You Should Try A Story Night With Your Family

Rachel stood by the Audi watching Raylan, Raylan the show. Watching him facing Coover holding the bright-metal piece at his leg. Watched Coover swing the rat by the tail and let it go and saw it coming at her to land on the hood of the Audi. Rachel didn't move. Raylan didn't either, didn't glance around. 
But said, "Coover, you throw a dead rat at my car. What're you trying to tell me?" 
Rachel unsnapped the holster riding on her hip. 
Coover said, "Take it any way you want, long as you know I'm serious." 
"You're telling me you're one mean son of a bitch," Raylan said to his face. "You know how many wanted felons have given me that look? I say a thousand I know I'm low. Some turn ugly as I snap on the cuffs; they're too late. Some others, I swear, even try to draw down on me. All I'm asking, how'd you come to take Angel's kidneys?"

The world of Elmore Leonard is as rich in characters and story as it is witty dialogue. I settled on this classic from his novel Raylan because I read it in January. You may be familiar with it because FX created the TV series called Justified based on his main character, Raylan Givens. 

Leonard was a master at dialogue. He had a way of making you forget you were reading. It's easy to spend three hours turning pages right in the middle of the action without noticing.  

Good writing does that to you. It pulls you in and doesn't let go. I haven't particularly enjoyed reading fiction for most of my life. I considered myself far too serious a person to waste my time on silly fiction. 

Then at the tender age of twenty-eight Lee Child and his iconic character, Jack Reacher came into my life. Here was a larger than life character that reminded me of my uncle George, right down to the former Army MP background. It grabbed me by the throat and pulled me into the world I'd long abandoned. 

I read over 30 fiction books that year. I was back in the fiction reading business. I've sought to make up for lost time since turning the page on my first Reacher novel two years ago. From The Hobbit to Harry Potter I've been swimming in the seas of tall tales and loving every second of it. It's brought color and light to my reading life, where once were only the dreary shadows of the real world. 

It's all about storytelling for me. I enjoy getting lost in the sights, sounds, and memories of another. Be it a novel, short story or fireside chat, storytelling is a tradition we've lost touch with over the years. 

How often to we gather around the living room for no other purpose but the telling of stories? We're usually talking over one another and half listening as we go. That's why I'm especially grateful for a tradition Hannah's family started this past year called Story Night. 

It's exactly what you're picturing. After dinner, we'll gather around with coffee, water or hot tea and take turns telling tales. This isn't the free for all you're most likely picturing. It's an ordered process designed to help us learn to not simply to tell good stories, but to listen.  

Here are the ground rules: 

1.) Participation is voluntary - If someone doesn't want to share a story, they're welcome to skip doing so.  
2.) The speaker has the floor - Whoever is talking has the floor, no exceptions. They have 5-10 mins of uninterrupted time to share their story. It can be a story they've prepared, a song, or a tale from their childhood. What matters is that while they are talking, no one else may jump in. 
3.) Questions are welcome - After the storyteller has completed their turn, others in the room can ask as many questions as they want. Sometimes this time is even better than the stories. You get to hear all the behind the details on how they chose their topic and why. 
Story Night is one of my favorite nights. Sometimes I read something I've written and other times I don't prepare anything at all. It's a beautiful tradition full of fun, and laughter that I can't get enough of.   

One Thing New Parents Should Do Before Baby Arrives

This past December, my wife and I traveled to the Hill Country area just outside Austin, TX. We were there to celebrate Christmas and relax before the start of the new year with my wife’s family. We needed to recharge before 2017 got off to a fast start—our first wedding was scheduled for January 1st. We spend a handful of days reconnecting and making new memories with Hannah’s family at the close of each year. In the midst of all the craziness of life, we can look forward to sharing this sweet time around Christmas and New Years.

Small, solitary moments and one on one conversations form my favorite memories each year. One small word of advice has stuck with me from the many such occasions that took place this past Christmas.

We sat in various chairs and couches scattered all over the living room—avoiding the second highest cedar count in recorded history—having conversations as varied as the wind that blew outside. Since Hannah and I were then, as we are now expecting our first child, the subject naturally turned to the newest addition to the family. Amid all the advice and memories shared, one idea stood above the rest.

