Publisher’s view: The stories we tell

Photo by Melissa Oivanki


There are those in our lives who are natural-born storytellers: They know how to tell a tale. They are the delight of a dinner party, the breath of life in a dull moment, the entertainer and the wit. They have a mind like a steel trap, and they understand the nuance of tone, volume and inflection. They make the story sing.

These storytellers paint a picture, as though you were there. And by hearing them talk of Aunt Barbara’s latest dating disaster, their best friend Tom’s hunting shenanigans or poor Pastor Pete’s recent woe, they move you to tears of laughter as quickly as they move you to tears of compassion. They are more than the conduit of information—their stories produce emotion.

And there’s at least one in every family.

My family has a number of storytellers, and nothing is more delightful than hearing them start, “Did I ever tell you about the time…”

You lean in with anticipation. You grab a drink. You put down your fork.

There is a certain rhythm to storytelling, a pace. And not everyone is a master of it. Timing is essential or you lose the crowd. Rush too fast, and humor or sympathy is quashed in the quick delivery. Go too slow, and listeners begin checking off grocery lists in their heads.

Do I need cilantro to make that dip? “Yes, yes. I’m listening.”

Like every family, I have those members who launch into a story without understanding its essentials. The meat. They get so caught up on the details—what they ate, the scenery, the smell of the rental car—that by the time they get to the meat of the story (the fight with the man at the convenience store), the story is lost.

“Cut to the chase,” my dad used to say when I was younger and not getting to the point. “Land the plane.”

Land the plane.

How many times in life do we need to be told to land the plane? When is enough quite enough?

Because words aren’t the only ways we tell stories, of course. Our houses paint pictures of who we are or what stage of life we are in. The clothing we choose to wear, the activities we choose to pursue, the friends we choose to hang out with all tell a tale of who we are. Or who we are trying to be.

And there are times in life that we need a storytelling check: Are we focusing too much on the gravy and not really living the meat?

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing, said Stephen Covey.

This is not an easy pursuit because our culture is so hung up on the gravy. And the details can pull us under.

The morning of my wedding almost 20 years ago, there were florists and photographers and family and friends to coordinate. After months of preparation, the details of the day itself seemed too much to bear.

“Baby, let me tell you the main thing,” my dad said that morning. “At the end of this day, you will be married. That’s all that really matters.”

Sometimes we need people in our lives to help us cut to the chase. Focus on the essentials. Remember that the main thing is the main thing.

Land the plane.

But hopefully there are enough details along the way to make the meat of our life’s story one that’s worth living. It’s a crazy balance, a good story.

And timing is everything.