A Good Story

I don’t remember how exactly I ended up in their yard, asking about the flowers that grew behind their house, but I’m grateful for whatever twist of fate brought Lucy and Rusty into my life. They were in their sixties and I was five, but age doesn’t matter when there’s friendship to be had. They lived two houses away from me, and after making their acquaintance, I visited them nearly every day. I was a precocious kid with insatiable curiosity, and they had a big house full of antiques, a yard full of beautiful plants, and a garage full of all kinds of neat stuff I wasn’t supposed to play with. They indulged my neverending questions and they told me really good stories. During my childhood, there were few places I’d rather be than on their back porch, sipping lemonade.

Rusty was especially fun. Rusty wasn’t his real name, rather, it was a nickname, a shortened version of his long, German last name. But somehow, it fit him exactly. He explained things with patience, but he also had a constant gleam in his eyes and a sly wit. He liked to tease me, and I learned it was okay to tease him back. He also enjoyed enlisting me in teasing his wife. Lucy would pretend to be exasperated, and I thought this was the most fun game in the world.

But then I got older, we moved to a new house, and I no longer visited every day. In fact, I only went to see them once, during summer vacation when I was in college. After that, I’d see them around from time to time, and I always thought I should visit, or that I would sometime, but for one reason or another, I didn’t. It’s been five years since I last went to their house, but I realize now that none of my excuses were good enough, because I learned this week that Rusty died this past Sunday.

There are lots of things I could say here about missed chances and regret, but I guess I won’t say them. Instead, I’d like to change the subject a little bit.

Hearing the news about Rusty made me think about my childhood and how it was always full of stories (a great many of them told by Rusty himself). And thinking about stories made me think about the art of storytelling, which is what makes stories in the first place. Certainly, in writing, there’s something to be said for craftsmanship and wordplay and all of those technical things, but really, when it comes down to it, perhaps the most important thing is the ability to spin a good yarn. Or is it? You tell me.

I’d also like to ask you what makes a good story. Is there a certain formula, or is it just one of those magically ambiguous things that you know when you read? What are some of your favorite stories? Why are they your favorites?

11 Responses

  1. changeI think about this

    I think about this question a lot. I guess for me, whether I’m creating a story or listening to one, I am always attuned to the fact that something is changing from the beginning of the story to the end. The point of the story is to depict that change, to explain why it occured, to surprise us with it, or to make us feel its inevitability.

    Even in a story where a major change is expected but doesn’t occur — like Henry James’ “Beast in the Jungle” — a different change does occur, in this case the realization by the main character that nothing in his life will change.

    I like any story that makes me believe it is true — whether it is or not. Even if the changes the story depicts feel random and unjustified, in a good story these changes represent truth, the way of the world, the way things have to be.

  2. Oral TraditionBefore
    Oral Tradition

    Before television became a necessary appliance in every home stories were the evening’s entertainment. TV became a part of our home at a later date than most of our acquaintances and many evenings we sat around the kitchen table while my father told us tales of his youth, courtship with my mom and tales of the hardships of the depression and making ends meet. They were magical times and the storytelling gene seems to have been passed on to his progeny.

    Still when we kids get together we find a table somewhere (even if it is Old Country Buffet) and sit and tell stories on each other and remember the stories we were told as kids and listen as my mom will tell us tales of her youth. I think we lose something in having lost this touch with oral tradition and families need to find a way to get it back. It is important! Last week while talking to my Mom she began telling me a recent event she had described to me at least 3 times. I interrupted to let her know she had already told me the tale. “I did.”

    “Yes you have, at least twice.”

    “That much?”

    “Yes, Mom, at least.”

    “Well,” she said, “Now that I know I’ve told you already I won’t ever tell it to you again.” I smiled at her and raised my eyebrows slightly. “Well, anyway I won’t tell it exactly the same way. Maybe next time I’ll change it a little bit.”

    The Arabic culture that I still enjoy visiting is rich in oral tradition and they repeat stories with gusto, passion and each storyteller has a unique rhythm. You can tell, even though you can’t understand, the listeners have heard this tale before and are waiting for certain points in the story and adding details so they can definitely improve the story with each telling.

    I don’t think there is necessarily a magic formula for telling or writing stories. I have favorites I love to read. I have a collection put together by Alfred Hitchcock that I have read at least 3 times and every time I think I’ll get rid of the book, I have to go back and reread some of the stories again. Ring Lardner is absolutely one of my favorite writers of stories. In reading I always feel that he is right there telling me the story as I had stories told to me while growing up.

    Written stories, oral stories, stories are just fun. Sometimes it is just the setting in which the yarn is spun or read that intensifies the details. Nothing is more scary than parking in a gloomy spot with a car full of girls and telling those horrible urban legends from our youth. Soon we would all be squealing and begging the driver to start the car and get us out of there. The cemetery was great for this.

    I used to love reading scary stuff curled up in my bed at night with just one light on and getting so scared I couldn’t get my courage up to creep across the room to switch off the light.

    Good writing, good telling, good grief. Stories are great.

    And this is way too long.

  3. umwho knows what makes a

    who knows what makes a story good? originality sure counts for something. i was reading a story the other day about a crazed man who put golf balls in the microwave and poured cough syrup all over his head just to gain the confidence he needed to love his girlfriend. i mean, what the fuck…but it was a great story! so a story in general is based on two things…words and how they are used, big ones… small ones… syntax and so on, arrangement of themm… blah blah blah

    also, the idea. both are very important. but i think one can suffice. a story can have a fuckin rippin idea and lack great language… but it still kicks ass!

    the best short story i have read recently is The Burrow by kafka. great analysis of the inner workings of a crazed and nutted fellow.

