Happy November! Time to talk turkey* with and about your family. At least here in America where we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving soon.
For many that will mean gathering with family around the table and telling stories. Which, despite the overindulgence of calories, is a healthy thing. According to psychologists, the stories we tell about our families are the secret sauce that holds them together.
“The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative,” writes Bruce Feller in The Stories that Bind Us.
Feller reports that decades of research show if you want to build a happier family, “create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones.”
The family stories I remember being told around the dinner table varied depending on the storyteller. My dad frequently talked about his ancestor’s lives. They informed his own life as a potato farmer and cattle rancher in Southeastern Idaho where his ancestors homesteaded. One of those stories inspired my first novel.
My mother rarely talked about her family unless we pressed her for information. She was more interested in the living people she saw everyday—friends, her kids’ coaches and teachers, shopkeepers. Often, she’d pass on stories she’d picked up at her weekly trip to the hair salon or from a rehearsal for her singing group, the Harmonettes.
We kids lapped up whatever they shared and then tried to get their attention with stories of our own. There were nine of us so we learned to tell stories that would entertain a crowd.
Some of us were better storytellers than others. My sister Jayne has an irreverent sense of humor, and my brother Jared is quick on the draw with sly zingers. Both have infectious laughs that get the whole gang going.
But everyone at the table had something to contribute. My engineer brother Bruce explained how things worked. My crafty brother Joel shared art projects. Looking back now, I think those dinner table conversations were as instrumental as anything else in my becoming a storyteller.
And the stories I’ve told my own children about all those people gathered around my childhood table have framed their narratives. They know about “Sailor, the Half-a-Day-Dog,” Jared’s puppy that was run over by the school bus with Jared on board.
They know about Joel crashing the pickup truck at age 13 when my sister Michelle made him drive home so she could read her new library book and eat tater tots. (She finished the chapter but ended up with a broken arm.)
They know about Bruce’s miraculous recovery from childhood seizures and Jayne’s unusual height (6’1”) earning her modeling gigs and the name “Big Jayne.”
Flannery O’Conner famously said that “Anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write for his or her life.”
Anne Lamott quotes O’Connor in her beloved writing book Bird by Bird, then encourages writers to write about the good, the bad and the stuff you promised you’d never tell.
“Remember that you own what happened to you . . .just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.”
As we approach a holiday where we gather around the table to tell family stories, brace yourself, then lean back and listen. Think about who is telling stories and why. Then take it all back to your writing practice.
*To discuss something frankly and practically.
Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.