Posts Tagged ‘Observations’

Have you ever listened to an older person talk? I don’t mean someone older than you by a year or two or even ten? I’m talking about someone in their sixties and seventies and eighties (and if they are lucky, further up in years). I’m talking about people with a life history.

I’ve heard it said when a child gives you something they think highly of you. It’s the same with older people telling you stories. If one sits down and opens up his or her past to you, it is because they want to share that part of their lives with you.

People don’t talk about the past anymore. Well, they do, but not the history of their lives. They talk about the immediate past. What happened an hour ago or a day ago or last week, maybe even a year or so ago. That’s all well and good, but tell me what happened forty years ago, during the height of the seventies or sixty years ago when teenagers went to drive ins and made out.

Tell me a story about your childhood, how you had to walk to school barefoot every day, up hill both ways, with your books slung over your shoulder in a cloth sack you had to hold with both your hands. Tell me how you had to get up in the morning to make breakfast for your siblings or how after school you would come home and do chores and homework before going outside to climb trees, walk on railroad tracks or fish out at a pond on someone’s land. Tell me about the war. Tell me about segregation. Tell me how you met grandma at church or at a work picnic or how she was your high school sweetheart who you went to the prom with. Tell me about your friends you used to hang out with, the trouble y’all got into, the fun y’all had. Tell me about the first time you kissed someone not related to you. Tell me about the greatest moment, day, summer of your life.

Reminisce for a little while.

People don’t do that anymore. And when they do, does anyone listen?

Older people know how to tell stories. They’re never in a hurry. They want you to sit down in a rocking chair next to them on the front porch (possibly with a tea, some water, a lemonade, maybe a coffee or possibly even a beer or some whiskey). Often times you will hear them say something like, ‘Come sit for a spell. I’d like to tell you a story.’ They might even pat the seat where they want you to plant your bottom.

They want you to see the pictures they paint with their words, so they tell their stories deliberately. They meander along, giving you great descriptions, both about the scenes and the people who take part in them. They give you wonderfully vivid details, sometimes laughing or letting out a ‘whoo wee’ when they reach certain parts. Occasionally, they might slap their knee (or even yours). They spare nothing in the telling of their stories.

You won’t get to the end of their stories in a couple of minutes. You have to sit and listen, sometimes for half an hour. Sometimes longer.

One of the things I know about older folks telling their stories: they want someone to talk to. They want an audience, even if it is just one person. That one person means the world to them. Because at their age, few people are listening.

Like I said earlier, older people know how to tell stories. They know how to engage their audience, and it doesn’t matter how small or how large. It’s an art form that is going away. It’s dying with each one of those older folks who leaves us.

My grandfather was great at telling stories. Sometimes those stories lasted minutes. Sometimes significantly longer. The one thing that rang true with them all was my grandfather took his time with them. He meandered. He said, ‘Come sit for a spell. I want to tell you a story.’ He didn’t care if I was in a hurry, because he wasn’t. He also knew how to capture my attention and he knew the best way to tell a story was by making it relatable.

Fast forward to today. Everyone is in a hurry. Everyone wants things on the surface. They don’t want depth. We have the fast food mentality of our way, right away. Come on. Hurry up. I don’t have time for this. Our story telling has gone that way as well. Everyone wants a fast story. They don’t want to sit for a while as an old man tells the story of how his and a long lost lover’s initials ended up on an oak tree near city hall.  I realize not everyone is that way, but it sure does feel like the majority is.

All that brings us to me. A lot of my ‘style’ as it is came from my grandfather. Though the subject matter is nothing like he would tell, the voice, the way I like to take my time to get into a story, the way I try to pull you in and make my words relatable, is definitely all him. I guess you can say I meander. I don’t hurry. I ask you to come, sit with me for a while.

I’m not as good of a story teller as he was. I doubt I ever will be. To be honest, I’m okay with that. Because I am me. I may have been influenced largely by my grandfather, but I am me and my style is my style. I unpack my stories carefully. Is it for everyone? No. If you are one who wants a quick story that hits you hard with action from beginning to end, then my writing just isn’t going to cut it for you. If you want perfect grammar, yeah, I’m probably not the writer you want to read. If you are someone who expects a lot of cussing and sex and gore in your stories, you won’t find that in my words. If you are looking for technically sound writing, you might not find it in my stories. After all, i tend to write my stories like I’m talking to someone face to face … as if I have an audience of one. Those are the types of stories I enjoy reading, so they are the stories I enjoy telling.

