When I was six and a half, my parents, my brother and I moved from our little one-bedroom apartment. We left behind the bedroom that barely held two single-sized beds and moved to a house in the suburbs. Our parents got a double bed. It seemed enormous!
Even more miraculous, my parents’ new bed was covered with the most luxurious object I had ever come across: a chartreuse, satin comforter. (I never knew the word “chartreuse” until my mother used it to describe the comforter.) I had never touched anything so silky. I had never seen anything that color, or with that kind of sheen. Even the word “comforter” suggested luxury.
Each day, while our parents lingered at the dining room table after supper, my brother and I found ourselves in our parents’ new bedroom, admiringly stroking this smooth, shiny, miraculous comforter.
Going Under Cover
We never knew how we ended up IN our parents’ bed. But every evening, there’d we be: lying on our backs, side by side. We always snuggled down so that we could feel the comforter on the bottom of our chins and see our little feet poking up beneath it.
We started playing little footsie games. His foot would nudge mine and I’d nudge his back. Then we’d giggle.
Once, my foot said “hello” to his foot. His smaller foot said “hello” back. Our feet began having conversations.
Then, one day I told a little story about two feet. One was Big Foot; that was clearly my foot. The other was Little Foot; that was his. The two feet did what my brother and I had done that very day.
After that, I always told stories about Big Foot and Little Foot. If my brother had said something funny or had done something endearing, then that would show up in what Little Foot had done. If we’d had an adventure or been scolded that day, so had Big Foot and Little Foot.
These stories would simply flow out of me. I never thought ahead about them. But our memories of the day were always fresh. And it was simple to reframe them as stories about two feet. The stories felt as rich to our imaginations as the comforter felt to our skin.
Stories in School?
Years later in middle school, I learned about “stories.” Stories were something you wrote. If you spoke them, you had to get every word right. You argued about their meaning.
Suddenly, to tell a story seemed difficult and subject to criticism. By the time I was in high school, I was afraid to even try.
Then in my early 20′s, I took a job as a teacher. One day, when I needed to keep a group of 70 very tough children busy for a few moments, I told a story that I’d heard on a recording. Luckily, the story not only calmed them but it also made us feel closer to each other than we’d ever felt before.
As I told that story to those students, the experience seemed vaguely familiar, even though it had little in common with my experiences in English classes. Many years later, I realized it was like the experiences I’d had laying in bed with my little brother.
Four Ways to Make Storytelling Easy
The “under the comforter” storytelling experience had four important qualities that made it easy and enjoyable. In fact, I’ve discovered that, if you can replicate those conditions, your storytelling will be as easy, enjoyable and successful as mine was at age seven.
First of all, I was talking to a particular person. I wasn’t telling the story of Big Foot and Little Foot with the hopes that it would “be a good story.” At that point, you see, my little brother wasn’t old enough to go to school, but I was. As a result, our daily experiences had diverged. Our times in our parents’ bed became a way of bringing our worlds together a little. So I was motivated to connect, not to make something “good.”
Second, I followed my sense of fun. If he laughed when I said something I hoped he would find amusing – or snuggled up tighter saying “ooah” when I hoped he would – then I felt rewarded. Encouraged, I’d go on to try something else that felt like fun.
Third, it was totally correctable. If something went wrong in the story, I just dropped it and went on to something else. In other words, there was no big penalty for mistakes.
Fourth, the response and the reward were both immediate. I wasn’t telling for some future day when this would be a good story. I told for right now. When it worked, we both enjoyed it fully in the moment.
Claim Your Right To Tell!
Humans have told stories since before we have any history. (After all, our first way of recording history was through stories!) Storytelling is natural to us. It’s a birthright. It’s significant. It’s part of how our brains work. In large measure, we take the world in through stories and process our experiences through making stories out of them.
It’s not hard to tell stories. It just requires us to have the four conditions that I had the good fortune to stumble on during those evenings snuggled under a comforter, next to a precious little brother:
1) Direct communication with your listeners;
2) A playful attitude;
3) Lack of concern for momentary failures; and
4) A focus on the immediate moment.
Changing Our Lives
At the time, my brother and I didn’t think we were doing anything that would affect our futures. To be sure, neither of us remembers a single story that I told.
But those moments changed our lives. How do I know? Well, a couple times a year, my brother, who is now in his 50′s and has two grown children, will sign one of his emails to me, “With love from Little Foot.”