Tag Archives: Personal Narrative

Why Stories?

We tell stories to share what matters, to try to make sense of what doesn’t, and to connect to others.  

Here’s the problem: stories have the power to shape the way we see the world. So unless we pause, once in awhile, and ask “why that story” or “why that story told that way,” we may find ourselves living someone else’s version of who we are.

storytellerBecause stories look different from different angles, we need to make sure we pick our viewpoint, not let some institution or person tell us what’s right.

Stories can have serious practical applications. In some Native American cultures, children are disciplined by story. The elders sit the child down and tell him or her a story about the consequences of bad behavior or the dangers of unthinking actions. “The dog ate my homework,” is also a story with a practical application. How often do we think about that?

Stories get better with time. Why? Most of us don’t think of ourselves as liars, but we want to be heard. Most often we exaggerate because we want our stories to be remembered. For that reason, it’s often worthwhile to pay attention to the stories that get repeated. They’re not so much whoppers as clues to what’s important to that person or family or nation. George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree. Never said, “I cannot tell a lie.” Why, as Americans, do we keep telling that story? And when we stop telling it, what has changed?

Stories have voices. If all our stories are tales of hardship and persecutions, we may not be able to hear anything but bad news. Old hatreds are passed on the same way. 

storytellerStories are philosophical. “Things go better with Coke” is as much a philosophical statement as an advertising slogan. Families do the same thing. “In our family we ______”  fill in that blank. Question is, who decides how to fill in the blank? 

For example, in my family we tell love stories.

  • One is about a grandmother who stopped a railroad for the sake of love—not one or two trains, a whole railroad. 
  • We also have a story of a young girl who waited by the gate for the guy on the white horse. One day, he showed up, white horse and all. 
  • We also have a World War II romance, complete with love letters
  • A Ninteenth Century shipboard romance
  • An even more distance tale of lost love and Viking pirates.  

Listen to those stories long enough and you can spend your whole life waiting to be swept off your feet. The stories we tell can become the scripts we live or try to live. 

Have I made the case for examining our stories?

storytellerAh, yes, but at the same time, we love our stories and our storytellers. Forget the fuss and tell a good one! 

This blog is a place to share as well as ask questions about stories. Got a good one? Post it in the comments.


Filed under Family Stories, Personal Narrative, stories, Why Stories?

Hate Mother’s Day Platitudes?

My great grandmother, Sophia Nielsen, is the undisputed matriarch of our family. She started in a log cabin and ended owning a 40,000 acre ranch. She worked hard and fought harder. Our favorite story is about how she brought a railroad to a stop–not just one train, a whole railroad because they owed her money. That makes her sound hard, but, in fact, she lived long and became greatly beloved, called “grandma” by everyone. It is said that a letter, mailed in Germany in the 1950s,  addressed only to “Grandma Nielsen, The Big Ranch, Idaho Falls USA” got delivered.

lauralindaAh, yes, but it’s Mother’s Day.

So I have to ask, what would my great grandmother Sophia say was the most difficult part of her life—stopping a railroad, building a ranch, or raising a family? Obviously, I can’t speak for her, but consider the following: 

  • Her first child was born premature because she’d contracted typhoid fever, which caused her to go into early labor. 
  • When a sister-in-law died, she adopted the baby that was left behind. The baby, a girl, died three months later.
  • She raised five children by herself, as a widow of the 1918 flu pandemic, and buried a grandchild the same week she buried her husband.
  • After age sixty, she assumed primary responsibility for two children that she raised as a single grandparent.

 The way I see it, stopping trains takes grit, building a ranch requires more than a little ambition, but raising a family will tear your heart out.


Filed under Family Stories, Life Story, Mother's Day, Uncategorized

My Best Day? Maybe the One When I Caught a Falling Baby.

babyStory Corp is an National Public Radio feature that captures the audio of people telling the kind of story also featured here. This is one you don’t want to miss.


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Filed under Life Story, Personal Narrative, radio story, Uncategorized

Doing a Kit Carson . . .

Kit Carson met his own myth. It’s a strange but true story. In 1849 Kit Carson, the famous army scout, was chasing a group of renegade Apaches. When he finally caught up with them, he discovered that one of the Apaches had a book—a dime novel featuring Kit Carson as the main character. Carson was not familiar with the book, so, on the way back to the fort, he had the Apache, now his prisoner, read it to him. (Carson never learned to read) The more the Apache read, the more Carson realized he could never live up to his fictional reputation.


Dime Novel

Dime Novel

That’s not the end of the story. It gets stranger. Later Carson dictated his own story, not to set the record straight, but to capitalize on his celebrity. Motivated by profit, he filled his book with adventures that he’d made up or made more exciting. Whatever he thought his audience wanted to hear.


Was that wrong?

My family has been doing a “Kit Carson” for years, meaning that we’ve similarly drifted into the legend we’re supposedly living. I can remember when we “took our cattle to market.” Today we “round them up.” Same activity, only now we use movie terminology, both because it’s more romantic and because no one would know what we were talking about otherwise.

The desire to hook our personal histories into some larger narrative is not confined to those of us who grew up on a ranch. Why else do people join the Daughters of the American Revolution or spend a fortune reproducing the family crest? We want to name the slave ship, massacre, or pogrom we survived. A good story gives us a firm foundation, a sense of identity, something to hang onto when the going gets tough. If we think we come from a long line of survivors . . ..

Here’s the rub. A good story also has to survive. To do that, it has to be memorable. Repeatable, which means a good story will almost always get better over time.  Is that a problem? Or are we are richer when we let our stories live? Or are we better when we verify every fact?

I’m asking because I’m not sure.


Filed under Family Stories, Legend, Personal Narrative

THE MOTH: Uptown New Yorkers Recreate Porch Stories

The Moth LogoLove of  a good story isn’t new but it has become au courant. Check out The Moth http://www.themoth.org

Novelist George Dawes Green wanted to recreate, on a NYC stage, the feeling of stories told on his friend’s porch on St Simon’s Island Georgia. He started in 1997, now eleven years later, his idea has expanded to LA and includes Story Slams. Better yet, the winners can be downloaded as podcasts.  http://www.themoth.org/podcast 

Not just any story–The moth promotes personal narratives (the storyteller must tell a story about himself or herself). 

The Moth logoWhy the Moth? 

The name comes from the moths that would flutter and get trapped in the light on that Georgia porch Green remembered so fondly. A good story should do the same.

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Filed under Family Stories, Funny story, stories, Uncategorized