Daily Archives: November 21, 2009

Telling–and Re-telling–a Thanksgiving Story

One of the most basic issues in writing is how to tell the story: where to start, where to end, what voice or voices to use, what to include, and at least as important, what to leave out. Perhaps it's obvious, but sometimes we forget that any one story can be told in many ways with many different results. Which way you choose depends in part on what your aim is, as well as on the audience you're speaking to. Knowing how to tell a story involves enough introspection to know what the story says,its underlying meaning. (Sometimes we only learn the underlying meaning by writing out the details of the story and then letting it sit a while–I call this letting it compost–and reading it anew to see what it has to say.)

Here's an example of telling one story–in this case, a life-story, part of my ongoing project to write memoir about my life as it happens–in two different ways for two different audiences. The first version, "A Tale of Two Hospitals," is on my blog at http://tinyurl.com/ybkbmet. Read that first, and then read the version below, which appeared in my weekly newspaper column as "Thanksgiving Is For Giving Thanks."

One unseasonably lovely November afternoon a few weeks ago, my husband, Richard and I drove over the mountains to Denver. We left on time for once, the weather and traffic cooperated, and we arrived in the Metro Area before rush hour got crazy.

I should have known things were going too smoothly.

We had planned to bring dinner to my parents, who live near the city. But when we arrived at their senior community, we learned that my mom been taken to a nearby hospital, with my dad accompanying her.

We drove straight there, and found my mother in a room off the busy ER, looking tiny under a mound of blankets and attached to a plethora of tubes and wires and monitors. She was sitting up though, and devouring her hospital dinner.

Turns out that the sore throat she had reported when I called the previous weekend had been the beginnings of pneumonia. Hence the antibiotics dripping into her veins from one bag and the saline solution from another, plus oxygen chuffing into her nose, and electrodes attached to her chest to monitor her heartbeat.

Now that she was stable, she was slated to be transferred to a regular room. So we drove my dad back to their apartment and fed him dinner.

By that time, Richard and I had almost forgotten why we ventured the long drive to Denver in the first place–almost. Our destination was another hospital, where Richard was scheduled to meet with Oncology to learn what's next in the journey that began with him hallucinating birds more than two months ago and continues through treatment for brain cancer.

By the time we left the city the next afternoon, headed back home over the mountains, my mother had improved so much that she hoped to be discharged from the hospital the next day. And we had conferred with Richard's oncologist, who explained that his tumor, a Grade 3 Astrocytoma for those who track these things, is serious enough that they want to treat it aggressively.

That means radiation to start, accompanied by chemotherapy to enhance the cell-killing effect, and then a course of chemo by itself.

That's where Thanksgiving comes in: Our two-hospital trip reminded me of why I give thanks. Not just on Thanksgiving, or just for the turkey, no matter how delicious it and the trimmings might be.

No, what I give thanks for on this holiday and every day is not stuff–nor the chance to stuff myself with food, nor money, power, or prestige.

My giving-thanks list is short, comprised of the essentials that I believe are worth more than any things or money: Sharing my days with Richard, my mother's recovery, being part of a far-flung-in-distance but close-in-heart community of family and friends, the gift of practicing our art and writing, and of being able to live in a generous and sustainable way in a place we love.

Those blessings are what make every day Thanksgiving for me.


Notice that both versions begin with almost the same words, and tell the same story. But the blog version, besides being longer, includes more details of the actual events. It's memoir-in-the-making: here's what's happening, and how it affects my life, plus a bit of the lessons I take from it. The newspaper column version gives an abbreviated version of the events, and then teases out a connection to Thanksgiving (the week the column will run). It's an opinion piece, not a news piece, but it's actually less personal than the blog post, with a tie-in to a more universal meaning. Essentially, it says, "This is what has happened in my life, and it reminds me of things we can all think about and learn from." Both versions are memoir, both tell the same story from my life; where they differ is in the voice and interpretation.

Here's an exercise to practice with your writing: take a story you've been working on. Write it out, and then go back and write it a different way: choose a different beginning, a different voice, add musings about what it means…. Then compare the two versions, read critically, and see what each has to tell you!