Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Where is my campfire?

I grew up camping with my family – we were a motley crew of girl scouts and boy scouts, our parents both troop leaders. Among the nine kids, we probably had enough merit badges and Orders of This, That, and the Other Thing to wrap around the planet once or twice. We were old school tent campers – hikers with scars on knees and elbows, a patchwork of mosquito bites, and stories about unfortunate owl-station wagon collisions and bears in our campsites. Our parents hitched a hideous, peeling, royal blue wooden trailer to our old Chrysler, and we were good to go just about anywhere. The paint on the trailer was held in place with decals from all the places it had been: national parks, monuments, and tourist traps, spread across the length and breadth of the United States. (I remember how thrilled I was when we finally made it to Wall Drug one trip – all worship at the altar of free ice water and fuzzy jackalope piggy banks!!)

In the summer, while my father worked at military installations around the country, my mother would drive us from place to place, occasionally catching up with Dad along the way. My favorite photo from childhood is of me, sacked out on one of these trips, all white blonde hair and sunburn, face down on some old red-topped Coleman cooler. It was incredible fun with mom and my siblings, out in the middle of nowhere – mountains, deserts, forests with coldwater streams and rivers - hunkered down by the fire circle.

And that’s where stories were told. Just as people have done for millennia, we would gather around the flames and tell ghost stories and family tales and urban legends, triumphs and tragedies of history… It was great. And I so miss it. In my mom’s later years, she still loved to camp, but her health relegated us to RV camping, which, I’ve gotta say, just ain’t the same thing. I pine for the campfire and the stories, passed down, interpreted, built on, and embellished over the years.

With no children, no spouse, and no local friends who like to camp, I’ve lost that true campfire. But, through the blogosphere, perhaps I’ve found a virtual one.

There are millions of everyday people telling tales of their everyday lives online. Mommybloggers and daddybloggers, aunts and uncles, and sisters and grandfathers. They post baby pictures and birthday parties, graduations and weddings - the normal passage of normal lives. And it’s so neat to have that instant access to the minutiae of life from friends and family, especially when they are far-flung. They are documenting life, cataloguing personal happenings in a virtual photo album, just like their grandparents did with paper and glue. An electronic hand writing births and deaths in the air instead of a family bible. It is family history and a very personal knowledge celebrated in a very public way.

And sometimes, those ordinary blogs are transformed into something extraordinary through a twist of fate – an illness, a death, a crime… some defining moment that draws a much greater audience to share in the telling. The everyday blogger is now a storyteller, documenting harder truths in compelling words.

Last year, hitting the “next blog” button on Blogspot, I found myself at a site called “Kevin’s Dead Cat.” It was the journal of a young woman in Los Angeles, Laura Esguerra Adams, who was suffering through the fatal recurrence of a horrific form of cancer - one she thought she’d already conquered. I came back again and again to read about her good days and her bad days. I eventually started to leave her comments. I even drank a glass of milk and had a Hostess cupcake for her when she couldn’t herself. Laura died in September last year, after a painful and difficult battle. And when things are going poorly for me, I go back and read and remember the strength that this lovely stranger left behind in her stories and struggles. I strike a match to my keyboard, and her fire illuminates my screen. Her words were not the polished gems of a poet; they were simply gripping. If every page I hit via “next blog” was as fascinating and sad and funny and touching as Kevin’s Dead Cat, I’d be glued to the screen 24/7.

But that’s not the case.

Sure, everyone has at least one story in them, but not everyone, in all honesty, is a storyteller. (Otherwise, there would be no jobs for ghostwriters.) Some people can state facts. Some people can write a sentence. Others can actually string together a fairly cogent paragraph. But it’s a much smaller number that really can spin a hell of a yarn. It’s been that way for many ages of human history. A handful of talented and motivated people with the skill to write and speak with finesse or character capture the imagination of a wider audience, and their names and stories are passed down and around. It’s the same concept now. Only the tools and speed of dissemination have changed over time.

