Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Narrative Necessity

This is a guest post by Charley Kempthorne.

I was on the road traveling in Olympia, Washington.  It had been a grueling afternoon driving  in more traffic than country guys like me are used to. As I tell my workshop audiences, back home in Kansas, heavy traffic is when there’s a car in front of you and one behind you, too.  Coming down I-5 from Seattle it was a lot heavier than that.  And I was worn out.   

But the man behind the motel desk could hardly stop talking when, checking in, I noted out loud that it was Friday the 13th. 

“After one Friday the 13th in Vietnam, I never worry about Friday the 13ths,” he said.  He was a tall, pale man in his 50s.   “We had complete engine failure in our single engine plane.” I’d forgotten I was tired.  He had my undivided attention.  His eyes enlarged as he talked and in their whites I saw the fear he must have felt. “In a few seconds we lost a thousand feet of altitude, just like that.”  He snapped his fingers.  “I thought, It’s Friday the 13th and I’m going to die and there isn’t a thing I can do about it.”

He paused and looked directly at me. “Then the engine started and we were okay."

Pushing the registration form across the counter to me, he shook his head and repeated, “I don’t worry about Friday the 13ths anymore.”
“I can see why,” I said. 

Harder to see is why he told me, a complete stranger, that story from his past. Was he trying to impress me
with his exploits?  Maybe a little.   Just making conversation?  Perhaps.  But these reasons, and any other small ones I might bring forth do not account for his obvious need  to recreate, however briefly, those agonizing moments—something which he surely has  done many times, probably every Friday the 13th since then. 
Perhaps he is still trying to make sense of that frightening event three or so decades earlier when he thought he was going to die and did not. I guess the why of it is and always will be, finally, a mystery. 

What’s certain, though, is that we find it important—all of us—to tell stories.  As the poet said, the world is made of stories, not atoms.     

It’s equally certain that our children and grandchildren want and need to hear these stories. Oh, in their preoccupied and busy young lives, they may not want to hear just now.  That’s why we should write them down: so that, as the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher will be there. 

If we do not write them down, then that experience is lost.  Perhaps it is absorbed somehow into genetic material and becomes part of the knowledge of the species in a general way no one yet understands. But unless it’s written down it’s lost forever as words--as history.

Sometimes it is easy to think our individual experience doesn’t count for much.  But it does. It’s not too much to say that we live by the stories of our ancestors.  And the more of them, I believe, the better.  What would you give for stories from your ancestors?--say an account of the conversation between your great-great-grandmother and great-great-grandfather just after they stepped off the boat and into America?  That would have to be worth a pretty penny, wouldn't it now?

Charley Kempthorne is the author of For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History.  He lives in Kansas and travels North America coaching memoir writers. 

Charley Kempthorne will offer a LifeStory Writer's Workshop at the South Sioux City Public Library on August 1st at 6:00 PM.

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