The sound of wind chimes in the middle of the night on the sub-zero tundra always catapults me to a good fire and a good book, which pretty much describes the mood I’ve been in all winter. As such, I’ve been considering stories and their ability to explain and transform in ways I never have before, the instinct and hunt for which led me to the most inspiring writing on writing I’ve read in ages —Minneapolis author/freelance writer/teacher Frank Bures’s “The Secret Lives of Stories: Rewriting our Narrative,” which appears in the January/February issue of Poets and Writers magazine and gets to the heart of why we’re drawn to stories and storytelling in these ridiculous times.
Bures quotes National Public Radio’s Keith Talbot (“Every story is an answer to the question: How should I live my life?”) and the poet Muriel Rukeyser (“The universe is made of stories, not atoms”) and USC’s Andrew Gordon, who researches the inability of robots and computers to craft stories and concludes, “Storytelling is a human universal. There’s not a culture that doesn’t tell stories. It’s something embedded in our genes that makes us good storytellers. It’s a huge survival advantage, because you can encapsulate important information from one person to another and share it with a group. So there’s a good reason to be good storytellers.”
Bures’s words and the characters and voices of George Saunders’ “Tenth of December” were on my mind as I ventured out Monday night to hear the inaugural edition of “Morningside After Dark,” a variety show of songs and stories at Edina Morningside Church (United Church of Christ). I was intrigued by the description (“Come out of hibernation… adult event”) and the under-the-radar secret handshake nature of it all. To be sure, the fallow time of winter inspires a certain hunkering down with books and intimate tales, and singer Liz Heinecke came correct when she introduced a Scottish folk song by enthusing, “I love this so much; it’s like sitting around a campfire, swapping stories.”
In that sense, the evening felt like a return to what people have been doing since long before stories were mediafied: getting together to revel in coffee, dessert, community, and share experiences about how it feels to be alive. The night’s theme was “Snowed In,” and considering the recent dusting of the snow- and fog-kissed small town-feel suburban streets, the cozy confines of the church basement took on the feel of something special and time-honored.
In front of a couple hundred neighborhood folks, the storytellers and songsmiths (including Laurie Lindeen, Elizabeth Foy Larsen, Sheila O’Connor, John Swardson, Jeff Strickler, Kim Ode, John Eller, Chris Lynch, and Stephen Regenold) tapped their inner pioneer spirits and recounted tales of blizzards, snow days, ice-cold love, and The Shining-like struggles with marriage, parenting, jobs, elements, life. At the end of the night, the room felt lifted, and all concerned walked out with something very close to enlightenment.
Which is the same reason — a lust for enlightenment — I’ve been reading George Saunders’ “Tenth of December” these frigid days and nights, and savoring the stillness and solitude that only a great winter book affords. I take it with me most everywhere I go, because, as more than one Saunders’ fan has put it, he makes me feel less alone. His characters let the reader know that he/she is not crazy, far from it, and that the inner voice in all of us sounds pretty much the same. No mean feat.
Earlier this month, the cover of the New York Times Magazine called “Tenth of December,” Saunders first new book in six years, “the best book you’ll read this year,” and writer Joel Lovell perceptively quotes a piece in which Saunders travels to Dubai and discovers more similarities than differences between him and his fellow humans.
“In all things,” he wrote, “We are the victims of The Misconception From Afar… The universal human laws — need, love for the beloved, fear, hunger, periodic exaltation, the kindness that rises up naturally in the absence of fear/hunger/pain — are constant, predictable… What a powerful thing to know: that one’s own desires are mappable onto strangers.”
That knowledge — that the human experience is translatable and ultimately strikingly similar — is, by my lights, true wisdom going forward in a confusing world. Saunders brings our own inner voice to the fore when he so powerfully represents a universal voice in the sum of his characters, and in that sense the 54-year-old “writer of our generation” is more medium than mimic, more singer than satirist, and above all, a storyteller that, like so many others these days, brings true contemplation and revelation to so many cold winter nights.