The Things My Dad Taught Me About Storytelling Won’t Show Up in an MFA
My father isn't a writer, but he taught me that so much of building a story happens off the page
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This essay appears in Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents, edited by Lise Funderburg.
When I turned 14 years old away at boarding school, I paid for my meal with a credit card for the first time. I’d been authorized to use this new parent-issued credit card, given to me for purchasing train tickets and pre-approved supplies, to have a nice lunch on my birthday with a few of my brand-new school friends. We ate at a place people seemed to like, charmingly in an old firehouse, and when the bill came I paid it—wrote in the tip, totaled the bill, signed, kept my copy and so on. My new friends sort of blinked at me. Later, at the dorm, one asked how long I’d had my own credit card.
“A week?” I answered. “It just came.”
“Oh,” she said. Later in the year she confessed that she’d asked because I had handled it all quite smoothly and she was very impressed by me in the moment. The truth was I hadn’t been concerned about what to do. For good or ill—and sometimes for both—I just did it how my father did. Since I was, at the time, understood by the world to be a 14-year-old girl, having mannerisms and habits that were suitable to a 45-year-old businessman caused consternation at frequent intervals. I addressed clerks and shopkeepers with his bumptious charm, I put on my coat and crossed my legs and settled myself in chairs with his movements, the wide-angled grace of the big guy I eventually became; I shook my head reprovingly when I didn’t like what the speaker was saying. I still do all of these things, but having transitioned into a man, it seems less off-puttingly incongruous now. One trait seemed somehow to fit all and none of the categories, though: my father’s skill, which I also grew into, as a storyteller.
Every night at dinner, my father would tell stories from his day. They were mostly small, quotidian workday stories, but sometimes if he was in a good-enough mood, my brother and I could coax him into telling family stories or favorites from his work life or from college. What we noticed was that it improved his mood, too. To fall into the cadences of story, even grumpily at first, is also an experience I have now and it remains an incredibly satisfying one. And at every gathering, whether a holiday dinner or Shabbat collation, at a cookout or a birthday party, on line at the store, waiting for a train, while taking a tour of my future high school when the tour guide was talking and we were supposed to be listening—Dad, come on— there were always stories.
My dad, who’s a numbers guy, can’t write at all. My uncle—my father’s brother and only sibling—can: He’s a well-regarded gay writer and poet with a long and distinguished publication record. We move in some of the same circles now, and depending on their generation, people might ask me if I might be related to him or occasionally whether he’s related to me. But my father can’t write at all; his attempts to prepare a speech for some occasion are inevitably an unrelieved block of short, simple, declarative sentences that read like an intermediate English Language Learner writing a final assignment for a communications class. But that’s on paper.
In person, it’s a different ballgame. In exactly the way that children of English professors effortlessly learn perfect grammar and never to misuse lie for lay, I learned perfect comedic timing and the lapidary art of composing a story. To compose a story is quite like composing a photograph—there’s art and craft in what one chooses as the center of the image, what’s kept in and what’s cropped out, the angle, the light. I learned from a million hours of observation of the kind that only a child can lavish on a parent how to string together a scatter of details to make a coherent narrative, how to pace the action from beat to beat, how to read the room to make sure people were following and not move too quickly but neither too slow; how to show the heart of a story—the actual message, the flaw that reveals the perfection—at just the right moment.
I learned the facial and bodily grammar that adds a layer of depth and nuance to the story as well, modifiers and limiters and intensifiers and even the complex linguistics of contradicting my words with my face to show the listener that I am, briefly, reporting rather than telling. That’s why my father’s attempts at writing seem so rudimentary—because the page only tells a portion of the story. Without the tone, inflection, pacing and other communicative information that come when he tells a story to a group, the words themselves seem like struggling seedlings outside a new house, bare and stunted. For my part, I solve the same problem in the exact opposite way: I use punctuation in all type and manner of off-label ways in order to introduce some of those elements back onto the page, as you can clearly see (unless our stalwart copy editor of this volume has cleared them away and returned me to Standard Correct American Punctuation, the floor around her desk positively littered with commas and em-dashes she’s banished with prejudice).
