Death and creation

“Why do we tell stories?”

It’s a question I ask in every course I teach, and it always has a different answer. This is something I expect, as all students come to the idea of story with different experiences and perceptions. But the answers differ based on the class in which I ask the question.

Take my lit class, for example. After students offer their suggestions (suggestions such as “to entertain,” “to share ideas,” “to express emotion,” etc.), I tell them we tell stories simply to convey something that happened. Their answers aren’t wrong, but that’s the “why” I’m looking for in that class, at least at the outset of the class, when I first ask this question.

In a creative writing class, because my students are there to be writers, not just readers of others’ stories, their answers are a little more personal and nuanced.

“I tell stories because I would die if I didn’t,” someone says. “Because I have all these worlds and characters in my head and I have to do something with them,” is another answer. For them, storytelling is an emotional, personal, life-giving event. These students are like Joan Didion, who wrote in 1979 that we “tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Sometimes even my Composition students see the writing they are doing (basic academic structure writing) as a chance to find meaning in something they already know about. A student once wrote an essay about why America should allow the consumption of horse meat, and although he went into that topic knowing something about it and having opinions about it, in an end-of-semester reflection piece, he wrote that he had learned something new about himself as he researched his topic. He said he’d never be able to eat a dog, although some people do, and as he pondered this line of thought, he was able to see why most people couldn’t get behind eating horse meat. He got there, of course, by including a personal anecdote, a story.

The art and craft of storytelling is on my mind at least in some way every day. Lately, it’s been on my mind because in September two stray cats showed up at our farm, and last week they died. Well, what I know for sure is that last week one of them died, because I found him in the midst of dying, after both cats had been missing for a few days. I haven’t seen the other one in a week, and given what happened, I’m sure she’s dead too. These cats bring story to mind because of how they worked themselves into my farm life existence, because of how they gave me something to talk about with others and because of they way they brought up memories of the cats of my childhood. I told them stories when I talked to them, and my son told me stories about them. Pumpkin patch visitors told us how much they enjoyed seeing the kitties, and petting the calico, the friendly one. And when I took the poor gray striped kitty to the vet, the one I found on his last day, I told her his story, of how he’d come to my farm, how he’d been so skittish and had just finally started letting me pick him up. It was a short story; he’d only been around for a month and a half, but it was his story, or what I knew of it. As she euthanized him and he fell asleep one last time, snuggled in my arms, I sobbed and sobbed, remembering that farm life is so hard on cats. In the days since, I’ve sniffled and sobbed a few more times, thinking about how hard farm life is on me, too. Those dang kitties had become my friends, other living beings to interact with in a time of isolation and loneliness.

When I sat down to write about this, I thought I’d write more about the kitties, tell more of their story here and let them live on in the pixels and electricity of the screen. But storytelling is a funny thing. On the one hand, writers who do this work for a living know they can’t wait for inspiration to write; they can’t wait for that shadow of a cat that is story to come forward from the bushes and rub briefly on a leg before darting away again. They must write, doing what they can to bring forward the slightest wisp of a story. On the other hand, some stories need time to grow and be known. If we tell stories to live, we must do some living in order to understand how events shape us and others. With that living comes the passing of time, the sorting of feelings and the ability to know something new and different.

I can’t write about these kitties yet, although I want to. I don’t know what to say about them, or if there’s anything there that really matters. But what I have learned through having and then losing them is just how lonely life out here really is. And through that realization, I’ve remembered that in loneliness, and in the craft of story, we can still find ways to live.

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