Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Patchwork Tales: Making Stories from Story Fragments

By Linda Goodman

©Linda Goodman, 1/2015

I have hundreds of story fragments (concepts, memories, story starters) running through my head. Every so often, two or more of them collide and a story is born. Those are usually the easiest stories to write. I feel like I am taking dictation.

Sometimes, though, the collision never happens. That means work is required.

After both my parents had passed away, I began telling an anecdote (fragment #1) at family reunions about the first (and only) time that my Daddy every punished me. My Mama, the disciplinarian in our home, was so mad at me that she did not trust herself to administer my punishment. She ordered Daddy to do it for her. To my surprise, he agreed and took me into the back bedroom and shut the door. I was scared, but even worse, I was humiliated. Daddy had never laid a hand on a child. I would be the first child to have ever been bad enough for him to have to hit.

I readied myself for the blow, but it never came. Instead, Daddy whispered to me to start crying, and  I did. Meanwhile, he clapped his hands together hard for about thirty seconds. We did a good job of simulating the sounds of a whipping. In fact, we were so convincing that when Daddy and I came out of that room, Mama wrapped her arms around me and cried, “My baby!” Then she hollered at Daddy for hitting me too hard. She did not speak to him for days.

Whenever I told this anecdote at family gatherings, folks howled with laughter. I decided to take this anecdote to the stage. Before I could do that, though, I had to turn it into a real story. My family laughed at the anecdote because they remembered Mama and Daddy well. My family also knew the context surrounding my story. My storytelling audiences would not have that context. I had to create it for them.

I asked myself why I wanted to share that story. Daddy was a man of great integrity. Why did he choose to make a fool out of Mama? That was totally out of character for him.

Pondering this issue brought back a memory (fragment #2) of overhearing Mama tell Daddy that we children loved him more than we loved her. Daddy told her that was nonsense. “They don’t love me more than they love you,” he insisted. “It’s just that you’re so stern all the time, they’re afraid to show you any affection. It wouldn’t hurt you to show a little compassion once in a while.”

Why was Mama so mad to begin with? That question brought forth another memory (fragment #3): I had asked Mama if I could go home with my friend Cathy after school that day. She had answered NO! I went anyway. I knew in advance what the consequences be. That is, I knew until Daddy was brought into the equation.

Why did he so readily offer to whip me? To make a fool out of the woman he loved and respected most? Or was this his effort to get her to show some compassion to one of her children?

This is where storytelling meets interpretation. I thought back to when I walked out of that room, crocodile tears running down my cheeks, and was met by Mama’s arms, wrapping around me and holding me close. That was the first hug I had ever received from Mama (fragment #4). I don’t know if Daddy planned for that to happen, but in my mind, he did. Because of the hug that resulted from that fake punishment, Mama and I became close. I stopped purposely doing things that I knew would make her mad, and I started to care about her feelings.

This fourth fragment was the key that unlocked the story.  The anecdote about the first time Daddy ever punished me had morphed into being the story of the first time Mama ever hugged me. Titled The Punishment, the story became a tool to illustrate the power of compassion over the power of force.

The Punishment is also one of the tools I use to teach my writing process to participants in my workshop Patchwork Tales: Making Stories from Story Fragments. Everyone has story fragments. Finding the fragments that match up to make a story, much like making a patchwork quilt, can be challenging. It also requires patience when the fragments cannot be matched so easily. Finding the key that unlocked the story to which my anecdote belonged took me almost a year. Once the key was found, however, the story flowed beautifully. In 2014, it received a Winner Award for Tellable Adult Stories from Storytelling World.

What fragments are hanging around in your head? Those that make you feel nothing are dead weight. Instead of focusing on them, concentrate on the ones that make you feel an emotion. Which ones give you the warm fuzzies? Which ones scare you? Which ones make you mad? Which ones make you cry? They are the fragments that are seeds for what could be great stories. These fragments are pure storytelling gold.