  4. Magical wondermentMy favorite
    Magical wonderment

    My favorite stories are those that contain a certain degree of wonder and amazement. A story that makes you open your eyes wide and feel like a child again. I think Millhauser does an especially good job at this (in his short stories and his novels). Another book I find captivating is A Winters Tale by Mark Helprin. Never has there been a more amazing book (especially for New Yorkers). Or maybe dreamy wondrous stories just do it for me.

    I can’t say there is a formula as a good story can arise from the most mundane experience. In that respect, it is the storyteller. Listening to Bob Dole tell Goldilocks will never be as interesting as hearing Hunter Thompson vociferate it. But reading a good old fashioned tale, with no tricks or vocabulary, just a great simple story is still an unbelievable feeling. I have to be taken a little further than when I was a child, as I’ve been a little further, but it can be done.

    This is also why I prefer books about places I have never experienced, whether it is 19th century France, 16th century Spain, prewar Morrocco, 20th century Cuba, turn of the century New York, etc… I read to take me places I have never been. I write to remember the places I’ve been lucky enough to encounter.

  5. It’s good to hear someone
    It’s good to hear someone mention Steven Millhauser — I thought I was the only one who’d heard of him. All I’ve read of his is “Edwin Mulhouse” but that one definitely opened my eyes wide.

  6. I like a good story although
    I like a good story although I surely couldn’t tell you what the components of one are. One of those subjective things, I suppose.

    Yarns, the oral history, myths and fables used to be entrusted to someone special, someone with a gift of gab, who could carry these stories from village to village.

    Sitting around the fire listening or in the car on a dark and scary night, or curled up in a favorite chair, or from a loved ones lips, one way or another…the story entrances.

    We read and/or relate our favorite stories over and over. Grandma is imprinting you so you can pass it along. Stories must be retold, again and again, to burn into the memory.

    This was just right A, just long enough and I enjoyed the tale.

  7. o henry is a
    o henry is a sit-n-spin

    ‘twirling around on the piano stool my head begins to spin.’ says donald barthelme. from a story called ‘alice’ i was going to type more of but cannot find the paperback it comes from ‘unspeakable practices, unnatural acts’ one of his best collections of short stories.

    o henry who the award is named for is one of the best. and he storytells orally. he somersaults and trepezifies grammar into cataplastic metatarsals. he tells the tallest tales and horny toads and fish stories and railroad yarns. he conveys the sense of 1890-1910. what it was built on and a guess or three where it was going. and i’m not here to tout his ‘trick endings.’

    though i will say something for story arc. i went to a play the other night. i’ve seen a lot of plays there. i’m friends with folks in the company. play after play after play its 40 minutes of confused people acting really well on a beautiful set with great constumes repeating what the other guy already said time and time again and never getting anywhere and never changing and not even fucking dying to give some comic relief. and maybe 40 percent really leave you satisfied storywise. cause guess what? satisfying the audience is important. even if you want to beat them up or confuse them or trick em. you’ve got to satisfy. otherwise you’re dry humping a mechanical bull.

    throughout my life i’ve had a lot of old friends. starting with my grandparents and neighbors like lucy and rusty, various relatives and people you just meet in life. there the oral tradition is exhibited. methods and subjects abound and the prospects for learning are manifold.

    i have a friend in missouri who people call ‘grandpa’ because he acts like an old fucker. but he can turn a tale unlike any other. ‘have you heard the story aboutn the time we went to the caves and got lost and so n so pissed his pants?… man you’ve got to hear this story it’s great.’ or ‘i was tellin this story one time in the parking lot of shop n save… ‘ he wouldnt think of wasting his time writing. that’s not as entertaining.

    short storyists: angela carter (surreal eroticist heartwrencher), theodore sturgeon (will the real kilgore trout please step forward), maxwell bodenheim (life and loves in greenwich village) he was another tale teller extraordinaire. s.j. perelman is a great american humorist. hell, he co-wrote the marx brothers ‘horse feathers.’ his short writing is great storytelling. i guess i should mention herbert huncke for the truth of it. and marty matz cause he was my friend and he’s got a nice book out now that he’s dead. (goodie.org) he was a tall taler of the highest order. entrancing and hilarious.

    hilarity and humor are forefront in storytelling. so throw in: tom robbins and brautigan who lead you down different beautiful funny slipnslides. like mark twain.

  8. I’ll echo authenticity. I
    I’ll echo authenticity. I can’t read anything unreal.

  9. Bradbury/RevolverI consider

    I consider myself totally unable at the moment of writing a good story. I have tried recently, but in vain. so,I feel a great admirer of good storytellers. I enjoyed myself a lot reading, as a teenager, the first Bradbury tales, those of “the october country” or so. these stories jump my imagination even today. by the time, my last discovery was the album “Revolver” by the Beatles, which I used as a “soundtrack” of these stories. for me, the most important condition of a good story is involve you in the “script”, those did it, really.and they made me forget my homework!!!…

  10. That is a great brainscan of
    That is a great brainscan of a reader’s mind, mindbum. All I ever read of O Henry is the same one everybody else ever read, where she gives him the watch and he gives her the comb, but I’ve heard there’s better stuff behind that one. S. J. Perelman, definitely … I don’t know if he ever actually tried to write a story, but he sure could turn out a sentence. As for Marty Matz, I just got his book in the mail — seems like he’s got good stories to tell.

  11. storiesI like stories full of

    I like stories full of digressions and language tricks (Borges, Cort

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