I pace my sentences on the page as they are in my head and experience no greater compliment than to be told an essay or chapter sounds just like how I talk. Natively, I am a talker, just like my father is. I love storytelling for the opportunity to be in the room with just the people I’m with, to watch how they’re hearing me and give them exactly the right mix of nuance and boldness, just the perfect cocktail of illuminating explanations and flip, you-know-the-rest-of-that hand gesture. Like a high-performance engine that gets tinkered with before each race for the optimal mix of oxygen and gasoline to the track and weather, the storyteller makes thousands of tiny instinctual judgment calls in every rendition. On the page, I can only choose once and then every reader has an off-the-rack experience. But live, in front of an audience—no matter how small—that’s where I am most completely happy in my work.
My experiences of trying to study storytelling, formally, were similar to my experience of trying to study English grammar. My parents, though not professors, are well spoken in Standard American English, so I found it paradoxically difficult to reveal the process pieces behind my mastery. I’d learned it all of a single piece, and not in stages. I could spot the error and correct an ungrammatical sentence easily during my sixth-grade Language Arts classes, but I struggled for years to understand tenses and cases and which the hell was the adverb (I finally got that part down, but I still don’t understand gerunds, not really, not even with Dorothy Parker’s help).
In the same style, I took workshops and classes in storytelling as I deepened my theater practice (my father found the idea hilarious, as though I’d confessed to taking an eight-week instructional program in Duck Duck Goose) but found them frustrating beyond words. I could never articulate well why I had made a particular choice or what my rationale was for encouraging a classmate to skip a bit or move something to the end, it just felt Correct to me that way. Certain constructions or compositions had an ineffable rightness about them that others didn’t. Some sentences felt finished, satisfied and satisfactory, and others either unfairly truncated or extended beyond their capacities, like single parents trying to manage an unreasonable number of tasks. In my head, or maybe in my blood, there exists a metronome for how a sentence should unfurl itself and it’s so deeply ingrained I’ve never been able to go against it, not even to save an essay or a story from being cut out of a book or a show.
Some of that is repetition. As a parent I have learned that children sometimes have to be specifically taught a thing, like riding a bicycle or addressing an envelope, a process during which you correct them and guide them and encourage them and eventually celebrate the success as a shared project. In other cases, they have to be reminded approximately eleventy million times—like saying “please” and “thank you”—before they eventually internalize it (they do eventually, right?). Those are rituals of parenting, and we do them over and over with full recognition that they’re a part of the job even though it can be exhausting. They’re a part of the job that many of us knew to expect, having seen other parents engage in them. But there’s another entire class of learning in which children just watch and listen to you every day, day upon day, and then one day reproduce exactly what you do. Sometimes this is very exciting, like when they spontaneously pick up a spoon and eat or spontaneously critique a billboard for being sexist and ridiculous, and sometimes might cause a person to swiftly reevaluate the kind of language they use in traffic, but my father and his friends told stories so often and with such craft, with so unimpeachable a sense that this was a foundational skill of life that I simply picked it up and ate.
(Once, an interviewer with whom I was annoyed and frustrated because of the way she constructed her questions about my gender asked me where I’d studied storytelling. I told her I’d studied with Arnold Friedlander, one of my dad’s close friends and owner of a building supplies business; a gifted natural storyteller who would have hooted helplessly with mirth if anyone had suggested that storytelling was a thing a person could go to school for. The interviewer made affirmative, approving noises as if I had identified myself as having attended the Harvard of storytelling and printed this tidbit of my pedigree in her magazine.)
There are more ways that I am like my father; they are so many and myriad and idiosyncratic that when he expresses (about me) the sentiment that gives this volume its title he does not refer to the wholesome apple but says instead the nut doesn’t fall far from the fucking nut tree, and I assure you he means this fondly. I have his wide and friendly cheekbones and large head, his generous mouth, his mesomorphic broad-shouldered body and his wide, flat feet. I have his sense of humor and his sense of duty, more of both than a lot of people, his easy gregariousness and his work ethic and his mile-wide judgmental streak. We are both a lot, in every regard. There are things we don’t share, too, from his disdain for beaches to his suspicion of live theater, but if I could include a video with this essay, here’s what you could see if I showed both of us side by side at the beginning: both of us opening our hands up and outwards, both cocking our heads slightly to the side, both pursing our lips slightly with the lower lip pooched out fractionally more, both nodding in a sort of acquiescence with a brief close of our eyes at the nadir of the nod, both looking at you, both breathing in, both beginning the story.