Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Power of Stories

I love reading stories about stories. That is, I love reading stories about the way stories affect people's lives, both as readers and writers.

I stumbled upon two of those I thoroughly enjoyed yesterday. I recognized my reader/writer self in both.

The first was in yesterday's entry from Anita Silvey's Children's Book-a-Day Almanac. If you haven't checked that website out yet, you're in for a treat.

Yesterday's entry was, fittingly, about a children's biography of Lincoln. It's one I haven't read yet but now plan to. What struck me about her description of the book was this piece of an anecdote about her first read-through of the book:

The first time I read this book, I was flying to Washington, D.C., to give a speech. When I came to the end, I was sobbing, and the attendant came to me and said, “Miss, is anything wrong?” “Oh yes,” I blurted out, "Lincoln has been shot!”

Yes! The best stories pull us into their narrative with that sense of immediacy. It doesn't matter how old a grief is, we experience it anew as we walk through it again. It's one reason why I often feel bereft when I've finished a truly great biography, because I've just spent a season in the company of someone I've come to love and admire (or understand more deeply) and usually I've walked through their death toward the end of the tale. Sometimes the juxtaposition of living through a life and death, so close together, can leave you a bit breathless. Or in tears on an airplane.

Then there was this bit from a book I'm reading about the life and work of Katherine Paterson. I stumbled upon it when looking for other books by Gary Schmidt; I think it might be his first book and might even have started life as a dissertation. I confess I am becoming a huge fan of Gary Schmidt's (I'll save that for another post) and of course I've been a great enthusiast about Kat Paterson's work since I was twenty. So the combination of author/subject was too good to pass up.

In the introductory essay, Schmidt is exploring Paterson's childhood, and how she was deeply affected by her family's many moves. Her parents were missionaries in China during a time of great tumult there, and they kept yo-yo'ing back and forth between the States and China. Paterson had been born in China and spent her first five years there, and was in many ways more deeply at home in Chinese culture than American culture. When they moved to Virginia in 1937, not long before she began school, she recalled how much she hated it and how terribly displaced she felt.

"When I was in the first grade I didn't get any valentines. I don't think I was disliked. I was totally overlooked," he quotes Paterson as saying. And then Schmidt goes on to say "This incident, too, was to become part of the gathering of stories: 'My mother grieved over this event until her death,' (he quotes Paterson again) "asking me once why I didn't write a story about the time I didn't get any valentines. 'But mother,' I said, 'all my stories are about the time I didn't get any valentines.'"

I had a lump in my throat at the end of that line. It not only rings so deeply true to the best of Katherine Paterson's work (she writes more eloquently of displacement and childhood longing than almost anyone I know) but it rings true to my writer's heart. I suspect there are certain formative moments in most of our childhoods, some of them joyous and some sad and lonely, which we are always writing "out of" no matter what else we're writing. We don't have to describe an actual event or memory to have that moment at the back of what we're doing in a story.

I'd like to spend more time with the Paterson book (and Schmidt) in another post. And maybe more time thinking through what sorts of moments are the formative fountains of my own stories. I'll bet you have some of those moments too.


Erin said...

Great post. That Lincoln photobiography is a wonderful book. I remember I had to do a projec in sixth grade about a historical figure, and naturally I picked Lincoln, and I worked mostly from that book. I think you'd love it! And I had to smile at the young letter-writer who asked Freedman if he took the pictures himself!

It's interesting, this idea of cultural displacement seems to be popping up everywhere this week. Shar just reviewed a book about it, and I just read Grandfather's Journey by Allen Say, a poignant picture book dealing with the author's yearning for his childhood home of Japan when he moved to California and yearning for California when he went back to Japan.

Must feel very strange, having one foot in two worlds. Then again, I suppose all Christians are meant to sort of feel that way, aren't we?

Beth said...

I'm reading the book of Ruth this week too -- and noting all the cultural displacement in that story as well!

And yes, I think it's a theme that runs through our lives of faith, even if we don't move a lot from one physical location to another. I can't count the number of times in recent years I've realized I feel desperately homesick -- only to realize I'm not sure what I mean by "home" even as I'm missing it. It took me a while to recognize in this my longing for the ultimate kingdom!