The Storyteller’s Dilemna

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Chinese Prison

I was listening to my son tell a story last night.

It’s the one where he gets arrested in Northwest China, along with a bunch of other young people and his grandparents, my mom and dad.

He loves to start with the line, “Oh, yeah, I got arrested in China.”

“What?” His younger brother asked, skeptically. “Why didn’t I hear this before?”

“Maybe because you run off to spend the weekends with your friends every chance you get,” his mother said, disapprovingly from her end of the dinner table.

That little interruption aside, Cole launched into the story, perhaps the sixth or seventh time I’ve heard it, but more likely approaching the 50th time he’s told it since he traveled to the remote region of China with his missionary grandparents last summer.

As the son of a preacher who was also a son of a preacher, storytelling runs in my veins like truffle oil. I love how stories evolve and change over the years to fit each moment that they are brought out and dusted off for.

The fall of NBC’s Brian Williams has made me do some soul searching about how we tell stories.

Just to be clear, there is a big difference between a storyteller doing this and a journalist doing this. And I don’t want this to come across as a defense of Brian Williams. Merely a defense of the human condition of storytelling.

As Cole waded through the details, like the fact that none of the police were carrying weapons when they were arrested and transported to the holding cells in the provincial city, I noticed he has taken to creating a bit of sound and drama in his narrative that wasn’t there before.

Now the cops arm themselves like protagonists in a Hollywood movie as they move the group of foreigners not the holding area.

Machine guns appear out of lockers, and Cole makes the sound of someone pulling back the bolt on a rifle.

Or later in the story, where they are on a crowded cart being hauled back to their hotel after they paid the bribe that assured their release from custody. He stops to notice things about people on the cart and the wild looks of the locals watching them go by.

Now there are details, when before, it was recounted quickly as a series of facts.

He likes to add in that he was drinking fermented mare’s milk without knowing it had an alcohol content before they were arrested, which is a nice touch to create some suspense, since we all know drunk teenagers are absolutely unpredictable and capable of just about anything.

As this story has evolved over the last seven or eight months, I’ve found myself thinking about how we relate information. Fast at first, free of details. Just the facts pertinent to explaining ourselves to others.

Later, we build a timeline and start to construct a narrative on that structure. After 50-odd tellings of the story, the storyteller finds the little nuggets that register with an audience. The click of a rifle being cocked. The menace in the eyes of a police officer. The elevated heart rates as people await their fate.

The storyteller polishes those nuggets into a fine sheen, and they become the waypoints in a journey. They help the storyteller and the audience find their way through a thicket of details and meandering umms and ahhs.

The details in my son’s story have not changed insofar as I can tell. But the story is richer, like a condensced soup stock that has been on the stove for many hours.

The retellings add depth to the narrative, and I found myself as enthralled hearing it for the sixth or seventh time last night as I was when he blurted out the rough outline of it after he stepped off the plane at O’Hare and we drove home together after his journey.

I could see in his brother’s eyes a bit of jealousy and amazement, which was only possible because of the skill with which he wove the narrative.

My kids have never exhibited good storytelling skills, which kills me.

They take after their wonderful mother, who likes to bury the lead and then watch me desperately try to find it in the 20, or so, meandering pathways where her stories unfold.

I love them dearly, but their sense of narrative was something that was not installed when they were first programmed.

Until last night, I lost hope that one might have just a little of that son of a son of a preacher’s sense of narrative in their blood.

Last night I heard a story come alive in a way I didn’t really think possible. That confident jump from amazing news to finely crafted sequence of events with a full range of human emotions thrown in to poke you where you need poking.

The facts remained the same. My oldest has an innate sense of justice, which means he has a penchant for the truth, even if it’s his own.

My wife often accuses me of embellishing stories, especially stories I tell of the two of us together.

As a journalist, this offends me. I wasn’t embellishing facts, I was polishing the nuggets and providing waypoints in the story. I was building a narrative out of the facts.

Only after 20 years of being married to this amazing lady, have I come to realize we both see the world very differently.

She sees the world very practically, as black and white with very little gray. Which is beneficial for a dreamer like me and probably one of the main reasons we work so well together all these years later.

I see the world as a story that gets more interesting with each telling.

My son’s story will only become richer as he goes on to college and then settles into life. It could be a set piece at dinner parties or maybe he’ll pull it out at job interviews.

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