blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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The Art of Storytelling

Four summers ago, I applied for several menial jobs, hoping to recuperate in my hometown between semesters while earning a little extra cash to blow at all-nite diners and used bookstores. I happened to put in an application at a “homemaker service” which, quaint as it sounds, was actually a home care provider for the elderly. I attended a week of training in a small classroom in southern Illinois before being thrown, ill-prepared, into the world of assisted living: bedpans, pills, hearing aids, wheelchairs—all the daunting mysteries of old age. I, of course, had no inkling of how influential this experience would be on my writing process. I also had no idea that listening was a major part of the job description, or perhaps I would’ve felt better suited to my work upon entering “the field,” as our trainers called it. But almost every day, after sweeping, making the bed, cooking lunch, and perhaps bathing a client, we would sit together in the kitchen, or on the back porch, and I would hear a story. I have never heard so many people speaking as passionately and eloquently of their memories, and of the places where they lived out their lives. I have never had the art of storytelling modeled so persistently.

I wasn’t aware at the time that this constant exposure was shaping my writing process, but I felt an awareness developing in me, a new attunement to the histories of places, of people, and the relationship between the two. As I drove from one client’s house to the next, I began journaling furiously in the steamy parks of small towns, or graveyards along back roads. I was discovering, through the lives of my clients, a set of fictions that felt, to me, sincere and honest and deeply true in a way my writing had never been before. I spent a lot of time driving that summer; many of my clients lived in remote one-horse towns or on farms. As I drove, I would watch the shapes of fields and lakes—the long parallels of railroad tracks bordering the Mississippi River—and the stories seemed so tightly linked to the landscape itself that I could almost see them tangibly unfolding. Through the stories of my clients I found a new love for the spaces that had surrounded me since childhood. I thought about the web that landscape, memory, and identity weave that sustains the texture of a story, both in the art of oral storytelling and on the page. I still haven’t exhausted this strange and delicate relationship between place and the past, memory and self, in my writing.

During this time, “The Devil in the Water” first began to emerge, inch by inch, on the pollen-smattered pages of my notebook. I found myself hoarding images: bankside fires, fortune-telling birds, a town underwater. These gradually, like embers emitting a glow, caught and spread to engulf the whole landscape, the river and the town, threads of language that would connect back to a single voice. That voice undoubtedly had roots in an amalgam of my clients (many of whom also became my friends over the course of the summer) but was also something separate—and so Edith gained shape and substance and began to tell her story. Because Grand Tower is a real place with real stories, the landscape began to creep in and take over, much like a spreading vine, already deeply rooted in the character. The gleaning of these histories was an incredibly refreshing and rewarding process, one that was also very fluid and natural, with the landscape constantly emerging through the voice of the character, as geography and biography became inescapably intertwined.

This type of landscape-driven prose that “The Devil the Water” exemplifies has become a trademark of my fiction. This is the process through which my stories take shape: I envision the landscape first and foremost—the rise of the bluffs, the curl of the river, farms and orchards, lakes and hills. As the landscape settles into a solid form, I think of the people who would inhabit that space, the way the setting might speak to their lives, influence their perceptions. As the place communicates about its inhabitants, they start to form into recognizable characters with attitudes and memories of their own. I have these characters describe the landscape from their perspective, so that identity, memory, and a sense of place all grow forward from the same root. As the characters solidify, they start to interact, speak; conflicts arise, and from these conflicts (if I’m lucky) a story bubbles up.  end