awarded surprising inheritances.
Read too many John Irving novels in a row, and the characters from one novel will feel as if they moved through the different stories, just under new aliases- I am fairly certain that there is one boy who is Garp, Homer and Owen Meaney’s best friend. And don’t get me started on Kurt Vonnegut. I read all of his books in a six month period and I couldn’t tell them apart now if aliens held me at gunpoint- though I can tell you that it was one of my first experiences with the concept of “dark humor.”
My point is that reading an author’s work, you start to hear their voice as distinctive, and in that voice, telling the same story, just within different narratives.
Exhibit B: Your Best Anecdotes (you know, the ones you can bring out in a social setting and always get a laugh…)
In my own, personal experience I have a set of stories that I can tell in a social setting that always get a laugh. These stories might shift and change over time- you have to keep it fresh- but if you look at them, you might see a pattern in theme or message that you are repeating. (And if you doubt this, just check with your [insert long-term partner here] and they will be able to tell you.)
One of the themes of my anecdotes is “communication fails.” Back in my twenties I used to tell the story of when I was a teenager, trying to make conversation with our Spanish exchange student. I knew he had been on a tour of Boston, so I thought I could ask him if he liked Boston, but I asked it by saying, “How did you find Boston?” His perfectly reasonable response was to say, “We took a small road to a bigger road and then we were there.”
After I had kids, I had a new story, with the exact same premise. I was working on teaching my 4 year old to say “please” and “thank-you” and when she asked me for milk, I asked her, “How would you say that if you really wanted milk?” She paused for a full minute, looking at me, and then yelled at the top of her voice, “Get me the milk NOW!”
In telling both stories, I would focus on how the “fault” of the miscommunication was always mine- and that in both situations I was careful not to laugh at the time- because the other person was being perfectly reasonable- but how I laughed at myself quite a lot in private later. And when I think of the main character in my novels, I realize that the challenges of communication and the humor that can result from the failures is a common theme.
In Summary: Two Points Don’t Make For A Strong Argument (but I have a gut feeling about this…)
I believe that we all have a story where we are the narrator, and as we move through life we test out what that story is, narrowing in on our deeply held beliefs and values. Some have the clarity to share that story early and persuasively, while others need more time to find it, testing it out through stories and anecdotes. Through the things we watch, read and talk about we circle it, and it reveals itself to us in repetition. Whether we have a drink in hand or not. At least that’s my best guess at this time.