drawing of black workers in striped costumes

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 3, "Painting South." Find more from that issue here.

A Personal Story

By Jo Carson


This is a story about stories. I’ve been collecting it for the last year. I tell my story, then I gather responses like walnuts, crack them open, and add them to the soup.

My story goes like this: I was in San Francisco earlier this year as part of a theater festival. At the end of the festival, we held a retreat. Others besides the performers were there — other writers, a poet, storytellers, I’m not naming names — but they were people whose work I know and respect. I felt most honored to be part of such company. There was an agenda for the day, not very specific, but I was interested to learn more about what these people had done and where they felt their work was going. But early in the day somebody said “I don’t want to do this, I want to tell stories.”

“Not tall tale kinds of things?”

“No,” said the speaker, “I just want to hear what people did yesterday.”

The focus of the group changed and there came some wonderful stories, not just about yesterday, but stories of things that had happened to people in their lives and I enjoyed the day — in my opinion, such stories are the most valuable of commodities to trade — but it was no different from what happens regularly around my kitchen table back in Johnson City, Tennessee, when friends drop by and we trade stories of things that have happened to us, some long past, some just yesterday, and the stories lead to all sorts of different conversations, but the centers of the evenings are almost always the stories.

I drove back into San Francisco that evening with a friend who lives there. He could not say enough about how good the day had felt to him, how rare it was he did that kind of thing, how wonderful the stories were. So I asked what he did when he and his friends got together.

“Oh, we go see something,” he said.

“What do you talk about?”

“What we’ve seen or something.”

“You mean you don’t sit around over beer or coffee or dinner and talk about what has happened to you in your life?”

“Do you?” he asked me.

Well, it turns out I do, and when I got back to Johnson City I told this story to a friend from New York. “Oh, golly,” she said, “I never did that sort of thing before I came here. Maybe I’d tell the funny stories, but my friends and I clung to one another for distraction. With the real stories, you engage. You have to.”

Well, I carried this story to another friend, a woman who recently moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. It came up in con versation. She was telling me that she couldn’t find a community that was willing to come over and have dinner and sit around and talk. Have dinner, maybe, but then you had to go out and see something, or go to a bar and listen to music, or turn on the TV. Nobody knew how to linger at the dinner table. “I feel like I don’t have friends anymore,” she told me, “I can tell you about the movies and the bluegrass bands, and I can name the people I saw them with, but I can’t tell you much more about those people than where they are from or where they work.”

Sometimes my friend from Knoxville calls on the phone. “Pop a beer if you’ve got the time,” she says, “I need to tell somebody what’s happened to me.”

Every time I tell this story, further incidences along the same theme are added. There’s quite a collection now. And from the vantage point of my kitchen table, on the basis of a highly unscientific survey, it seems like there are lots of places where people don’t share their personal stories anymore, for too many distractions, for lack of time, or trust, or even just lack of opportunity.

At the risk of sounding very corny and simplistic, I’d like to recommend the telling of personal stories again. Invite a friend or two over and turn off the stereo and TV. If you need a name, call it a personal history consciousness-raising group.

It is those stories that give context to our separate lives, it is the sharing of them that makes friends and communities, and it is the telling of them that grows human roots. □


Jo Carson writes poetry, plays (Horsepower: An Electric Fable and Little Chicago, both produced and toured by The Road Company of Johnson City, Tennessee) and short stories. “I make my living as a writer when I can; when I can’t I do something else. ”