Secrets of Great Storytelling From a Bygone Era

October 2, 2021

Storytelling is a well loved tradition in my dad’s side of the family, stemming from the ultimate storyteller — my grandpa “Pap.” Growing up in an agricultural community, the art of passing time with colorful tales was well refined throughout his large family. As an adult, I’ve grown to appreciate the qualities of a good story on a deeper level given my career path. In reflecting back after his passing a few weeks ago, I gained an even deeper insight into what made those stories so rich.

My pap had a knack for telling a story in a way that kept you on the edge of your seat, no matter how many times you’d heard it before. Truth be told, he lived a remarkable life so it wasn’t hard to find material that we’d gobble up. As he got older, he started to share more about his incredibly eye-opening experience in the Korean War, and a particularly intense day in his own community after returning home and unexpectedly finding himself in the midst of shootout on his own road. These were longer tales, and you rarely heard the whole story in one sitting. He’d just recall a few moments of his experience here and there and leave you to piece it all together over the visits spanning months and years.

Storytime with Pap was a bit of an elusive, magical, unpredictable thing. On a few occasions, I would attempt to coax them out of him, but the mood always had to be just right. Almost exclusively, these moments happened at the L-shaped table built into the kitchen island. If you could wait long enough he might just slide into one of his stories. There was never any lead up. The stories would just started happening, casually slipping into the conversation.

There were two kinds of stories Pap would tell: the real life ones, and the tall tales — often it was a rather blurred line between. In my own quest to hone my story telling skills, I observed a few essential qualities that seemed to make his stories golden:

1. Take your time

Pap couldn’t be rushed. He did everything on his own time, his own schedule, even, and especially, right up till the end.

Pap was never to be hurried into his storytelling, though you can be sure that I and others tried. The closest we came to a formula was a good homemade meal, followed up with a generous bowl of ice cream after the dishes were cleared and only a few of us were left sitting in the relaxed, well loved kitchen chairs.

His language was by no means slow, but there were pauses to reflect. Moments with closed eyes where he was surely recalling and maybe even choosing how much to share, broken up by sudden boyish grins and expressive movements of his great, strong hands to add color or illustrate a point.

His deliberate delivery is what made those tales feel like recalled memories, causing a young girl listening like me to question her understanding of the reality he grew up in and what might have been possible in those days.

2. Be subtle

When the magical tale began, it was always gently eased into the conversation or casually brought up after a lull. There were no announcements, no gather round, not even a noticeable shift in language. His stories seemed to roll along best amidst some background chaos of family chatter, a Steelers game on TV, or dishes being processed at the sink.

That subtlety was part of what made his storytelling gold. You suddenly found yourself in the middle of a memory, being talked to as casually as someone else might recall a moment earlier in the day. It caught you off guard, making you hone in your attention to make sure you didn’t miss a detail.

3. Colorful language & selective details

Colorful language doesn’t mean four letter words. Quite the opposite, really. We’ve all experienced the giggle that bubbles up when someone purposely swaps in a goofy or ordinary word instead of a more potent one. And, as a deeply religious family man, you’d be hard pressed to catch him using anything too colorful for even the youngest great-grand kid to overhear.

He chose words that are evocative. They gave you a true feeling of the icy cold creek a soldier might stumble into while on a midnight patrol, the quality of the rust on the old still found in the woods, or the sound and smell of gunpowder in a rainstorm.

There were never too many flowery words or pausing to go back and add something he forgot. He knew what he was trying to say and he said it with confidence, without surpassing your ability to hold attention until the tale reached its end.

4. A touch of the incredible

One of the most special and irreplaceable qualities of Pap’s stories is that so many of them were true. When I occasionally stopped to reflect on all of the changes in technology he experienced over his life, I was always in awe of the ease with which he adjusted to modern technologies and understanding our modern lives.

He reflected on the old Sears and Roebuck catalogues that they used to order what they needed by mail order-—not even a phone back then! Now he can get whatever from wherever, by tomorrow using his iPad. Speaking of Apple, another favorite story was recalling a conference he attended while traveling for the school board. He met a couple of youngster entrepreneurs there selling some computers they thought were going to change the way we learned, worked, and lived our lives. The yellowing poster of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs from that talk still sits in his office today, where he once sold early models of those world-changing Apple Computers.

One of the most beautiful stories he told of his time in Korea was learning to sing gospel songs with the platoon of all African-American soldiers from Mississippi who he was assigned to for honor guard duty. Coming from a rural community in Western Pennsylvania, he had rarely experienced much diversity until that detail. But easily moving past any concerns over difference, it was clear that he bonded deeply with these men over shared faith, love of music, and pure exasperation from the rest of the camp who were trying to sleep.

Beyond his true life stories, he would also recall a few whoppers. Those always started with someone from the family or community doing a normal life thing, like tending the chickens or going to work on the railroad. But then he’d sneak in the punchline in a completely matter-of-fact way of stating an impossible ending to the tale — he’d “never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Some of my favorite short stories were from these “biggest liar” contests that happened when Pap was younger. Growing up in a much different time within a community that lived off of the land, the gatherings happened around a farm cutting hay, or needing extra hands for some other harvesting activities. Busy hands were entertained by winding tales, each bigger or goofier than the last. A commentary on bygone days when the river froze in seconds, catching the frogs by surprise and leaving a feast of frog legs for Pap’s friend to mow off with his lawn mower. Another was a rail worker whose first trip on a new engine made him miscalculate his daily routine and kiss his cow in the pasture down the line instead of his wife who came to hand him his lunch.

Understated, witty remarks are what made these stories gold. You had to listen and pay attention for the unbelievable, for they were delivered with the same tone as any true statement. And, if questioned, those “facts” were just that — “facts.” One story that blends family with legend was one he used to tell about his mother, “Grandma Kitty Cat.”

“Well, one of her cats kept getting after her chickens, bringing it proudly to her stoop in its mouth each evening. So one day Grandma Kitty Cat just made up her mind and went out there with her axe. Well she took that cat out in the woods and chopped its head off. And that should’ve been the end of that. But lo and behold if it didn’t come back that evening with its head in its mouth.”

I’m lucky enough to have known my Pap well into my adult life. Having grown up many hours and states away from my grandparents, and my husband having lost all 4 grandparents at a relatively young age, we prioritized sneaking away for weekends of quiet visits as much as we could over the last 9 years.

The greatest treasure I hold from his passing just a few weeks ago is the memory of his stories, some recorded, of a man who lived such a rich life.

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