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The first of four kinds of writing that we will ask you to do this
semester is to tell a story. Plain and simple. Ideally it will be a
story that gets told in your family…or community… a story that at
least presents itself as true.
Do you remember the story we told you in the last podcast, about the
logging company making its claim in northern B.C., the story where the
elder gets up at the meeting and says: “If this is your land, then where
are your stories.” This might be a story like the ones he was looking
for; maybe on a smaller, family sized scale.
It doesn’t have to be spectacular… it can be the story of how uncle
Pete shot his first moose, or the story of a doll or a ring that gets
passed down from generation to generation, or of a special tea pot,
about how you, or your grandfather fought in a war, or about the kitten
that appeared on Christmas day, or the cow that fell down the well, or
of the day of your own birth, it can be the story of someone going down
the road to find work, of family migration or immigration, of finding
refuge, or the story of a home place… a camp that you built with your
dad… some one story that gets told, and, if you think about it, sort of
passed down. A story that says, even in the gentlest way, or in the
saddest, or proudest or angriest way: “this is about us” or “this is
about who we are” or “je me souviens” as the Quebec licence plates say
so beautifully: “I remember,” and in remembering, I know who I am.
This writing project may require some research in the form of talking
to folks at home (if you are away from home), or thinking back to
It will be an easy assignment for some of you; you will know
instantly who in your family to ask for help. Often there is somebody
who is the keeper and the teller of tales. And they are often someone
with an innate sense of the shape of a story—of how to tell a story, how
to organize it, how to build the tension, how to carry you along as a
listener. If you are lucky enough to have such a person in your family,
pay attention to them… they can teach you everything you need to know
about this assignment. You may even know which story you want them to
tell you. And you may (for starters) just have to copy it down while
they talk, or recall it from your own memory. Once you have it down you
can start thinking about how to embellish it and make it come alive for
us as readers.
For others—you or your family is going to say, “Oh, we don’t really
have any stories.” This is never true! Persist. Feel free to run ideas
by us here and we should be able to say if you are onto something that
will work or not. If you are having real trouble finding a story to
tell, try investigating and then writing the story of a thing. Look
around in your mind’s eye for objects that hold special importance in
your life or the lives of those around you. The thing about things is
that they are generally repositories of meaning, of story. They become
informed with meaning over time:
Wedding rings passed along will have whole histories attached to them and many particular stories too.
An old rocking chair or the family tea pot will have witnessed a good deal.
A box of tools.
A painting or piano; a fiddle passed down.
A paperweight from your grandmother’s desk, worn smooth by worry.
Think of anything? If you are still stuck, a third approach might be to draw a memory map.
Draw a floor plan of the first house you remember living in. Take a
mental tour through this house, pausing and marking on the floor plan
where you find significant objects or where significant events occurred.
These can be small or large events, but ones that you remember with
some vividness when you put your mind to it. Take another imaginary walk
through the house marking things down as you go. Then pick one and tell
Whatever approach you take, the chief problem in translating from a
family story to a story for another audience (us), is that a story told
within a family, or a story that you know perfectly, will be
abbreviated: it will generally be told in the family “code” or
Sometimes family stories are reduced even to just a word or two—“your
bossy Aunt Bessie.” And then for generations afterwards, all anyone
knows about Aunt Bessie, despite her many qualities, is that she was
bossy! But you know—if Aunt Bessie was famous for being bossy, there are
bound to be many fine stories that someone knows in which she is the
star, or protagonist. Your job as a writer is to “unpack” one of those
stories and make it come alive for readers outside the family code. When
you are telling a family story for us, you need to translate for your
new audience. You need to fill in detail. Make things concrete. Give us
descriptions. Set the scene. Make us see it, hear it, feel it.
To do that, you need to get inside the story yourself… to actively
reimagine it… get lost in it, carried on its current. Don’t just recount
it, try to re-imagine it. Once you are in there look around, take note
of the surroundings, what are people wearing, what’s the weather like,
what’s the tone of voice, how does the morning light come in through
that window in the kitchen…
So this is an exercise in storytelling, and also partly an exercise
in writing for an audience. Even if it is a story you know well, you
will need to adapt the way you tell it keeping in mind a reader who does
not know you, or the setting, or the characters personally.
This piece is due in the dropbox really soon. After we have marked
them up and returned them to you with some suggestions for revision,
we’re going to want you to continue working on these Family Stories
right through until after the mid-term break when you will hand them in
for final grading. As for length, at this stage you should aim for
around 800 words. More important than word count though is that the
story feels complete, so don’t worry too much about actual word count at
this point. You’ll want to keep working on these pieces just a little
bit every few days after we have handed them back to you, and they may
grow or shrink quite a bit during that revising process. Once you have
them back with our comments, you will want to keep working on them,
building into them everything that you learn about how to tell a story
as we go along, revising, improving, making them come more and more
vivid and engaging to a reader. Making them perfect.
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