Telling stories

March 15th, 2010

I once heard an interview with Maurice Sendak in which he said that we all tell the same story over and over. Perhaps we disguise it under different details, perhaps one year we render it in poetry and the next in prose, perhaps we change our metaphors and geography; but we tell the same story, our story, again and again.

Perhaps, even literally, we repeat the same story. I used to know a woman who frequently re-told the same story. She wasn’t a bore about it; it wasn’t a long story and she only told it when it made sense in the context of the conversation. When her story was over the conversation would flow naturally whatever direction it went in, and this woman didn’t try to steer it back around to her. She simply told her story. But if you had known her for awhile – our kids went to the same play group in the city, and I saw her weekly for about a year – you couldn’t help but notice that you’d heard that story before. Maybe even twice before. 

It was not, on the surface, a dramatic story. Some years ago she took the train through the Canadian Rockies; she met two Australians on the train; they shared the journey; they are still in touch today. Nobody got off the train at a remote station and missed getting back on; nobody woke up to find their backpack and passport had been stolen in the night; nobody got dangerously ill with no doctor for hundreds of miles. She took the train through the Canadian Rockies and made some friends. It seems to be a simple story. But it means more than that to the woman telling it. The sheer fact of her repeating it, of it being one of her favorite stories, tells me that for the woman telling it, it is a touchstone. It is one of the stories of her life: it tells her something about herself, reminds her of something about herself, it is a story that is meant to say more than it does. Perhaps it is a reminder of the life she led before she had children; perhaps it is meant to tell the listener that she is an open person, open to travel, open to making friends; perhaps, telling this story in the shadow of the Swiss Alps, she is saying something about how mountains speak to her soul. I’ve never been able to figure out what that story really means to the woman telling it, but in telling it, I believe that she is doing much more than simply sharing an anecdote: she is revealing something about the way she sees herself.

I think we all have these stories, one or two or three touchstone stories that we come back to again and again. Stories that help us explain ourselves to the world, stories that help us explain the world to ourselves, stories that tell us who we are. Dutch Friend once commented that I write about my father a lot. I suppose I do, though I write about a lot of other things as well. But I do think the poems that invoke my father are more likely to be published, and those are the pieces Dutch Friend reads. I think they are more likely to be published because they are more likely to be good. The things I write about my father are often my best pieces. They are my best pieces because they are my true pieces.

They are my story.


October 14th, 2008

I’ve been captured by the villanelle lately. It’s a very precise poetic structure with both a rhyme scheme and a pattern in which two lines – introduced with the first and the third lines – are repeated at specified intervals. It does not come easily to me; I find it difficult to pull off a natural, lyrical villanelle. And yet I find myself writing them. I have heard it said – or read it written? – that the villanelle, circling back as it does to those two key lines, is a good form in which to explore obsessions, recurring events, memories one cannot, does not want to, escape. It’s a good form to use when a few images have you by the throat and won’t let go.

The villanelles I’ve been writing are about my father. I remember my father best as a fisherman. As the years pass and specific details fade – what shampoo did he use? what did his voice sound like? what was he wearing the last time I saw him alive? what was he dressed in for his funeral? – there is still a  tightly held clutch of memories, solid like river rocks in my fist, that I can still see, taste, hear almost two decades after his death. Almost always, these memories, these moments, are connected to my father’s life as a fly-fisherman and to the places that life took him, took us. Invariably my memories of my father are bound up with the waters he fished, the waters that became the companions of my childhood and the rivers to which I always, though years may pass, return. The places I love and the ways I love them have everything to do with this simple fact: my father was a fisherman.

That is the line I cannot let go of. The line that will not let go of me. That is what I return to like a salmon to her spawning ground. That is my one true thing.

My father was a fisherman.

Protected: When I watch you

June 9th, 2008

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