…or at the National Storytelling Festival … or at the local library … or at family reunions.
Traditional storytelling is an art, and the best of the traditional tellers present the oldest and most familiar stories in their own distinctive voice, adding rich texture to tales that survive because they have meaning beyond the particular time or setting in which they were conceived. Some tellers translate old stories, dressing them in contemporary language and manners, using the dissonance between old tropes and modern sensibility to highlight enduring values.
Many contemporary tellers also tell “personal” stories, some true memoir and some invented histories. Generally, these stories are told in the first person, evoking a particular legacy of family or region. The structure of the personal story often includes the broad strokes establishing the genre, an account of the dramatic elements put in play by the individual or family, ensuing crisis/confusing, and resolution. The most successful stories have a pleasing symmetry, bringing the audience to the end of the story with an appreciation of the design with which various strands have been woven together, providing a moving or provocative resolution.
Every family has stories, of course, such as those cherished in our family: the time someone invited the entire third grade to a birthday party without telling his parents, or the time someone fell from the top of a swing set, caught his nose on one of the hooks holding the swing’s chains, and dangled by the nose until the flesh parted. Those sorts of family favorites arrive with any gathering and are the touchstones of personality; no matter what contributions that unnamed person might make to society, he/she/they will forever be the kid who prepared for a school dance by using Vick’s VapoRub as hair tonic (Hey! It kept every hair in place and smelled great!).
The stories that won’t get told are distinctively personal and take place in my early adolescence, but they have not come up in family chats since the dark months at the end of eighth grade. I’m not ducking embarrassment or humiliation, although both would likely arrive with the first few sentences necessary to setting the context in which the stories would have to be told. A good story needs no explanation, and mine need so much more than mere explanation. The titles alone reveal more about my odd misapprehension of human behavior than I might like to have widely known:
My First Collection – The Book of Sweat Marks
My First Business – The Dissected Frog Stand
I’ve tried to pull these stories into shape; I even recorded a version of The Book of Sweat Marks as an audition audio for the Moth Radio Hour, only to realize that the account sounded like the raving of a terminally confused fanboy, a proto-papparazzo stalker, a career path I have avoided. In the same fashion, the entrepreneurial impulse to set up a roadside stand is one thing; without considerable explication, however, the decision to sell dissected frogs rather than lemonade or cookies can leave an indelible and unfortunate impression.
No, the problem is that the stories are odd, slightly off-putting, but not meaningful. There is no symmetry, no journey and return. Odd is just odd, not even amusing. Just odd. I find no “Ah Hah!” moment, nothing in the stories that carry a character to understanding and reconciliation.
With regard to my uncommon collection, I could make the observation that collecting autographs, ostensibly a “normal” thing to do, is actually quite curious as behaviors go.
What exactly is taken and curated?
Isn’t the collector essentially capturing the celebrity’s handwritten name in order to capture the celebrity’s spirit ? His/Her/Their animus/a?
I feel a little better putting it that way, because my collection was perhaps a bit more primal but the same sort of thing. Sort of.
I’ve mentioned my childhood interest in professional wrestling and monsters. From some points of view each separate element, the wrestling or the monster, are almost certainly operating in the same space. Some wrestlers were not monsters, but they faced monsters. Virtually every monster wrestles, if not with an adversary, with some existential angst about having been born/raised/created as a monster.
I’m whistling in the wind here, but I need to add what I like to call an appreciation of a misunderstood performance art as practiced in tawdry arenas by stylized beefy actors, in the kabuki of wrestling.
High drama. Super strength and reckless abandon. Heroes facing insurmountable odds. The smell of the crowd , the roar of blue-haired grandmothers shaking fists at egregious violation of the rules (?) of wrestling. Shock theater. Grand Guignol. Blood, tears, and lots of sweat. Really, quite a lot of sweat.
Autographs, programs, trading cards – these are ephemera; these will fade, be misplaced, become forgotten. If little remains of the moment, why not celebrate the inevitable, I thought. As an artist without a medium, I chose to accelerate the ephemeral, leaving my folding chair to approach the ring, extending a large pad of newsprint, a gesture the exhausted wrestler surely took as a request for an autograph.
I was in every instance alone; no fan joined me in approaching the panting victor. Have I mentioned the sweat?
Pleased I should think by my overture, the wrestler would extend a hand, expecting to be given a pen or marker. As the remarkable physical specimen leaned toward me, I would press the newsprint against his arm, capturing a moist impression of a small section of the limb, then trotting back to my seat, I could take out my marker, identify the wrestler, the date, the location, turn the page, and wait for the next match to begin.
By the end of the seventh grade, I had filled two large pads of newsprint. Nothing remained on each page but my scribbled accounting of the name, date, and location; sweat is the most ephemeral of ephemera.
What then was this collection? Uncommon as this impulse might have been, and I’m reasonably sure few of my readers will have curated such a collection, I think of it all now as a kind of performance art, reminding me of the fleeting moment we spend in the present.
So, an odd story, and one I’ll keep to these pages, but as I write, I see an awkward and powerless seventh grade boy doing what he could to find a place in a world filled with monsters, much as he had in his imagined battles with dinosaurs or sharks; they could not be tamed, but perhaps tagged and released to do what wild things must do.
No pleasing symmetry here, no message of comfort brought back from the hero’s journey. Not much of a journey and not much of a hero, but some stories have a kind of open-ended invitation to tellers to see where our stories have gone.