Some people like to talk, and some people don’t. Those who like to talk sometimes have trouble telling you much of anything without turning it into a story.
I’ve written here before about my need for conversation, and how, when I go out to dinner with my daughter, it’s the talk that counts, more than the food on our plates. I got this habit from my mom, or rather she satisfied some need that I was born with – the need to talk about everything and nothing, until things feel right with the world again.
It’s been pointed out to me that I can’t seem to just cut to the chase when I’m telling somebody what happened. “Just the facts, Ma’am,” would stop me in my tracks. Just what facts? I went to school, Kathy called me a name, I fell down at recess, I got an A+ on my spelling quiz? That’s all you want to know?
A cop show made those words famous, but I’ll bet most cops want to hear a story. The whole country wanted the Boston terrorists caught, but wanted them taken alive. That way, they could be hauled into the station for questioning. Sure, we wanted facts – Where did they come from? Were they American? Did they have help? Where did they learn to make those bombs? Why on earth did they do it?
That last question can best be answered with a story. Slowly, as the facts began to emerge from the surviving suspect, the story of the Tsarnaev boys began to be told. Where they came from, how long they’d been here, how they learned to make a pressure cooker into a bomb. Someday, we may know the long, sad story of why they turned to terror.
A day or two later, the owner of the hijacked SUV told his story to the Boston Globe. It was a story with harrowing detail and a fast-moving plot. It was true, not fiction, but it was a story. Someone else might have declined the interview, or supplied just a few facts: A leased Mercedes. No, not American. Out of gas. Escape. That’s it.
Instead, that young Chinese man told a story, and I hung on every word. I felt like I was there, inside that car with the two men who boasted, “We did that.” He recounted how he practiced, in his head, how he would release his seatbelt and open the passenger door in one swift move, in order to run to safety. His story went on for paragraphs.
That’s how I talk, too. Whether I’m telling someone about taking the trash out and encountering a possum, or walking to work and passing a yard full of blue flowers, I can’t seem to leave out the details. Or no, not the details. Those are, after all, “just the facts.” What I find is that I can’t seem to leave out the connecting stuff, the background that sets the scene – how quickly or slowly I was walking, whether the moon was out, what I overheard from a car passing by. The temperature outside. The bells chiming the hour. Whether I was hungry, or scared, or stopped in my tracks by something unexpected. Screenwriters call it exposition. I call it necessary.
It all matters, and it all has to be told. I don’t know where I got that; either it’s some gene I was born with, or the way people around me communicated. Maybe both, because my parents loved to talk. Whether they were holding forth at a cocktail party, or sitting on the sofa at night going over their day – a low, comforting rumble I fell asleep to – their storytelling was the soundtrack of my childhood. One of my favorite photos of my father is one taken in my aunt and uncle’s back yard. In one hand, Dad holds a drink, and the other one is gesturing broadly. I captioned it, “Harold making a point.” He made a lot of them, and so did Iona, and all those points came with a story.
A long time ago, I worked at the Bettendorf Public Library. Newly out of graduate school, I wasn’t making much money. But I was happy, and ready to move out of my parents’ home. I found a sweet apartment on the east side of Davenport, and put a deposit down. So excited was I that I drew a plan of the place, and listed all the ways I would furnish it. (I still have the drawing.)
But events interceded, and instead I got engaged to a man living in Colorado. Luckily, I found a coworker who wanted to rent the apartment. All we had to do was transfer the deposit from my name to hers, after she paid me the money. We decided I should write up a document to make it semi-legal.
So I sat down, trying to figure out how to explain what we were doing. All we needed were the facts, but darned if I didn’t try to turn it into a story. By the time we were done, I was suggesting it start out, “Once upon a time, Pam Kress decided to move into an apartment. But she changed her mind, and now Mary is going to move in.” And so on. I could have continued for pages. We were laughing so hard, tears ran down our faces.
Eventually, the document got shortened, but I’ve never forgotten the way I got sidetracked by the story. I married the guy in Colorado, and had two kids. They talked early, and soon enough they were telling me stories. It runs in the blood, I guess. And I’ve got plenty of time to listen.