birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Byrd in a Barrel

The last of the 40 days seems a good time for reflection, which I find amusing.

The last of the 40 days occurs as Lent is beginning. For many people Lent is a time of reflection. When I was still active in church I gave a reflection (the rector at the time wouldn’t call it a sermon because I’m not a priest) during Lent. I’m no stranger to public speaking and it was well received. And here I am, in Lent, reflecting again, only not before an audience, and not about anything theological.

I’m a storyteller. Yes, I write, but I mean I stand on a stage and tell stories to audiences. I wrote about storytelling in the first impressions prompt, when I wrote about Donald Davis. I will never be in his class. I’ll never be in as high a demand as him, either. If I sound jealous it’s because I am. I attended one of his weeklong workshops. In it he said that people often come up to him at storytelling festivals and marvel at the sheer number of stories he tells, complaining that they don’t have any stories. He is always kind when he talks to people, but that kind of thing irritates him. Everyone has a story. If they can’t find theirs, it’s because they’re trying too hard to find them.

Don’t try to think of a story, (Donald says) that’s too hard. Instead, tell me about your bedroom when you were growing up. Did you share it with your sibling? Did you have your own room? What kind of noises did you hear at night? Did you have sleep overs? Next thing you know a dozen stories have bloomed.

Tell me about your grandmother. “oh, there’s nothing to tell. I don’t know. I don’t remember much about her.” Did you visit her, or did she visit you? Do you remember spending time with her in the kitchen? Did she sing? Did she take you to church? Tell me about the first time she took you to the store. Tell me about the last time you saw her. Tell me about a secret you and she shared, that your parents never knew about it. Did she have any pets? Next thing you know, you’ve got not one story, but ten.

Tell me about a fight you had. Or a fight you saw. Or a fight you broke up. Or a fight that scared you. Or a fight you avoided.

Tell me about some advice you got. Or advice you gave. Or advice you ignored. Or a person who wouldn’t stop giving unasked for advice. Or a person who refused to listen to your advice. Or advice you wish you’d paid attention to. I wrote about advice I got but didn’t understand until years after the fact. I hadn’t thought about Mrs. Jackson for years, and after writing about her and “knowing why will take you far” I have the beginning of . . . something. An essay? A blog post? A short story? Something that will make its way into a YA novel? It’s something I didn’t have before, that I have now, and that is worth keeping and revising and using, and not because I said, “I think I’ll write a story about Mrs. Jackson” or “I think I’ll write a story about self-discovery” or “I think I write a story about learning not to be a jerk.” But because someone said, tell me about your experience with advice.

Tell me about one of your friends. Introduce me. I could have written about Geoff (and the time he and Gary and I tried to go peeping into the windows of the local No-tell Motel) or Dan or Neighbor, or Karen or Cathy or Andrew . . . or other people I’ve had zany adventures with. But those are all people I’ve already told stories about. Instead I talked about Betty and Devere. Will anything come of it? I don’t know. Maybe not. But it led to me writing another piece, unrelated to Birds in a Barrel that I think will lead to something else, that I would never have written if not for that prompt.

Tell me about your first job. This is a favorite of Donald’s, guaranteed to generate stories. I’ve told about my job as a child model before, but never my job as Bobby the Mac. I haven’t written it down yet, but Bobby the Mac has already had me jotting in my notebook about Pershell, my manager at McDonald’s, and the day she let me drive her new Camaro and following in my sister’s footsteps (she worked at that same McDonald’s before I did, but had quite before I started). And that leads me to the prompt about keeping a notebook, Will anything come of that? Probably not, but it was nice to acknowledge it, and admit that I once wrote on my belly with eyeliner.

Tell me about a time you met someone famous. Well, that wasn’t a 40 days prompt, but maybe it will be next time. Almost . . . That was a hard prompt for me, but it, too, took me to my notebook. I almost didn’t get married, but in the end was too cowardly to call off the marriage the night before the wedding, though I confided to Geoff, my best man, that I didn’t want to go through with it. I almost chose another career path at Miami MEPS before taking the oath of enlistment when I joined the Navy. My whole career would have been different. (I nearly wrote about that in the “might have been” prompt, which wasn’t called the might have been prompt, but I’m too lazy to go look for its real name).

But in the end, I needed to write about something light. I’d just put my cat down, and was still grieving, still finding it hard to write without having her head in the crook of my arm. Sneezing on the back of Jennifer Anniston’s head and almost ruining a play seemed a better choice. And there were so many other times when I almost ruined plays. I only wrote about three of them, but I could have kept going. The other examples are in the notebook. Damn, I’d be lost without that notebook.

Tell me about a stranger. Another thing I hadn’t thought about in years, and probably wouldn’t have, if not for the prompt. I’m not happy with this first draft, but I think I’ll visit this again.

Tell me about an animal. This one has already made it to my blog, but I’ve changed the title to A Tale of Two Turtles, only because I’m sucker for alliteration.

Tell me about about a scar. What I wrote is hokey, I think, but what I wrote outside of the birds in a barrel, about my heart attack and surgery, that may lead to something. Tel me about your hopes. Meh, didn’t like that one so much. But they can’t all be winners.

Tell me about an initiation. Oh my. I can’t believe how many of these prompts led me to write about different Navy experiences. Part of me is wondering if perhaps I ought to write a memoir of my time in the navy. Another part of me can’t imagine anyone would give two shits about my time in the navy. But again, that notebook. As much as I wrote about it as part of this 40 day exercise, I jotted down even more in the notebook. How can I not write about the time I chased a severed head down the street? And of course the Outfit piece. That wasn’t easy to write, and I only grazed the surface.

Unprepared was hard. I miss Kingsford.

Oh Snap was also hard in a way. Such a silly, stupid thing, really, and it caused such a rift between me and my brother. And I never again looked at my mother the same way again. That was the moment when I knew parents were not infallible. Until then I honestly believed they were godlike in their wisdom and always did the right thing. I was too young to be so disillusioned. And while I was very aware of how I felt at that time, I doubt I ever would have written it if not for the prompt. And such a crazy prompt to illicit that story! Tell me about a time when you discovered the value of cash. (or whatever it was). And people say (and believe) they have no stories to tell. What the hell?

Which is why I’ve been telling not only my writing friends, but also my storytelling friends, and more importantly, the people who come up to me after a storytelling performance and say, “Bob, how do you remember those things? Nothing like that ever happens to me. I don’t have any stories” to sign up for the next Birds in a Barrel.

And I get frustrated because 95% of them won’t do it.

Even though 100% of them said they will.

Buncha damn liars.

“I don’t have time.”

Make time.

“I won’t know what to write.”

Really? Tell me about your first car. And they don’t shut up for five minutes. Yes, you’ll know what to write.

“It won’t be interesting.”

Write it anyway.

“Okay, I’ll sign up.”

But they won’t.

And that makes me mad.

Because they’re depriving themselves of a helluva lot more than 40 stories.

And when some of those same people come up to me in two months and say, “Nothing like that ever happens to me. I wish I had stories to tell.” Instead of offering them encouragement or pointing them to Birds in a Barrel or to some of Donald’s books, I’ll just say, “yeah, it must suck to be you.”

Sufficient Resolution?

No Small Thing