Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Homecoming, Tom T. Hall and Me

I have a weak spot (okay, several) when it comes to public speaking. I have an irrational concern that someone in the audience will have heard me before or that I will repeat phrases or thoughts and thus bore them.

Of course, any speaker repeats himself, but I almost never give the same program twice. Professional speakers much more accomplished than I long ago proved the fallacy of that, but I can’t seem to shake the irrational worry. I always search for a new way of saying something I have said before.

Fortunately, something usually comes to me from some source to allow me to make a slightly different take on the subject I have been speaking about for over a decade. That subject is books (primarily fiction)—writing and reading them.

While fishing around for something to say to Sulphur Springs Rotary Club members, I read a book review in “Writer” magazine about The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. The book was written by Johnathan Gottschall, a scientist and scholar, and the review was written by editor Chuck Leddy. When a review of the same book showed up in two days later in Sunday’s Dallas Morning News, I knew that help had arrived.

I have been trying to make the case for the value of stories and how they change our lives for many years. 
However, I had only personal experience and very little scientific evidence to back up my claims that reading and telling stories are good for us in countless ways. And that reading fiction rates right up there with non-fiction. Gottschall’s book now offers scientific proof.

I once had the unenviable job of teaching accountants how to become salesmen (that’s an oversimplification that will have to do for now). What qualified me to do that? Being an introvert (yes, I am). I have lost job opportunities because the trait showed up on the Myers-Briggs personality tests used by many corporations and universities. I didn’t change that natural inclination; I just learned how to maneuver it to my advantage.

My life’s ambition was to be a cowboy or baseball player, but God knew I was not qualified for either. I was stuck as an accountant. So I sat at the feet, read the books, and listened to the recorded messages of folks I considered some of the greatest speakers and teachers. A lot of them were salesmen.

One of the most useful but most discouraging things I was told is that people forget what they hear, remember what they see, and understand what they do

Then another trusted source told me that people remember about ten percent of what they hear, twenty percent of what they see, and eighty percent of what they do the first time. However, repetition increases those numbers exponentially. You would think that information would have conquered my fear of repetition.

So what does that have to do with stories? As I began to apply the principles I had been taught, I learned something else. Months, even years after a presentation I had made, people would repeat one of the stories I had told. They may not have remembered the facts I provided, but they remembered the stories and the stories told them how to apply what I was trying to convey.

I never imagined then that I would be spending most of my time writing stories (fiction and non-fiction). When I wrote my first books on financial planning, most of my stories were edited out. I argued against it, but Wiley and Sons simply said, “We’re a big publisher; you’re an unknown writer. Shut up.” They were right about that unknown thing, but wrong about the stories.

When they asked me to write a third book, I talked them into leaving in a few of the stories.  That book sold five times more copies than any of the previous ones. I attribute that partially to the stories.

Writing novels, however, is different. It’s a good thing I was na├»ve about the bias against fiction (and reading in general), or I might never have started a novel. Although I often kept secret my own taste for novels in the early years of my career, I never imagined the bias to be so prevalent and I certainly never imagined that so many (mostly men) did not read at all.

I went on a short research trip with three university professors shortly after I wrote my first novel. One had written a book on flora and fauna of Northeast Texas. I offered to swap books (mine for his). He said he didn’t have time for fiction.

I wanted to tell him I didn’t have much time for weeds, either, but I didn’t. I purchased a copy of his book, thinking it would shame him into buying one of mine. It didn’t. He took great pains to display his disdain for novels.

One well-known author said that his parents and his wife asked him when he started on his first novel if telling lies was really going to be his life’s work.

That wasn’t my first hint, but it was one of many that told me I had unwittingly chosen a difficult path. Not only are novels the hardest sell, but non-genre novels out of rural Texas raise the selling bar to an almost impossible height.

By the time I discovered this, I was well into my third novel, and I had a small cadre of devoted readers—enough for me to finally find a small publisher or two to take me on.

