I once took a New York City cab whose driver grew up with my mother.
My father once gave a ride to an elderly woman while on business in Italy, only to discover that 60 years earlier, she’d been one of his father’s girlfriends.
People ask me, “Where does your family find these stories? And how did you come up with the stories in your new book Eat Now; Talk Later: 52 True Tales of Family, Feasting and the American Dream?”
My response is: We don’t come up with them. We simply keep our eyes open in the same way a radar detects approaching planes.
There’s nothing special about this “radar” of ours. It isn’t a gift from the gods. Truth is, all humans have this radar system if they simply turned it on.
In our day-to-day existence, conversations, images, street scenes, and other information come at us all the time. For example, you observe the strange morning coffee routine of a work colleague, or overhear a conversation between a mother and her 3-year-old son at a supermarket. Yet how do we pluck out a good story amongst all that visual and audio white noise?
It’s easier than you think. In fact, there’s no need to hunt for tales. If you look too hard, you might miss a good one. If your radar is on, they reveal themselves.
Here is a marker or two to get you started.
A first indication is when incoming data shows you something unique about a person in a certain situation. For example, I have a friend (let’s call him Angelo) who drinks iced coffee 365 days a year. It can be -20° C and still he takes his java cold. When he adds sugar, he pinches two packs between his thumb and index finger and slaps them against his thigh, usually three times. He looks like a cowboy striking a match against his chaps.
As people who drink iced coffee know, it’s hard to get the sugar to dissolve evenly. So, after adding sugar and milk, Angelo places two cheap napkins on the lid (to keep the beverage from leaking) and proceeds to shake the coffee like a 1960s go-go dancer dressed by Mary Quant. The fact that he’s portly and Italian with a rough beard adds a dimension to his movements. There are probably less than 10 people in the entire world with a routine similar to Angelo’s; what’s more, you don’t have to know him to take pleasure in watching him. (Finding humor in a situation is an obvious giveaway that you might have a story on your hands.)
It’s that simple. And there’s more good news.
Stories are not necessarily born by amazing events. In fact, an experience that, at first, might seem mundane and uninteresting often contains a story. One that appears in Eat Now; Talk Later almost passed me by for that reason. The book is about my grandparents, Italian peasants who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s, but who never got acclimated to modern life. For example, my grandfather once went to the hospital with $1,000 cash because he thought he’d need it to pay the bill.
Here’s a story that involves my late, great, eccentric granny, Desolina, and an analysis of why it works.
Desolina had an eagle’s eye. She could spot a fresh shaving nick from across a room. If you came in with a Band-Aid on your elbow, she wanted full details about the mishap. She took note of unbuttoned collars, crooked socks, and torn fingernails.
My wife, Gina, once visited Desolina without her wedding ring. The weather was hot and humid, and the ring was giving Gina a rash.
As she sat down to lunch, Desolina asked her, “Dov’é il tuo anello?” (“Where’s your ring?)”
The implication was clear: It was improper for a married woman to be seen without her wedding band.
Embarrassed, Gina lied: “I forgot to put it on this morning,”
My grandmother ladled out the tortellini, then turned to Gina and asked, “Did you forget to eat breakfast this morning?”
“No,” Gina said.
“Allora, domani, non scordati l’anello,” she said. (Good. Tomorrow, don’t forget the ring.”)
Here’s why I think the story works:
1. First, the tale shows Desolina’s true character; she was old-fashioned, having grown up in a time when women wore their wedding rings come hell or high water;
2. It also illustrates something rare about Desolina; she had this ability to see things most people would miss—like a shaving nick or a missing wedding ring; and
3. Finally, there’s humor—peasant humor. Desolina only went up to the third grade because she had to leave school to work on her family’s farm. Yet, the logic she uses in scolding my wife is fairly sophisticated because it’s indirect. She doesn’t say, “Do you want people to think you’re a loose woman?! Wear that ring!” Rather, she asks her, “Did you forget to eat breakfast? No? Well, neither should you forget to put on your ring,” the idea being that, in her worldview, bodily sustenance is as important as one’s reputation.
You don’t need to have climbed Mt. Everest to have a good story. Simply turn on your radar – keep your eyes open. They will come to you.
Have you ever had a story pop into your mind from the smallest or most unlikely thing?