Why I Write: Jolene McIlwain

Stories. My childhood home was filled with them. Mom’s drowned-puppy story. Dad’s ever-changing tale of his buddy jumping from a water tower, umbrella in hand, plunging into mud “up to his ankles.” “To his knees.” “His hips.” “Swallowed up in the mud.”

They told stories of work, family, tragic events. Neighbors brought their own—daily, at any given hour. Cousins spooled out yarns late at night, their tangled voices bouncing through our kitchen. I stared at their knuckles tattooed with the letters of their names. They slipped curse words into their descriptions, apologized, reworded, grinning at me. Another relative, in a brown habit, his waist cinched with a rope, murmured his tales through contemplative lips, ice-blue eyes darting. Whispered stories came by way of lip-sticked aunts, long-nailed aunts, chewing-gum aunts. Barked-out stories came by way of the constable and hard-of-hearing Mr. Riggle. They came in clouds of Lucky Strikes, cigars, nasty cologne. They came with dandelion wine, two fingers of Echo Springs, black coffee, and jugs of spring water. With banana bread, zucchinis, deer bologna, fudge.

So many voices, tones, gestures. I watched the stories as much as I listened. People acted out parts. “Stand up. Here, I’ll show you how she hit him.” My father was the most animated, clapping his hands to mimic the sound of a sucker punch, a gunshot, a car’s bumper hitting a guardrail.

Parts of stories came by way of the scanner, the CB, or the telephone, where we’d hear only one end of the dialogue. Stories weren’t linear. They were circular, elliptical, looming gaps I might fill by reading the newspaper’s obituaries and police blotter, by hiding with friends in the crape myrtle to listen in on neighbors. I’d pore over the dictionary, never able to find the hybrid-pidgin American-Italian language of Dad and his friend, Sylvio. I’d ask to have stories repeated, noting changes—embellishments, amendments, dropped sections.

Stories I read in books at school were different. They had a beginning, middle, end. Chronological order. Helpful transitions. Usually one narrator. Clear. Concise. Perfect, proper English, deprived of what I would later learn were regionalisms, idioms, colloquialisms, jargon. Back then I just thought we “talked wrong.” I’d never seen the words nebby, redd-up, gumbands, dippy eggs, berms, slippy, babushka, and baby buggy in the books I read. Coal miners, dope-heads, and housewives weren’t the narrators. Stories weren’t told in snippets.

I adored all kinds of books, but I wanted to see the types of stories I grew up on in books.

In college, I’d learn about story acquisition, theory of mind, and how my family and friends may have been some of my best teachers. Feminist theorists offered arguments about these ways of storytelling and inferred that they were legitimate. I was overwhelmed with relief that all kinds of stories could be seen as valid, meaningful, and respected.

Vignettes: I read Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Multiple POVs: I read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Stories with gaps, intended ambiguity: I read everything by Jeannette Winterson. Same stories told again and again, refined, amended, reconsidered: I read O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Wallace’s Big Fish. Part real/part magical: I read all of Morrison’s novels, Esquival’s Like Water for Chocolate, Stephen Fry’s Making History. Slang, hybrid language, hybrid communities, sayings: I read Annie Proulx, Martin Amis, Louise Erdrich. I was gathering a list of authors who told stories about the same people, the same afflictions, and the same predicaments as my neighbors had told at our kitchen table. Silko’s Ceremony, Strout’s Olive Kitterage, Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Haruf’s Plainsong. Breece D’J Pancake. Bonnie Jo Campbell. Jo Ann Beard. Pinckney Benedict.

I found authors who used the same curse-words, loanwords, cadences, phonology, the same authority of story told loudly, quietly, quickly, slowly, with gaps, tangents.

I read Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid which led me Julie Jung’s Revisionary Rhetoric, Feminist Pedagogy, and Multigenre Texts. I researched everything I could in order to understand the ways stories came into my childhood home and to discover the authors who were experimenting with language and form.

And I finally gave myself permission to write the kinds of stories I’d inherited because I finally had the theory and language for the tools both my childhood storytellers and classic and contemporary authors employed. Repetition, recurring motifs, specific verbs, alliteration, scope of story, flash-forwards, backstory, character names, concrete imagery, placement of the surprising word, targeting audience, meter, tone, resonance, mood, pacing, narrative distance, and perhaps the most crucial decision in storytelling: point of view. I am slowly knitting these craft strategies and revelations together and gaining a better understanding of what I’d sensed so long ago: the teller is just as important as the telling and there is no one “right” way to tell a story.

No one could offer up a hunting or fishing story, a well-witching or ditch-digging story, as well as the archers, anglers, witchers, and excavators themselves. They knew the jargon; they spun words that intrigued me most. I was drawn into their discourse communities by their exclusive language and their odd ways of telling. In this vein, I wrote “Seed to Full,” a piece in which a sawyer can tell his story of grief only through his work with wood. Another is “Handful of Throttle” where the sounds of motocross, the slang of that sport, work together to show the narrator’s awe.

I’ve had the treat of hearing someone attempt to tell a story and fall short. Not the right perspective. Not the right sound. And I’ve watched them revise as they continued or by the time they told it next. I’ve had the luxury of experiencing stories that were told in surprising and unconventional styles, without rules. Sylvio could get absorbed in backstory. That chewing-gum aunt would sideline—whispering helpful footnotes as the storyteller spoke. Sometimes it took a whole neighborhood to tell a story over a series of days. No wonder I’d love Saunders’s recently published Lincoln in the Bardo, where it takes a whole graveyard, and more, to tell a tale.

Since his stroke a decade ago, Dad can no longer move around our kitchen to tell his stories. He’s lost track of time. Chronology is suddenly unimportant. Gone is his deep baritone story-telling voice. He can’t clap. He can still talk but some days a whole story is pared down to a phrase. A word. “Umbrella.” We help him by filling in, or not.

I recognize the presence of story in the absence of his old story-telling ways. I am, again, inspired.



*Essay first appeared at Words In Place

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About Jolene McIlwain

Jolene McIlwain's writing appears or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner online, Prime Number Magazine, River Teeth online, Atticus Review, The Fourth River, and elsewhere and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She’s the recipient of an artist grant from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and her work was twice-selected—Honorable Mention and Top 25 Finalist—in Glimmer Train's contests, and as a semi-finalist in both American Short Fiction’s and Nimrod's Katherine Anne Porter Prize fiction contests. She is an associate flash fiction editor at jmww and is currently working on a linked collection of short fiction and novel set in the hills of the Appalachian plateau of western Pennsylvania.