Back when I was a kid, my siblings and I used to beg our father (left), after supper while he read the newspaper and before we went to bed, “Tell us a farm story, Daddy!” Those were stories of events that had occurred during his childhood as he grew up on his father’s East Tennessee dairy farm during the 1930s and 1940s. As tired as he was, he usually obliged us, and we loved it, even when he told the same stories over and over. To us, they truly were “stories that never grow old.”
I also used to enjoy swinging on my maternal grandparents’ front porch while listening to the “old folks” talk. Their conversations often included various stories, most of them true, or at least based on real-life events. Paw Summers was an especially adroit storyteller, and I’ve written of him and his storytelling methods and prowess (The Appalachian Log, December 1993).
Later, when I had my own children, they used to ask me questions that often ended up with my telling them a story about my own life and events when I was growing up and about their age. I often told the stories in third person and then, having finished each story, asked them, “Do you know who that little boy was?” And they usually blurted, “It was you, Daddy!” And then they immediately begged, “Tell us another farm story, Daddy!”
Everyone, regardless of age, likes a good, well-told story. (For evidence of this truth, just watch the reaction of people who are nodding off during a sermon as soon as the preacher begins to illustrate his point by telling a story.) And everyone, regardless of how bland and boring they might seem on the outside, has an interesting, perhaps even instructive, story to tell. That’s the premise of the TV series The Story Trek (not to be confused with Star Trek!). It’s also at least part of the motivation behind the work of many writers, including myself.
One day, I was stumped in my writing. No matter how I approached my work or how hard I thought about and worked on it, nothing would come. As I sat staring at the stark whiteness of my office wall, trying to conjure my topic, my eyes suddenly became aware of a framed picture that hangs there. It’s a black-and-white photo that one of my daughters gave me. It is of an old, dilapidated typewriter, and beneath the photo is written, “Write your own life story.”
But on that day, the words only seemed to mock my predicament. Prodded by the statement, I mused of my life and concluded, “No one would want to read about my life; it’s been neither interesting nor exciting–at least to other people. Who would want to read stories about my drab life?” My life more resembles the old typewriter than an exciting, fancy, modern computer. The platen is hard. The keys stick. The ribbon is dry and thread-bare. The words beneath the photo seemed to mock me in the harshest way.
But as I meditated longer on the words, I recalled a story that teacher-writer Jesse Stuart told. As Stuart struggled through the master’s degree program at Vanderbilt University, Donald Davidson, one of his professors, advised him, “Go back to your people. Go back and write of them. Don’t change and follow the moods of these times. Be your honest self. Go back and write of your country. Your country has your material.” Essentially, Davidson was telling him, “Write your own life story. Don’t try to be someone else.”
Stuart followed Davidson’s advice. He returned to the hills of Eastern Kentucky and taught school and plowed corn fields–and wrote. As he followed the mule along the furrow, he thought of words and phrases and stories. As he rested the mule at the end of the row, he wrote those words and ideas on a leaf, and then he transferred them to paper in the evening. And they found their way to publishers as manuscripts of poems, short stories, and autobiographical accounts. Eventually, they were published in books and magazines. He wrote for children. He wrote for adults. But most of all, he wrote for himself. I was especially a beneficiary through Stuart’s books The Thread that Runs So True, which Dr. Walter Fremont recommended to me, and its sequel To Teach, To Love. (You can find a child’s video review of The Thread that Runs So True at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wi4XkA3MqAA and an excellent TV interview of Stuart at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpsXlxf2egs. Stuart discusses Davidson’s advice to him at about the 27-minute point.)
By the way, after I had stared for a long time at that photo of the old typewriter, and after I had read and reread and meditated on the words “Write your own life story,” I did write something. I submitted it, and it was published (after the editor gently guided me through some paring and tweaking) as “The Beloved Country” (The Writer, May 2016). I had a story. I told it. And an editor thought that her readers might benefit from it. Perhaps someone did. At least one person did, and she wrote to tell me. She was an elderly lady who had herself been inspired to write by Jesse Stuart’s works and had even met him. I enjoyed reading her story, and wish that I could have met Stuart, too.
If I could do it, you can too. You have a story of your own. Tell it to someone. Write it down and share it. Perhaps even dare to submit it for possible publication. After all, tomorrow is National Tell-a-Story Day. Go write your own story.