Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Have Story, Will Travel
I was having coffee one time with the late Marybeth Varcados, who was then the managing editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Before joining the Sentinel, she had worked with me at the newspaper in Watsonville, where she was one of the best human-interest feature writers I’ve known.
Marybeth was telling me about someone who had come into the newspaper office with a request that the paper cover some fund-raising event. The person talked to Marybeth for a quarter of an hour, going into every excruciating detail about the organization of the fund-raiser, about which almost no newspaper reader would be interested.
Finally, in answer to her questions, the visitor explained that the event was to benefit a person active in the community who had suffered a bizarre accident, lost their job (and health plan), and was in dire need. That should have been the first thing the visitor said in making the pitch, but Marybeth had to coax out the information.
Then she set down her coffee cup, shook her head, and said, “Isn’t it amazing how many people just don’t know how to tell a story?”
For Some, It Comes Easy
Being professional storytellers of long standing, she and I both had a difficult time understanding how someone could not understand what the key elements of a story are and pull them together. To us, that comes so naturally, it’s almost done on autopilot. And certainly, quite a few people who don’t tell stories for a living have an instinctive feel and talent for it.
Human beings are in touch with stories all their lives — through books, plays, movies, TV shows, and jokes told by friends. I used to wonder how, with all that exposure, the technique never rubs off on some folks. Then it was pointed out to me that I’ve been driving a car for almost half a century and still have no more than the most primitive idea of what makes an automobile run. It is entirely possible to be exposed to something constantly, even enjoy it considerably, and have no clue as to what makes it tick.
I’m also reminded of the old joke about the visitor to a prison. He’s walking through with the warden, when a prisoner yells out, “237!” and the other prisoners all laugh. Another prisoner shouts, “412” and again everyone laughs. The visitor asks the warden about it, and is told that the men have been behind bars for so long that, as a form of shorthand, they’ve numbered the jokes they all know.
One Line, and He Can’t Pull It Off
Then another prisoner yells out, “298!” and there’s a dead silence. The visitor asks what happened, and the warden shakes his head.”
“Some guys just don’t know how to tell a joke,” the warden says.
Sometimes I wonder how much of the storytelling talent is cultural and familial. My father, who came from Tennessee, was a great storyteller, and so were some of his friends. As a kid, I used to have to sit and listen while the adults talked, and maybe something seeped in. My mother wasn’t much of a storyteller, but after living with my dad for years, she knew a lot of his stories and told them after he was gone, which helped keep them alive.
Marybeth Varcados eventually left the newspaper business, co-authored a mystery novel, and started her own public relations/freelance business, at which she worked part-time. She had the best business card since “Have Gun Will Travel.” Aside from the phone number and e-mail, it read simply, “Let Me Tell Your Story. Marybeth Varcados.”