Tell us a story about when you were a little girl, Id beg my mother at bedtime. Not knowing it at the time, these stories were how I learned who she was and who I was, connected in history.
Tell us a story when you were a little boy, Id turn to my father. The life of coal miners and stern uncles would spring to life and my sisters and I learned about hard times and boney piles, working in the mines and steel mills.
I never fully understood why those stories were such treasures to me, but Alan Heathcock helps me decipher.
He says: Its just a truth to the human experience that were all separate separated by the domes of our skulls and the fabric of our skin.
This is the great grief of being alive. We struggle to figure out how to let other people understand us and how to understand someone who is not us.
Its a conundrum that has kept theologians and philosophers employed for eons, but before you roll your eyes and leave it to them, consider that each of us including my storytelling parents already knows at least part of the solution. We do it every day, all the time.
We walk through the front door after work, kiss our sweetie and say, How was your day, honey? Over dinner, we turn to our companion and say, How do you like your pork chop?
Youre in your body there, completely alone, and only understood if you choose to tell the story of this moment to me. Does the food taste as good to you as it does to me?
This is how we share the experience of being alive.
Alan is a writer. Even for the 16 years when he was teaching about writing, Alan still called himself a writer. In 2011, he published his first book, Volt, which was received with much critical and popular acclaim.
I think telling stories is an act of hope because what youre trying to do is make a connection and to be less alone with the experience that is being you. And that is valid, no matter if youre telling a great romantic story or something thats funny or something thats terrible and sad.
Stories become a bridge between one person and another, between my experience and yours, my parents and mine; stories are our way of connecting. So we tell lots of them. Constantly. And we listen, too.
We try our best to tell stories so that we will be understood. If we pay attention well enough, we can allow someone else not to feel alone and to feel understood. And thats important.
Its important, way beyond bedtime stories and not just to a guy like him, who makes a living selling books and stories.
Its so important to the foundation of the human experience. Its also an explanation, if I want to get really grandiose, of all crime, of all conflict, of all war. Somehow theres been a breakdown where one person or a group of people feel as if theyve been misunderstood that their story has not been heard.
Alan has done a lot of thinking about this, because thats what he does. And while, as a teacher, he helped students understand the craft of writing (which is important), hes come to realize that whats more fundamental, more essential, is to understand the power of a story.
A power that builds and also destroys.
When I say that we all want to (bridge our separateness) we dont. As much as people yearn to be understood and yearn to feel less alone, were also incredibly self-destructive and oftentimes ruled by fear and doubt and shame and jealousies all the tragic parts of the human experience that keep us apart.
And that makes us think that we dont want to share our stories. That we wont be understood, that we have to destroy those who might misunderstand us. Sometimes we feel thats easier: Im just going to be a hermit, Im not going to risk being misunderstood, so Im keeping my story to myself.
Much of what Alan writes and speaks about explores what it means to be human in the face of such gut-wrenching tragedy; such cruelty, loneliness, hatred, self-destruction.
For a long time, I wondered why I was drawn so much to telling stories. I realized not long into (writing) my book (that) I tell stories as a way of making sense of the world particularly things that scare and confound me. Its a necessity.
It took Alan 16 years to write Volt, patiently working and reworking until he was satisfied with what he was going to send out into the world. Volt is a collection of short stories, one of which is about a man who accidentally kills his son in a farm accident and has to deal with his own grief.
The story is based on something that happened in Alans family, and at his very first reading, at Powells Books in Portland, Alan had a powerful experience.
This lady came up to me and said, I read your story. Ive been dealing with the death of my son. He was killed in a car accident and reading your story helped me look at some of this stuff. Thank you.
Thats what got me thinking about the power of a story, because the connection you make its not fiction. Im writing stories but its a real bridge you build between one consciousness and another. That lady felt less alone and thats an incredible thing.
So all the years of me sitting by myself (writing), you let other people feel not so alone and then youre not so alone, too.
Thats a cool thing. And it doesnt have a politic and it doesnt have a race; it doesnt have a gender and it doesnt have an age or a socio-economic group.
The ability of a story to transcend those kinds of lines has also amazed Alan. He has given readings and taught workshops as far north as Barrow, Alaska (in the wintertime, even), across the United States and as far south as Sao Paulo, Brazil.
If you enter a room with art, everywhere we went, wed have hundreds of people and we would just talk about the power of story and art (without) the static and tension. It was gone. You can finally have a conversation that is strictly about the human experience and that breaks down all barriers
Alan speaks with a passion that is just ever so slightly intimidating in its intensity. But his ideas resonate deep into the heart, as this little girl must have sensed years ago in her requests to her parents.
Understanding is the doorway to compassion. And writing is a powerful path to understanding.
Take, for example, The Diary of a Young Girl, which Alan gives as an example. Millions of people went into concentration camps; who we remember is Anne Frank.
Because what we get from the diary of Anne Frank is not just the facts of a girls life. We get her consciousness. We get her.
We get the way she was feeling about her parents and her lonesomeness and her doubts, her desperate desire to be a writer, and in the midst of all this, we also get war and isolation (and the context of the Holocaust).
What literature does is it allows us to become someone who is not us. We get to be Anne Frank.
Which is why literature is so critical, Alan says, his voice growing in intensity, his vision soaring beyond the horizon.
We need to champion books, we need to champion literature, we need to make sure we have bookstores, we have libraries, we have funding for Head Start programs.
Literature has (greater) value other than, hey Johnny, read a book. No, no. Its much more important than that. It teaches us how to be better human beings.
It makes us be better human beings.
Know someone living from the heart? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.