How to Write a Story About Storytelling

2 Jul
Barry Hannah's story "Water Liars" is from his collection Airships and was republished recently at Garden and Gun. Photo credit Maude Schuyler Clay

Barry Hannah’s story “Water Liars” is from his collection Airships and was republished recently at Garden and Gun.
Photo credit Maude Schuyler Clay

At one point or another, most of us will try to turn one of our grandparents’ tall tales into a novel or a short story. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for instance, wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude as an attempt to capture his grandmother’s way of telling a story. But unless we’re Marquez, the task is almost always more difficult than we expect. We often discover that what captivated us was the voice of the storyteller, and so after we’ve written a few sentences or pages, we come to a dead end because there’s no plot, no story to tell. So what do we do?

No writer has better answered that problem than Barry Hannah. His stories are dominated by his idiosyncratic voice. The plots are thin, sometimes nonexistent, and yet they draw us in anyway. For a perfect example of his storytelling gifts—and an example of a story about people telling stories—take a look at “Water Liars.” It’s from his collection Airships, and you can read it here at Garden and Gun.

How the Story Works

The story begins with the unpredictable bursts of a troubled mind that typify a story by Barry Hannah. If you try charting out the early paragraphs, you might feel as though there’s no structure or sense to them. But keep reading, and the story becomes quite simple: a man goes on vacation to a lake where old men tell tall tales, and one of those stories bothers him a lot. That’s the entire story. Nothing else happens. So how does Hannah make it work?

The answer can be found in two sentences: “I’m still figuring out why I couldn’t handle it” and “I was driven wild by the bodies that had trespassed her twelve and thirteen years ago.”

The narrator has discovered that his wife slept with other men before him, and not only does the news bother him, he’s also bothered by the fact that he’s bothered by it. As a result, the story becomes less about his wife and more about the narrator trying to understand his reaction to his discovery about her. That is the mental state that he brings to the dock where the old men tell their stories. When they begin to talk about the teenagers who come down to the lake to have intercourse, the narrator thinks about his wife and realizes that his way of thinking about her isn’t acceptable there, beside the lake, with that group of men. He realizes that he’s not like them.

The story is about self-discovery. It’s not so different from this line from Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”:

“As they become known and accepted to ourselves, our feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action.”

The narrator of “Water Liars” has discovered the house of difference between him and the other men. The fact that one can quote a black, lesbian, feminist poet to explain “Water Liars” is, itself,  an explanation of the greatness of Barry Hannah.

The Writing Exercise

Here’s a simple exercise to help create a story about self-discovery:

  1. Create a character who has recently experienced trauma. The trauma could be an experience, or it could be, as in “Water Liars,” a discovery.
  2. Let the character struggle to recover from the trauma.
  3. Put the character into a scene with people who are talking and telling stories. Let them tell stories that are indirectly related to the trauma. For example, in “Water Liars,” the old men start out telling ghost stories, and those stories take a sexual turn.
  4. Let the character realize that his/her own experience doesn’t fit with the tone of these stories. Or, as Audre Lorde puts it, the character will begin to understand the “house of difference” between him/her and the others.

Remember, you don’t need to resolve the character’s struggle to cope with the trauma. The narrator of “Water Liars” find little comfort by the story’s end. But he does come to a realization, and that realization, or epiphany, is what the story has been building to.

Good luck.

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14 Responses to “How to Write a Story About Storytelling”

  1. Laura Swainbank July 2, 2013 at 8:02 p07 #

    This is a great post – I didn’t realise that about Marquez. Alice Walker also wrote ‘The Colour Purple’ about her grandparent’s tales of their past, so there’s a definite trend there!

    • michaelnoll1 July 9, 2013 at 8:02 p07 #

      Hey Laura,
      I didn’t know that about Walker. Thanks for the comment.

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