I guess that means I write stories like an older man tells them. I’m okay with that. Because older folks know how to tell a good story.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

AJ

P.S.: If you know an older person, especially one that spends a lot of time alone, go sit with them, go listen to them tell their stories. There is history in their words. If there is one thing I know, everyone wants to live on after they are gone. By telling stories to the younger generation, that is what these older folks are doing. Go sit for a while. You won’t regret it. And you just might make someone’s day.

 

 

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As part of a three part series, today Paula R. Stiles blogs about observations and the importance of being observant. Sit back, grab a drink, eat some chips and enjoy.

I just got back from a bird watch on the beach. We did two events. One was a nighttime drive-and-walk for owls in a wildlife refuge (We also saw several Black Bears). The other was a morning lecture and walk introducing people to the subject of Birding. The Owl Prowl had the added bonus of occurring on a very clear night, so I got to do some binocular astronomy while we were out there, as well, far from those ugly mercury lights that pollute our skies.

The Owl Prowl was especially striking in providing an opportunity to do something most people don’t get to do anymore – to be outside at night, far from lights and noise, with the sounds and sometimes sights of the wild. It had been a while since I’d had that, maybe even since living in Cameroon. You couldn’t get away from the distant sounds of the highway (even Cameroon had the sounds of trucks on the dirt road that bisected my village) or the night glow of a city on the horizon, but everything else seemed to be many years in the past. It felt the way the Native Americans and first European settlers must have felt hundreds of years ago, out there in the Carolina coastal woods.

We drove along the dirt roads, trying to find wildlife with a spotlight. Then we’d periodically stop, get out, and just stand there, listening for the night creatures as our guide explained what to listen for. Even the next day, in broad daylight near a busy road, our guide gave us the same advice: stop, look and listen.

I was struck by something that is touched on tangentially in writing advice, but doesn’t get covered enough as its own topic: observation. We, as writers, do not observe enough. Oh, we are instructed to keep notebooks with us so that we can jot down every thought and conversation, and to examine our dreaded feelings, but advice about actual observation is in pretty short supply.

I say this because I edit a Weird fiction zine and micropress, focusing on Lovecraft, and also am on a writer’s group, and it’s amazing how many derivative stories we get. Some of these stories are well-constructed as far as plot is concerned, but they are neither original nor exciting. They are much too reminiscent of older, better stories. They recycle characters from Golden Age scifi, horror comics, or The Twilight Zone.

We hear too often and too much that nothing is new under the sun. Some one hundred billion people have lived under that sun in the history of our species, telling the same seven or ten plots, using the same sets of characters. Every so often, there is an innovation, but these stories are retold for thousands and thousands of years.

However, there is one thing that is always different – every single person of that one hundred billion has had a slightly different, a truly unique, view of the universe. You gain your own perspective by observing your environment. Classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick are classics because they reflect experiences that were unique to those authors. Mark Twain’s love of the Mississippi is so strong in Huckleberry Finn that the river is a third lead character after Huck and Jim. Melville’s passionate Humanism combined with his experiences in whaling all over the world is the thread that holds that sprawling saga together.

It doesn’t have to be the natural world. Office Space and Fight Club are both quirky takes on the artificial, urban society that smothers the protagonists. And even the computer world that we encounter informs the subgenre of cyberpunk. But every good story has a setting that comes out of the writer’s view of the world around him or her. If you develop your own view of the world, every story you write can be unique, like a fingerprint.

For example, in my latest book, The Mighty Quinn, the hero is a Canadian who flees his home city of Vancouver and ends up across the border in Vermont. There, he gets a faceful of Vermont culture, especially its folklore. I grew up in Vermont and was living in Vancouver when I wrote the book. The intent was to have fun with the surroundings I knew, rather than copying someone else’s story or making things up out of whole cloth.

Similarly, my co-writer, Judith Doloughan, and I set our novel, Fraterfamilias, mainly in New York City. We had written the rough draft over the summer of 2001. When 9/11 happened, we decided to keep the time of the book in the early part of 2001, because pre-9/11 and post-9/11 New York were so radically different in a lot of ways. Setting is unique, but you can only discover that through observation.

Stop, look and listen.

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You can find Paula’s book, The Mighty Quinn at the following places:

Dark Continents Publishing

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Goodreads

DriveThru Fiction

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