What Stories Should We Tell?

Under the Apple Tree

While outlining today's post, I couldn't stop thinking about the old crab apple tree in Grandma's back yard. I love that tree and all that has happened underneath it: Visits with friends and family, first kisses, breakups, new introductions, wedding celebrations, baby showers, and wakes. And every time I think of it, I imagine its beat up trunk and limbs as expressions of living and loving. Each surprising fruit—surprisingly tart and surprisingly existent in the high desert climate—is symbolic of individual stories to me; stories that have played out underneath it over the last 90 plus years. And while that may seem like a lot of stories, I feel like every single one has mattered.

So, which of the stories should I tell?

I started thinking about this because my youngest sister asked me a similar question. She wanted to know what stories matter most and if I could help her come up with a list. Sure—I mean, I am the one with a writing minor. Why not? But, instead of creating a list for her, I began outlining this post.

Skip to Now

Turns out, I need to write my way through this one. I need to figure what I think about it and sketch a path forward. And whenever I'm confused or uncertain, there are two ways I address it: I read or I write. So, I'm writing this post to clarify my thoughts and feelings.

Here's the thing: Each of our journeys is so different, though there are common threads. For example, we all experience:

    • Births and Deaths
    • Struggles, Defeats, and Triumphs
    • Relationships and Traditions
    • Believing and Valuing

And so on. So is this the list?

I don't think so. My sister's question seems to hint at something more specific. Still, how can I possibly guess what her most important story to tell might be?

Then again, my sister's question might have had something to do with too many stories to tell, or she may want to tell them perfectly, or she may believe there has to be some sort of order to it all. If that is the case, I would tell her to toss out the rules, forget about any proper order, write some rubbish for awhile, and get her stories told—one story at a time. Then, I'd remind her about those fabulous stories she wrote in grade school. And, because my inner-anthropologist can't let it drop, I'd reminder her that all humans are storytellers and we're good at it. (At which point, she'd probably give me the "big eyebrow.")

But really, I don't think that's what my sister was getting at. She seems like a confident writer. So it's something else for her.

If I turn this towards myself and ask, "How do I choose stories?" I think it helps. Often, it seems like the story I'm telling is the one that needs to be let go, the one that I can't stop thinking about until it's told. But, that's not my only impulse. Sometimes, I tell the the easier story first to get it out of the way. Other times, it's enough to scribble out a few lines, summarizing with a promise to return; all to allow another narrative to take shape and become my next focus. And let's not forget the inspired stories—those stories that spark additional stories, linking us to each other. Story is powerfully connecting, especially when a round of inspired stories gets started between friends and the sparks fly. But, what about priority? I sort of feel that my choices aren't priority driven or that my priority is to clear my head.

In truth, I do have a list of stories to tell (some underway in My Stories Projects), but how did I arrive at that list? I think that's what my sister really wants to know. How do I decide what matters? Especially, since I think they all matter. Come on. There has to be a priority.

Hmm...Time to back up a bit and think about why I tell stories.

How to Choose the Next Story

Just like any storyteller, I'm called to interpret what it means to be human. But, this is where it gets interesting. For whom does my interpretation matter? I feel like audience has a lot to do with choosing the next story to tell. For example:

  • Am I storytelling for myself, others, or all of us?
  • What is my goal in telling this story to the audience (even if it's just me)?
  • What do I need or want to communicate right now about life, my experiences, and my interactions with everything and everyone?
  • What do I (or they) know already, what is there to learn, and what's the gap between what is known and what is yet to be learned?

I kind of feel like the gap is the birthplace of a story and that the priority—which stories to tell—is an in-the-moment decision. While a list of story prompts might get the juices flowing, choosing the next story to tell isn't a cookie-cutter thing. And, I'm beginning to think that a list of actions rather than a list of story topics would be the best way to answer my sister. So, here it goes.

When choosing which stories to tell:

  1. Decide to tell just one story right now
  2. Choose who to tell
  3. Determine the goal for telling the story. Is it to teach, learn, compel, etc?
  4. Fix on the message
  5. Tell your story, bridging the gap between what your audience knows and doesn't know

It's a little messy I guess, but it works for me and helps me tell my stories one apple story at a time.

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