The Importance of Friday Night Storytelling

One Friday night in 1977 in a small, nearly empty apartment outside of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, my husband and I sat at a card table with two candles, a bottle of wine we couldn’t afford, and the strangely comforting hollowness of our voices bouncing off bare walls. Little did we know we were embarking on twenty-seven years of military life, moving from place to place, creating a new space for us in that world as a couple and a family. But Mike and I really didn’t think too hard about all that then. All we wanted to talk about was writing and the stories that were begging to get out of our heads. We knew after living in our English major bubbles in college, we couldn’t just go to some cabin in the mountains and become writers and expect to survive, but we also knew we couldn’t survive without being writers. So, we did what we needed to do. We began our own tradition of Friday night storytelling.

One simple memory would always kick off these nights and stir up all kinds of emotions and embellishments and eventually graduate to paper. Usually, mine landed in a spiral notebook I kept in a bag in my closet. I’d take it out and write so fast, I could barely read my handwriting later. During this one Friday night in 1977, I told Mike about the stairway bannister in my grandmother’s house. I described what it was like to stand there as a child, my small hand on the dark polished wood of this strong, sturdy bannister, as I went up from or down to a particular event in that old house. Eventually, those particular events themselves began to unfold into singular stories and take on a life of their own. The bannister, though, was a big trigger for those stories– what I call the memory point. The memory point is something you have to actually touch in your mind, and when you do, it unlocks many different stories. For me, as soon as I touched that bannister in my memory, multiple stories from my past spilled out, and I was able to experience feelings I had forgotten or never knew I had.

With each story I told, I felt a sense of relief, and the validation I received during storytelling sent me flying to my spiral notebook to write it down. And every time I wrote it down, I felt grounded and in charge. I summoned the courage to add other dimensions that weren’t necessarily there in the beginning. I could fill in voids and create the happy endings that might not exist. I could add people to do what I wanted them to do, to mean what I wanted them to mean. I was in total control, and the writing took off in different directions that I never saw coming. Starting with a memory point became an integral part of my writing process and was especially critical for The Truthful Story.

Over the years, our real life responsibilities mounted, and the nomadic lifestyle of a military family made it challenging to hang onto our dreams to become writers. So, we incorporated writing into our jobs and our everyday lives every chance we got. Even at our lowest point when we learned our little girl had a brain tumor and needed brain surgery, we memorized every paralyzing moment leading up to the verdict that she was going to be okay. Being who we were, we had no choice but to document the experience as only we could and to tell each other over and over again the story we’d been through. Today, when we tell that story, it always starts with us daring to touch the memory point— two identical gray vinyl chairs in the corner of a small waiting room in a New York City hospital— just as the sun was setting.

So, after 1977, every time the Army sent our family to a new place to live, we didn’t really mind that we’d never been there before and didn’t know what was ahead. We didn’t mind waiting for our dining room table and the other furniture to arrive or to hang our collection of pictures on the bare walls. Instead, we would just set up a card table, light our candles for Friday night dinner, and when we heard our own voices and the storytelling began, we knew we were home. And then we’d write it down.