But what do we tell the stick-in-the-muds about the value in fiction?  I told one of the elitists who said he did not have time for fiction that he risked being uninformed—that today’s great biographers use stories to tell about their subjects—even dialogue.  So, how can they know what people actually said so many years ago?  Most of the time, they can’t—they have to make it up.  Is that a lie?  Or is it just a clever way of telling a true story to make it more entertaining? And what about the great novels that changed the world?  I listed a few, but no sell.

I got some support from an article written about Dallas physician and medical school professor Abraham Verghese. I consider him an unbiased source because he is not an author of fiction. The doctor said, “Good fiction can achieve a higher kind of truth than non-fiction. Good stories are instructions for living . . . a great novel transports you to another planet, lets you vicariously live a full life, and when you come back it’s still Tuesday, and yet you’ve learned the lessons of a lifetime.  That’s what everyone, doctors included, could get from fiction. …. And God is in the details . . . you can’t skim and get meaning.”

I have been saying for years that stories bind us together—stories heal. I was speaking in the spiritual sense, but James Pennebaker and a team of researchers at the University of Texas determined that writing and reading stories raises the t-cell level in the bloodstream, stabilizing the immune system. 

Tom Spanbauer says that “fiction is the lie that makes the truth truer—that facts are about a series of events, fiction is about the meaning of those events”. 

The most asked question I get about my books is now and always has been, “Is any of this true?” At the book launch for Go Down Looking in early May, I quoted a line from “I wish I Was Eighteen Again” the song that George Burns sang when he was in his eighties. I always thought the second line was “Going where I’ve already been.” Turns out, the line is, “Going Where I’ve Never Been”. Both apply to Go Down Looking, but there is much more already been then never been.  

Back to scholar and scientist Gottschall and his book. He says (based on scientific experiments), “Stories are defining parts of our everyday lives”.  So what happens when the so-called facts conflict with our memory-stories? 

Gottschall answers, “Humans have a knack for weeding out inconsistencies and putting in facts that enhance our self-made narratives. A life story is a carefully shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings.”  You have to love the term strategic forgetting.

Some of my readers who know my history and know the history of Northeast Texas barely got  past the first scene in Go Down Looking before contacting me about something they remember differently. I enjoy getting these questions and challenges. Usually, a little more reading will answer their questions. If not, I always enjoy explaining why I told the story the way I did.

Gottschall goes on, “Fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to all kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species . . . Stories make societies work better.”

Remember what we talked about earlier: We forget what we hear, remember what we see, and understand what we do. Reading fiction allows us to hear, see and do. I have many friends, mostly men, who have not read a book since high school. They say they can’t stay awake or, “I’ll wait till the movie comes out.”

That’s because they only read words. They haven’t taught themselves to hear, see and do right along with the characters in books. When they learn to do this, they read faster and begin to understand the meaning of stories and begin to enjoy one of life’s greatest pleasures. 

Speaking of that, Willard Spiegelman in his Seven Pleasures (Essays on Ordinary Happiness) book, lists reading and writing as two of the seven. Listening, dancing, looking, walking, swimming, are the other five. Okay, I don’t know why he left out the one you would have chosen.  I think the answer lies in the word ordinary.  

Writing novels has given me a renewed appreciation for songwriters. They often say as much in one page as I do in three hundred.So I thought it might be fun to try this hear, see and do thing with a few words from famous songwriter, Tom T. Hall. Who doesn’t remember the year that Clayton Delaney died

In another song, “Homecoming”, Tom tells the story that covers several decades in one page, about six hundred words. And he does it with only one character speaking.

