My Uncle Pete loved cats. he had a million of them. His favorite one had one blue eye. The other eye, whatever color it might have been, had been missing as long as I’d been alive.
“Uncle Pete,” we’d ask, “tell us how that cat lost his eye!”
My uncle Pete would roll a cigarette real slow while we sat there waiting. He’d seal it with his tongue, press it hard together and then light it. He’d take a long drag, blow out that bluish smoke and settle back in this old beat up armchair on his front porch.
“Well,” he’d say, “that’s quite a story.”
Then, he’d launch into the tale of how the cat lost its eye.
The story was always interesting.
The story was always exciting.
The story was always unbelievable.
The story was always different.
Thing is, we didn’t really care how that cat lost its eye. We just loved listening to Uncle Pete tell stories.
Personal narratives. They’ve become the mainstay of storytelling at festivals and in the commercial storytelling market.
Five minutes of some emotionally shocking thing that happened to you. Five minutes of your pain or someone else’s pain on stage. Five minutes of your life for consumption.
Then, there are longer personal narratives about all sorts of things. We hear stuff that we wouldn’t ever ask about because it would be rude. We hear about stuff we wouldn’t ask about because we don’t want to know. We hear about things that we don’t care about because it doesn’t resonate.
Every now and then we hear a story that speaks to us beyond the here and now. Every now and then we hear a tale that is actually about what it means to be a human going from one moment to another.
I don’t write much about personal narrative, but I just took a workshop with Bill Harley about personal narrative, and they are on my mind.
So, to that end: Here are some tips I give to people about personal narratives.
1 – Is this a “Me” story or a “We” story?
Kathryn Tucker Wyndham talked about the difference between a “me” story and a “we” story. The Me story is all about me and it is focused on me and at the end, I am the only reason it is told. The We story is about all of us. It is the story that focuses us on ourselves and invokes the power of who we are as a people to shine a light on something that is true about our condition. We stories transcend the now. Me stories are gone shortly after we hear them.
Q: What on earth was the point of that story about Uncle Pete? Why should we care?
2 – Don’t tell a story that hasn’t ended yet. That’s therapy. You should be paying us.
Personal stories are like molten lava spewing from our soul. They need to cool, harden, and patiently wait until we see which trees, flowers, and animals start inhabiting it. Until the story is no longer living, breathing, or burning inside of us as a now concern, we don’t know where it is going or what is going to happen to it.
Q: Why are you telling this particular tale about Pete? Did he die of cancer or was he from a bygone era, or possibly he is now in a nursing home or maybe…Is this story actually over or did you see him last week and hear about his cat. If you did, how are you dealing with that?
3 – Make sure you have some idea about what the story is about.
This is hard. We always think we know what our stories are about if they happen to us, but the truth is that in order to understand a story you have to be standing on the outside of it. From the inside, you can’t even guess what is going on.
Bill Harley was talking about contextualizing a story and giving it meaning through your lens.
Q: Is this thing with Pete why you love a good story? Did he die of cancer? Does he have memory loss? Was he a brilliant man who nobody thought two shakes of a stick about? Is this story really about that cat? Have you got a one-eyed cat now? Do you rescue animals? What is this story about?
4 – What is your role in this story?
This is something I learned from Bill this morning.
Who are you in the tale? Frame it in terms of mythology. I’ve discovered that in one of my stories I’m Eris. In another, I’m as invisible as the air. What is your role in the tale?
Q: Who are you in Uncle Pete’s story? A conduit? Do you have some connection to that cat? Do you save, condemn, lead, flee, fight for, or otherwise have some kind of mythic role in this tale?
5 – Be a responsible tour guide.
Personal narratives can get tricky, messy, emotionally complicated, and downright soul cutting. Don’t leave your audience bleeding, in distress, or worried that you are about to jump off of a building. If you end a piece and the audience thinks they need to take care of you, that is not a story you should be telling.
Q: Where is this Pete story going? Are you going to tell us what happened to him or why the cat has one eye? Does it matter? If we have questions about Pete or this cat when the tale is over, you were not a safe tour guide!
As for the opening lines of the story above, I would love to answer your questions about Uncle Pete, but since I just made him up to illustrate the way a personal narrative might start, I can’t help you.
Feel free to just flesh it out any way you’d like. After all, it isn’t actually a personal narrative.