I’m not very good at telling stories.
That’s a pretty damning thing to admit when your PhD is literally writing short stories. But I like to think there’s a discrepancy between writing and telling. “Tell me a story,” said Max, a friend from my old university. I was crashing on his couch on my way through Chicago and his was the first familiar face I’d seen since Seattle. “Tell me the craziest thing that’s happened on your roadtrip.”
By the time my travel blog, “The Flight of a Boomerang,” was finished, it had accumulated over 120,000 words (that’s double the requirement for a 3-year PhD). So when Max asked for my “craziest story” over a pint in Uptown Chicago, trying to cram one of my experiences into a consumable capsule of words was like eating deep-dish pizza through a straw.
But Max was my host and I wanted to please him, so I took sixty seconds to filter through all possible interpretations of “crazy.” I settled on my recent drive through the Bighorn Mountains, but I had then to provide context. Two minutes later I’d set the scene, and it took another 30 seconds for me to explain how the Atlas I used wasn’t topographical—it described the Bighorns as a “National Forest” instead of the mountain range it was—so that when I got to the bit about me running out of gas and almost freezing to death, Aaron was busy skimming the Twitter feed on his iPhone. He’d stopped listening after the first 140 characters.
Believe it or not, this isn’t going to be one of those rants about Millennials only wanting the quick fix, or how people today have shorter attention spans than goldfish (according to this article in The Telegraph). In fact, this communication trend is hardly a modern phenomenon. Poetry and the Haiku encouraged succinct language long before Twitter, and flash fiction’s been around for decades. Even the fabled six-word novel by Hemingway—“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”—was conceived as early as 1917 in an essay by William R. Crane.
Marcel, a comedian that I bartend with, is someone who has mastered this art of the micro-story. His name is French and he’s from Germany, but he’s neither German nor French; he has an Irish accent without ever living in Ireland; and together we work at a German brewery in Scotland. But the riddled comedy of Marcel’s background pales beside the jokes that he tells leading tours of our pub’s brewery. I tagged along for one of these romps and laughed harder than most of the tourists around me. He had an amazing talent for cramming a full narrative into one line with a punch. “Where I come from,” he told the crowd, “when people put on silly outfits to get pished and go about spewing in public, we call it Oktoberfest. Do you know what they call it here in Glasgow?” When no one replied, he answered for us. “A weekday.”
There is something extraordinary about the way that Marcel harnesses a story. And while I can sometimes mimic this form of telling, it’s far from what I would call a strength. Still, one of my favorite narratives came from him after closing the bar on a Tuesday night. We'd moved on to Maggie Mays for another post-work pint, and in the early morning hush he finally had the time and the breath to go into detail.
We were talking around the idea of storytelling—how our need to communicate encourages us to frame experiences with a narrative arc*—when Marcel began a story about a family member in East Berlin who grew up unable to share details of his life with relatives on the other side of the Berlin Wall. It was a long and complex anecdote that took half of a pint to finish, but when the punch finally landed, it sunk in deep. I laughed until my stomach began to cramp and the air had left my lungs. Meanwhile, a hidden corner of my mind was somehow able to acknowledge the sadness—the profound pain of it all—beneath the laughter.
Here was a joke that rang about in my mind for weeks, months, afterward. Even today there’s a lingering taste of what it all meant; because as much as we crave the quick laugh or the quote that gives us chills, nothing can remain within unless it is processed.
Mental processing is a primary facet of my research. When a traumatic experience isn’t processed, it sits latent in the brainstem and is able to be recalled at any moment by a subconscious trigger (like a firecracker). But as it turns out, narrative is the best way to convert experience into memory. Telling a story activates virtually all areas of the brain. The thalamus and hippocampus spark up via the remembering, the cerebral cortex ignites in the retelling, and language is formed in the temporal lobe. Even the parietal lobe—responsible for processing sensory input—is awake in the details.
This combination results in one of the highest levels of comprehensive brain activity known to neurologists. The only gap occurs when you’re not telling the story, but listening. Brain activity drops significantly, and areas associated with memory are latent.
So how do you make a story stick?
The answer is simple. You turn it into an experience.
One of the ideas I teach first-year students in creative writing is the importance of significant detail. “Specific, definite, concrete, particular details,” writes Janet Burroway. “These are the life of fiction.” But even more than that, they are the cords that pull us in, that ignite our imagination and force us, as witnesses, to experience a thing. We’ve all felt that intangible tug reading Lord of the Rings for the first time, wrapped within another universe to the point that we can see a character’s hurt, feel their hidden pain. And the medium for our imagination to enter this world is detail.
If I could go back to that time in Chicago, to me sitting across from Max and him asking, “What’s the craziest thing that's happened to you,” I might start with a flash-narrative. It’d begin with an attention grabber like, “It was a night that I shouldn’t have survived.” He would laugh with his jaw hanging loose, and afterward he might say, “Wow, that’s crazy!” Two days later, though, he wouldn’t remember if I'd passed through the mountains or a desert.
If I wanted to tell a story that stuck, if I wanted to show him what really happened—to grab him by the shoulders and pull him into my world so that he could see the frost on the dashboard, feel the stuttering of the engine as my gas ran low—then I would start with the details. “Snow was piled on either side of the road,” I would say. “Outside the temperature was dropping so fast that my windows couldn’t defrost quickly enough. There wasn't a single gas station within 30 miles on my side of the Bighorns, and the needle of my fuel gauge was hovering just below the letter “E.” It flickered every time I accelerated out of a switchback, driving further up the mountain, deeper into the night.”