On the 9th day, I’m grateful for being able to tell a story, and to have stories worth telling. Although I have learned that the latter is less important than the former.
I grew up among storytellers.
Like my Aunt Louise, my dad’s aunt, who was a fierce woman, a divorcee who refused the sacraments, who drank Jack Daniels, drunk dialed her friends, packed a pistol in her purse, and made coffee every morning for her dogs.
And she could tell a story.
She died when I was 12, but she must have told me 100 times about how when Dad was a baby and would stay with her, he slept in a drawer in the dresser, because she didn’t have a crib. Her telling of that story took 20 minutes, and I knew exactly how it would end, and I was on the edge of my seat anyway.
Or the time her and her second husband moved to Ohio and had never driven on the 4-lane highway before, so they rode through all of Tennessee on the shoulder of the road, because the sign said for slow traffic to stay to the left.
Or the time my Dad’s older brother yelled at the lady at the table next to them in the restaurant who was slurping her soup, “Hey lady – I hear you like soup!”
I knew all those stories like better kids knew the Bible.
Then there were the retired farmers next door who told me why you plant leafy greens in one phase of the moon, and root vegetables during another. The story I was told when I was standing in the window during the lightning storm about her brother whose cap was knocked off his head when he was struck by lightning.
The preacher who had a sermon illustration about every damn thing, that always started with, “There was a man I knew who…”.
And then there were the stories I had read – because I loved books.
By the time I was 14 or so, my head was filled with stories. Then I discovered stand-up comedy, because I would catch the Tonight Show when I came home from working at the grocery store. And what is stand up, but stories?
In the summer of 1988, I entered a talent contest in Byhalia, MS (population 830) designed to raise money for, I think, the Lions Club. I did a 4-minute bit – my standup debut. It was also the last time I did stand-up. The mic didn’t work, so nobody past the first three rows heard me. One judge, a local celebrity who had been an actor in the original Chorus Line Production on Broadway, told me I was good, but a bit too advanced for Byhalia.
I really was just happy to tell stories that connected with people.
My sophomore year of High School, an English teacher submitted one of my writing assignments into a statewide contest, and I won second place. It was the first time anyone official said I was good with words. I knew I could make people laugh. I knew I could tell you a story. I just hadn’t known the stories would also work if I wrote them down.
I probably wrote 50 short stories in high school after that. Lots of murder stories, vigilante stories, drug dealer stories, hero stories where the protagonist does the right thing, even if it cost him the girl. Often with lines like, “He knew this would end badly, but he had no choice: It was foredestined that he would walk a lonely road.”
I had decided I would be a writer. I write all during my time in the Marines. I kept a journal in BootCamp, thinking I would do an updated version of Biloxi Blues when I got out.
I probably would have been a professional writer if it hadn’t of been for college.
The way it happened was like this: I had gotten a D on a Freshman comp paper, so I went to office hours to talk to the teacher. Let’s call her Ms. Edwards.
“I want to be a writer,” I told her. “It’s all I want to be. And If I can’t do better than a D when I am trying really, really hard, I don’t know what to do about that. Should I just give this dream up? Am I deluding myself? Am I wasting my time?”
She said absolutely nothing encouraging in that meeting. Nothing. Instead, she recommended I “think twice” about “wasting my time” on this “writing dream” and figure out how I am going to make a living.
“I am never going to tell anyone what they can’t do, Hugh. But I think you will be happier if you give up this writing dream. You don’t have it in you to do this, I don’t think. You just don’t have the tools.”
So I did. I didn’t write a goddamn thing for pleasure for 10 more years. Why bother, since I didn’t have it in me to be a writer? If I didn’t have the tools?
In late 2003, a friend was telling me about this new thing he had, called a ‘blog. He had a small following, and he wasn’t even that good of a storyteller.
I can do better than this guy, I thought.
Blogging saved me. Writing for an audience, the immediate feedback, the community of bloggers back in those early days – had it not been for all that, I would never have written another word. Then I read Anne LaMotte, and learned about shitty first drafts, and Stephen King, and learned about rewriting, and Carolyn See, and learned about creating your own magic. And one day, I decided I was a writer, and Ms. Edwards could go to hell.
But here’s the secret: I’m not. Not really. Because inside, I’m not so much a writer as I am a storyteller. Every time I sit down to write, I imagine I am telling one person a story, and I just type out the story. Every word on this page is just how it sounds in my head.
But however it happens, it always feels like magic, and I’m glad I get to do it.