My sister Joy had her first day of teaching college today. I am both very proud and very jealous of her, although my jealousy is less for her time dragging participation out of reluctant, hungover composition students and more for the fact that she is obligated to do a certain amount of writing for her MFA classwork and has a circle of writing peers to work with. I haven’t had a solid, consistent writing community since I finished my B.A. and I truly, truly miss it. Writing with others is a beautiful experience.
I did have to laugh when I read about her first writing assignment. The task was to recall a childhood story and tease out a scene with adult depth. I was only slightly surprised (and greatly delighted) when she chose “The Blue Ape.”
For those of you who don’t know “The Blue Ape,” I am deeply sorry. I solemnly promise to get a video the next time I have the opportunity to tell the story to small children under creepy circumstances. A blog post couldn’t really do it justice. It’s a campfire story from our childhood that the inimitable GroovyOldLady used to tell us and it demands ambiance which can only be cultivated if you have an audience of terrified children sitting in front of you. We begged to hear it over and over.
If all of my paper photos weren’t in storage, I’d pull one up very awkward picture for you of me at about twelve, helping to tell “The Blue Ape” to the lovingly indulgent audience at our church’s Labor Day retreat talent show. Without looking at the picture, I don’t remember if I was narrating the story or acting it out while someone else narrated, but I do remember forcing my sisters (who had heard the story told well many times) to sit through countless repetitions of me trying to master the telling of it. “Not ‘The Blue Ape’ again, Melissa, geez…” became a common protest on our annual camp vacations.
I gave up telling the story sometime in high school until college, when I spent a summer running a camp’s camper newspaper. The newspaper was one of the “craft row” options for the campers, and with the exception of the younger kids who were obligated to spend a certain amount of time with me, I didn’t have too many fans or enthusiasts at the very sports-oriented camp. Until it rained.
Around the fourth of July that year, we had a lengthy spell of regular and intense thunderstorms. My few news kids were bored out of their minds with working on their articles, so I decided to be a lazy teacher and switch to ghost stories. The only one I really know well is “The Blue Ape,” so naturally, I told that. I hadn’t told it in four or five years, so dragging the details out of my mind was a challenge. To my surprise, I found for the first time that my audience was sitting on the edge of their seats. After I finished, they begged me to tell it again and for the next six weeks, my little cabin was regularly accosted by campers I had never met coming to beg for a telling of “The Blue Ape” because their friends found, as I had many years ago, that it’s hard to do the story justice.
I believe that may be the first time in my adult life that I realized that there is absolutely nothing more gratifying than an eager reception for a well-told story. There’s a moment when I’m about halfway through telling “The Blue Ape” when it always strikes me that the story is absurdly long and obnoxious for a campfire tale…and when I’ve got my audience on tenterhooks, just dying for me to continue to build the tension, I feel like I’m Queen of the World. In my work with kids since, I’ve had the opportunity to tell the story more than a few times, and the telling of it never gets tedious when I have even one child hanging on my every word.
The search for that delicious feeling is no small part of why I write, but writing is a much lonelier task. Without a group of people to offer feedback, to give me the opportunity to practice anticipating both the boredom that stems from poor storytelling and the exhilaration of well-crafted words, I spit text into a void that gives me a sparse amount (though that little is even more welcome for its scarcity) of feedback on what I’m doing. Working on a book is much more difficult than the blog–there aren’t many people who have the time and inclination to read three drafts of a novel and provide that kind of input, and who can blame them?
Joy told me in an email that her crafting of that scene from “The Blue Ape” was very well received by her peers, which I delighted to hear. For one thing, it’s wonderful to know that this silly little story has such power for the other storyteller in the family. But also and mostly: it makes me glad to know that Joy is writing amidst a crowd of people who know how to appreciate and encourage good writing.