I Write Because People Tell Me Stories

EndPiece, Byline Magazine, January 2005

My mom used to say I had a “come hither” look that invited trouble. I think it’s more of a “come tell me anything” look that invites stories.

People tell me their most personal problems, thoughts and feelings. They relate stories about their jobs, their neighbors, their Scottish childhoods, and I stand there nodding and wondering why these complete strangers feel compelled to confide in me.

Personal journal pundits claim it’s cathartic to write things down. Just “get it out.” Then burn it. Compose a ten-page, soul-wrenching letter to Mr. Perfect who dumped you in 1989—then throw it away. You’ll be cleared of your unfortunate past, freed from the rusty bonds of rejection, open to life’s possibilities.

That sounds too easy.

What if you had to say it aloud? To a stranger. Or better yet, to a stranger who doesn’t speak your language. I’ve seen it done in the movies. The sad British chap confesses his failures to the toothless Italian grandmother shelling peas in a shadowy doorway. She says nothing as he concludes he’s been a jerk and realizes he should be telling all of this to his hot European lover. He rushes back to his life, leaving the toothless woman with her peas wondering what just happened.

I am the grandmother in the doorway.

Last month, I was in the back room of a day spa getting my lip waxed and the technician starts with a story of a beautiful young blond virgin who comes in requesting a Brazilian bikini wax. I know, it sounds like the beginning of a great joke.

But she wasn’t kidding. The technician said this born-again Christian virgin wanted the radical procedure done for her honeymoon. I’m thinking, how does she even know about Brazilian bikini waxes? Then the waxer said, “Wait. There’s more.” The girl was a “talker.” A look-me-in-the-eye kind of talker. The waxer admitted the whole thing made her uncomfortable. (Apparently it’s difficult to maintain eye contact and chat nonchalantly about the weather while ripping hair from the intimate areas of a kneeling stranger.)

How did she think I felt listening to the story? Especially when she demonstrated the on-all-fours waxing position and how the virgin had said through her legs, “Maybe I should be walking down the aisle to you.”

Later, I wondered if the girl had been taking the technician for a ride. What if she wasn’t a virgin or a bride-to-be at all? What if it had been a practical joke? Maybe the waxer made the whole thing up. There are so many ways to interpret a story and just as many ways to repeat it.

Which of course, I did. Because stories are meant to be told. It starts with a simple tale and like the game of “telephone,” each storyteller adds his own spice, a side dish of that’s-nothing-when-I… and by the time it comes back around—you have an urban legend, or a novel.

Therapists, bartenders, hairdressers, priests, manicurists, even gynecologists are all in the confession profession. As a writer, I listen because it might be important. I listen because I can’t afford not to.

There are stories everywhere. Material for the taking. Usually it’s right in front of me spitting on my chin, like the grandfather at the wine tasting who was seriously contemplating hiring a hitman, the mother of four on a Punta Cana beach who confessed she’d never experienced an orgasm, the crying, cheating redhead in the Waffle House bathroom who should have been telling her husband the stuff she was telling me, and the black man selling magazine subscriptions who sat in my garage in the rain and told me of a life in the country cut short, a city that swallowed him like quicksand.

Why did these storytellers choose me? Was I the first person they came across on the day they needed to purge a memory, divulge that secret, share a quirky story? Or do they sense something that says; she’s a writer. She’ll understand about hitmen and orgasms and cheating and quicksand. Whatever the reason, I now hold a part of them, their stories.

And their secrets aren’t safe with me.