Posted on February 11, 2014
I don’t like all the reporting or programming on news radio, but I really enjoy listening to interesting stories of people, places, and cultures. Real lives and experiences and perspectives that say more about our world than a 30-second sound byte or 3-minute YouTube video. A week or so ago, I heard an interview with Michael Paterniti discussing the story behind his book The Telling Room.
Without going into too much detail, the book is about Ambrosio Molinos, a larger than life farmer whose grandísima filosofía de vida leads him to spend endless hours perfecting his family’s forgotten cheese and eventually creates the phenomenal Páramo de Guzmán.
It’s a story about an old way of life, a town still haunted by the tragedy of civil war, hanging onto their rapidly fading culture and decreasingly relevant traditions. About the slow food movement against the backdrop of the hectic, demanding, technology-saturated modern world. About friendship, betrayal and decade-old grudges. About the author and the trajectory of his life as he becomes captivated by Molinos, the cheese, and the Castilian way of life — so much so that he moves his family to Spain and travels back and forth to the village of Guzmán with regularity over more than 10 years, despite getting married, becoming a journalist, and having children.
The part of the book that resonated most for me focused on the significance of storytelling within the Castilian community and, by extension, the rest of the frenetic, modern world.
It’s part of what drives Paterniti as the author, and a central activity within Guzmán in the cave bodegas and “telling rooms” where Molinos and his friends would eat, drink, sing and tell stories together. It’s this fixation on story that prompts much of Paterniti’s travels back and forth to Spain, as well as triggering meditations on his own story.
Throughout the course of the book, Paterniti eventually comes to realize that this story belongs not only to Molinos, the cheese, or the villagers of Guzmán. It belongs also to him and helps him, in the end, make sense of his own life and world.
The way this epiphany rises slowly to the surface, like curds from milk, brings to light the significance or storytelling to a people, a town, and an individual person — even in a world where true storytelling (“the ability to exchange experiences”) is nearly a thing of the past.
As I’m exploring more seriously what it means for me to be a writer, this point really rings true. Why did I insist that Dad regale me with tales of his youth before bedtime when I should have been fast asleep? Why did we read voraciously as children, checking out 10 books at a time from the library and coming back for new ones the following week?
Why was it so important to me to study literature in college, instead of training in the practicalities of journalism or business? Why am I so captivated by the interviews and anecdotes I hear on the radio, so that I’ll sit in the car listening long after I’ve returned home? Why do I feel compelled to travel, to meet people, and to write about the things I’ve experienced?
I think it’s because stories have always been a big part of my life, helping me to orient myself in a world inundated with multimedia and competing voices and piling demands. How do I prioritize? How do I filter through all the information and ideas permeating the atmosphere of my mind?
Stories tell me, remind me, where I come from, where I’ve been, what I’ve learned, and who I am. And only in writing (long form in particular) do we have some semblance of that in an era of 140 characters or less. These stories have the power to change us, to give us new or renewed perspective, to encourage or rebuke us. It’s part of what makes us human. That’s why we write.
At the same time, storytelling can also make things more convoluted, can help us hide from our selves and our failures. It becomes a defensive mechanism, a symbiotic enabler, delusions to which we cling lest we wither away. And this too is a fear I have; that I may believe myself a writer, a teller of stories, a revealer of truths, when the reality is something radically different. That I am somehow deceiving myself into believing I am someone or something I’m not.