“When you’re all packed, and headed to the hospital,” Uncle Daryl said, “turn around and take one last look at the inside of your home before walking out the door—it’ll be the last time you’re in that house just the two of you. Things will never be the same.”

It’s been almost three months since Hannah’s uncle Daryl shared his insight, and it’s still there rattling around inside my head. I love the simple truth of it all. Things change dramatically when children enter the fray. Not in a negative sense, but in a realistic sense. I’m sure there are many ways bringing that bundle of joy through our front door will change our lives, that I can’t even fathom presently. I can’t wait. Until then however, I’m going to soak up these last remaining moments and anticipate the ending of an era, the turning of a page.

When we pack up and head for the hospital—be it tomorrow or next week—we’ll turn around and take a mental snapshot of our home while it’s just the two of us.

What single piece of advice, insight or input would you share with a new dad preparing to bring home his first child?

Tall Tales, Spinning Yarns & Telling Stories

Writing is nothing more than thinking another’s thoughts after them. Perhaps it's for the second time, but more often than not, it’s for the hundredth time. Writers rarely get it right the first time. They plod, meander and sometimes even stagger from time to time. It’s hard stuff. They agonize over word choices, sentence structure, and every detail of how they’re communicating. They wrestled their scattered thoughts into submission and trapped them on paper and you’re now getting to come along for the ride.

Isn’t it fun to set off without a destination in sight and nothing to guide but the moonlight above? You get to hop in the car and drive fast, for the thrill of it all. You don’t have to worry about the road, pack a lunch or pay for gas. You simply have to hang on tight as you turn page after page. One moment you’re cruising down the 101, beach on your left taking in the beauty of another sunset, and the next you’re soaring through the clouds on a jet bound for a far off destination.

Have you paused to think about how magical it all is? Somewhere on this scattered mess of a planet, another human sat down to put ink on page to create the very thing in your hand that’s transporting you all over the universe without your ever having moved. To top it all off, it’s putting ideas in your head. Silently, and unnoticed it’s at work causing thoughts, emotions and all manner of things to come bubbling to the surface. Perhaps you’ll dream about some adventure you joined because of a good piece of writing.  

Imagination is one of the greatest gifts the good Lord has given us, and good writing uses it to perfection. Amidst all the hustle and all the busyness of life, imagination comes riding in on a blue horse to save us. Its tales and adventures pick us up when we’re down, encourage us to try new things, and push us to dare greatly into the unknown.   

The world would be a much more dreary place without it. Stories and books put color and zest into a world often considered gray. What would the world be without the wackiness of Alice in Wonderland, the adventures of Curious George or the triumphs of Sherlock Holmes? What would we understand about the deeper struggles of mankind without Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby or Of Mice & Men. Or of man’s inhumanity to man if not for Anne Frank’s Diary, George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? These take truth, wrap it in language and then etch it into our hearts.    

Storytelling—it’s mankind’s longest running tradition. Man has been gathering to listen and share tales as long as he’s had breath in his lungs. Whether it’s around a fire, transistor radio or farmhouse dinner table, it’s what we do. We recall episodes long past, spin yarns about the victories we’ve won and put lipstick on the underside of life.

Telling a good story takes more than interesting prose or vivid imagery; it requires timing, emotion and rhythm just like your favorite tune. It builds and builds towards the payoff—be that a laugh, outrage, or a tear. As Hank Williams asks the Drifter in “The Ride” by David Allan Coe:  

"Drifter can ya make folks cry when you play and sing?

Have you paid your dues, can you moan the blues? Can you bend them, guitar strings?"
He said, "Boy can you make folks feel what you feel inside?

Anyone trying to entertain and regale you with a good ol’ fashion story is engaged in one of mankind’s grandest ideals. Go along for the ride.

“Stories,” Stephen King said, “are found things, like fossils in the ground.” So grab your shovel and get to digging. There’s no telling the whopper of a tale we’re likely to find.

I'm going to try several new things on the blog this year.  Some of them will work and some of them won't, but we're going to give it a go anyway. Each month, I will share some variety of short fiction with you here. Be it a short story, a scene I'm working on or some rambling prose I found enjoyable to write. Regardless of the shape it takes, or its quality I hope you come along for the ride.