Humor me. See if you can see what Tom is telling us in the first verse, just fifty-two words, four lines.
Guess I should’ve written Dad, to let you know that I was coming home
I’ve been gone so many years, I didn’t realize you had a phone
Saw your cattle coming in, boy, they’re looking mighty fat and slick
Saw Fred at the service station, told me his wife is awful sick

What do you see in your mind’s eye with each line?
A son returns after being away for many years with no contact.
We know the approximate era because the dad did not have a phone when the son left
Daddy’s a farmer/rancher—but the bigger issue is the son making small talk to avoid speaking about the invisible barrier between them—his prolonged absence and his guilt.
Fred is probably a brother who has a sick wife. The brother has stayed behind with his father.

Do you have a vision of the father and son meeting for the first time in years? Where are they? What are they wearing? I see the father in overalls and one of those Hank Williams hats, the son in a loud western shirt with the top two or three snaps undone. The father is on the porch and the son is at the porch steps of a little farm house with a fig tree in the yard and a swing on the porch, a vine grows up a trellis.  

Do you see the cattle? What kind are they? See the old service station?

Now skip to the fourth verse.
I’m sorry I couldn’t be here with you all when Momma passed away
I was on the road, and when they came and told me, it was just too late.
I drove by the grave to see her; boy, that sure is a pretty stone
I’m glad that Fred and Jan are here, it’s better than you being here alone.

Can you see the gravestone, the little country graveyard? The anguish on the son’s face, the disappointment and grief on the father’s?  And now we know that Fred is a brother.

Now the final verse (we’re skipping several good ones).
Well, Dad, I gotta go; we got a dance to work in Cartersville tonight
Let me take your number down, and I promise you I’ll write
Now you be good and don’t be chasin’ all those pretty women that you know
And, by the way, if you see Barbara Walker, tell her that I said hello.

We’re back to the guilty small talk, the awkward departure in order to return to a life the father does not approve of. And, of course, the old flame the son left behind. See the sweetheart’s face? See the forced smile on the son’s face disappear and a deep sadness fill his eyes as he mentions his old heartthrob?

Chuck Leddy, contributing editor to “Writer” magazine concludes in his review of Gottschall’s book, “Little wonder then that we seek to share our stories with others: Our brains are hard-wired to construct and absorb stories. Our love of story is what makes us human.”  

Gottschall seals the deal with these revealing words.  “Until the day we die, we are living the story of our lives. And, like a novel in process, our life stories are always changing and evolving, being edited, rewritten, and embellished by an unreliable narrator. We are, in large part, our personal stories.”  

Now, go read. Oops. I forgot the ones who need to read this don’t read. I am preaching to the choir.  Marcel Proust called the moments of unity between writer and reader “that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.” To my readers, I say thanks for that fruitful miracle. And thanks for your kind comments.
I am trying to hold up my end of this publisher/author agreement. Go Down Looking is now officially released on Amazon and I need reviews. If you read it and liked it, please go here and write a few words. You can also find it (and review it) at B&N and most other online bookstores. If you don’t own it yet, check out the special deal I am offering here.
At the risk of begging too much, I also need reviews for the e-book version of Rivers Flow. Go here. If you have already written one for the print book, feel free to repeat the same words. Remember that I am offering special deals at my website here. Many thanks.


Hud L Edwards said...

That's funny you picked Tom T. Hall as an example, Jim. Dad never read, but considered Mr. Hall one of his favorite singer/songwriters. Such is the life of a farmer, too busy to read, but the radio always worked.

Jim Ainsworth said...

Good to hear from you, Hud. The coincidences on Tom T. just keep coming.

Bert said...

Great blog post - I've always loved Tom "Watermelon Wine" Hall.
Do you plan on publishing you book in Kindle format?
Thanks for sharing you blog.

Jim Ainsworth said...

It is available now in Kindle format. Go to my website and I can send you a download card or I can show you how to go to publisher. Assume it will be shown on Amazon soon.

Charlotte Hilliard said...

We heard that Tom T. Hall song this afternoon on our car radio.
Jim, you should never worry about public speaking. You are one of the best I have ever heard. If there is anything you do better than writing it is public speaking. You capture your audience from the get go and hold on tight. Hope I get to hear you again someday.