Some storytellers become novelists or journalists or screenwriters. Some tell stories of history, some of fantasy, some of melancholy or politics or sex. Some write with literary grace and others in a text messaging shorthand that makes me slightly crazy. (Your mileage may vary.) And some just write what comes to mind and heart, never figuring out how to make a dime with their words. They just blog. Yet, paid or not, they are all storytellers who form words and vision in such a way that readers are drawn to them on screen the same way that balladeers and poets drew in crowds by tavern hearths and village fires hundreds of years ago.

I’d like to gather people to that fire again. A real fire.

Put another blog on the fire...

I would love to bring some bloggers together – not at a conference in a stuffy hotel for seminars and urns of coffee, but in a park, around a campfire, where people could share their stories under the stars, flashlight in hand. It would be neat for each to stand and read an entry or two they’ve written – something to mesmerize and spellbind, something funny or sad or thought-provoking – in a place without iTunes or a TV or other technological distractions in the background. Just the sound of crickets and firecrackle and pine needles under foot. A place where the words can be heard and appreciated, in a way perhaps anachronistic to the blog itself, but not to the simple act of storytelling. The oral tradition of storytelling should not die in the Internet age. Stories change when spoken out loud, with inflection and emphasis and audience reaction. I think it would be amazing to see how our own interpretation and understanding of words we wrote ourselves change in a vibrant, live setting.

For now, my screen is my campfire, but I want my old campfire back. Woodsmoke, owl hoots, Deep Woods Off, and all.

Anyone up for BlogFire ’06? I’ll bring the marshmallows and graham crackers, if someone else brings the Hershey bars!

And, if you have a great blogging storyteller to recommend, leave the name and link in the comments. It would be cool to see whose stories really entertain you.


Cyn said...

Well ma'm, you're my favorite blogging storyteller!

"...I strike a match to my keyboard, and her fire illuminates my screen." is a beautiful turn of phrase.

Loracs said...

Through your blog, I found Kevin's Dead Cat and read about the last few weeks of her life; cried when her husband posted the news of her death. Cried when I went back to read from the beginning. It's bookmarked and it can still make me cry. But it also fills me with the wonder of struggle, the strength to fight, the ups and downs of daily life against the backdrop of fatale illness, the support of family, friends and strangers - it serves as an affirmation of life as much as an acknowledgement of death.

You are definitely one of my very favorite story tellers. I want to be you when I grow up! Thanks for gathering us around your fire.

Now pass the s'mores before they're all gone!

Real Live Lesbian said...

The two blogs I check daily? You and

I would love to plop my hiney on an upturned log and listen to the finest.

Janet Kincaid said...

I'll bring the chocolate. Just say when and where. I'd be honored just to sit in the presence of great storytellers.

Merujo said...

Cyn: :-) Sometimes I catch a good turn of phrase. Sometimes, I write things down and later go, uh, what the hell did that mean?

Loracs: I still go back and visit Laura's blog, too. I hope that her husband has archived the entries somewhere, in case Blogspot ever vanishes. (We should all do the same, I reckon.)

Gwen: Would it not rock to get Magazine Man to tell stories for a couple of days? He is the best.

Janet: I swear, I think this would be a lot of fun. I'm actually looking at state parks with overnight camping and cabins - it would be nice to do it in, say, early October, when the temperatures don't suck the life out of you and an evening around a fire would be more appealling (and it wouldn't muck up people's summer vacations...)

S'mores for everyone!!

Claire said...

Mmm, s'mores.

I really enjoyed this post. It felt very fluid.

MM is a fave of mine too.

Scholiast said...

There's your blog, of course. Then I read the Joshes, amongst others. And though I like them for many reasons, Josh H really is a high ranking storyteller to my mind.

celia said...

it does my heart a lot of good to know that so many people other than her friends and family still read and remember my sister laura and her blog.

Merujo said...

Celia, I never met your lovely sister, but I think of her and smile quite often. I tell people about the time I ate Willy Wonka special edition Hostess Cupcakes with a big glass of milk on her behalf. :)

I wish I'd had the opportunity to meet her, but through her blog and her gift with words, I feel like I did.

With every good wish in the world,