"I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told. I only claim to know how a story ought to be told." —Mark Twain, "How to Tell a Story" (1897)

Bronwen Dickey
Bronwen Dickey
| Credit: Art Meripol

A few months ago my friend Jeff Polish and I spent two days on the back roads of eastern North Carolina talking to strangers. We drew a rough circle on a road map, then haunted bars and coffee shops, a yard sale, a hog race, two barbecue joints, and the Pro-Am bowling regionals. In a cross section of the sacred and profane, we met giggling waitresses, Mormon missionaries, aspiring rappers, Baptist evangelicals, and a guy named Spooky who bought a shaved-ice truck on eBay.

We thought at first that we were looking for stories—not whoppers told by celebrated yarnspinners, but real stories from regular people. The asides and digressions overheard every day in beauty parlors, at lunch counters. Stories about first loves and bad jobs, big dreams and close calls. Everybody has at least one.

But as the road unspooled in front of us, past car dealerships and dry corduroy fields of newly planted cotton, Jeff and I realized that we didn't just want to find stories. We wanted to understand what it takes to tell a good story, and what separates the good from the great. If we could figure that out, we hoped we'd also learn something about the people who speak in narrative and, most importantly, why they do it.

Storytellers, we found, generally fall into two groups: the ones with something to say, and the ones who know how to say it. In the first group are people blessed (or, in some cases, cursed) with extraordinary life experiences, with—for lack of a better phrase—compelling "material." The second type are those who shape and polish even the most mundane events with humor, mimicry, and careful timing—who understand good delivery.

Calvin, an elderly man we met just outside Siler City, fits squarely into the first category. No sooner had we ambled up his trailer's driveway and exchanged polite chitchat than he told us how he came to be wheelchair-bound. As Calvin tells it, eight years ago his own stepson stabbed him in the back with a butcher knife, leaving him partially paralyzed. In slow, methodical detail, Calvin recounted that horrifying night without a trace of bitterness. "You got to forgive," he said, adjusting his ball cap to keep the sun out of his pale green eyes. "Got to. That's what the Lord say, anyway."

Garry from Goldsboro, on the other hand, is all about delivery. He's a paunchy, tough-talking master of long pauses and funny voices. When I asked him over lunch at Wilber's what it takes to make good barbecue, he held up a gnarled, arthritic club of a left hand and looked at me like I'd just kicked him in the stomach. "I dunno," he said, thrusting his arm in my direction. "Can't hold a cleaver with that no more." Total silence for one beat. Two. I awkwardly tried to change the subject. Then Garry stretched his thick fingers out, wiggled them like spiders' legs, and laughed at me. "Nah, it's okay. I'm just double-jointed."

But C.C., with her backwoods accent and bad-girl rock-and-roll aesthetic, took her story to a high-voltage, transcendent level. We met the 28-year-old former bartender in Greenville when we accidentally wandered into her one-woman show at a local coffeehouse.

Following a bad breakup, C.C. had walked out of her old life with nothing but a suitcase, an air mattress, and a guitar she couldn't play. "I didn't have a light to shine," she said. She stayed homeless for eight months, taking menial jobs and sleeping on friends' couches, able to lean only on her lifelong dream of being a performer. With money she saved from bartending, she took a vocal workshop and learned how to sing the blues. And that, she said, changed everything.

What set C.C. apart from other storytellers on our trip was that she seemed to know on every level what her story meant, how her past indicated her present. She held up a mirror the audience members could see themselves in. She let herself be vulnerable. She opened up.

And opening up, Jeff and I learned, is what spoken narratives are really about. Why had Calvin talked to us? Or Garry? Or any of the other 20 or so people we met? Why, really, do any of us tell our stories? Because of this: When you communicate to another person—even a complete stranger—something meaningful that has happened to you, not only do you understand it better yourself, but you are also, in some small way, understood. You establish a bond that is strong and instantaneous; you cut six degrees of separation down to zero. Stories keep us open and alive. They're the ramparts we build against isolation, against loneliness.

Bronwen Dickey contributes to The Oxford American and Outside and participates in "The Monti," an old-fashioned storytelling showcase in Durham, North Carolina, that's open to the public. themonti.org