I’ve Heard This Before: A personal essay

Crushed into my quicksand couch by post-midnight inertia, I half-watch a movie a dozen years old that I have seen a half-dozen times. The film is Dead Poets Society, which tells the story of young Neil Perry, a boarding school student. His extraordinary teacher lifts him from his study-by-numbers drudgery to a world of poetry, Shakespeare, and free-thinking, until Neil’s well-meaning but hidebound father intervenes and forces his son to return to the sensible straight-and-narrow of business studies. How tragic, I respond, to have a parent decide one’s career. Then I stop, examine my rambling rÃ?©sumÃ?©, and discover that I am Neil. My father chose my path.

One cannot tell this at first glance–I never donned the badge and blue my father wore on the police force–but slowly, quietly, and pervasively he shaped me into a reflection of himself. I thought I was master of my fate: I left home, moved to a different state, chose to study theatre in college, and added a history major to keep my options open. In recent years I have become a playwright, columnist, and screenwriter. Nothing to do with guns and crooks and laws and busts but everything a mirror of my dad. You see, my father is a storyteller.

To my knowledge, he has never performed on a stage or written anything for publication: I don’t even recall a ritual of paternal bedtime stories. When a stranger asks him to describe himself, my father’s response is automatic: ex-cop, Dixon 6-L-1, retired–but the gold shield still molded into his wallet is a badge of what he did, not who he is. Exchange much more than a cursory hello with him, and you’ll get a story.

Yarns of children and love, arrest and crime, fighting a war and building a family are woven into the fabric of everyday life and threaded through his easy conversational manner. My deep-voiced father can talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime. He is the neighbor leaning on the back fence, passing a lazy afternoon by telling tales and listening to someone else’s life told to him.

Many of his stories I have heard not once but a dozen, a score, a hundred times. Part of this repetition can be blamed on the linear nature of temporal reality: nothing new has happened in the 1940s since the 1940s. Often I hear a story again because I am present when my father tells someone who has not heard it; sometimes he forgets which audience has heard which stories. Mostly, though, he repeats them knowing he has told them before.

As a child, this made me crazy. “I’ve heard this before, Dad,” I would say, “I know what happens.” His favorite stories were the worst–not only did I know the ending, but I could sing along with the exposition, the descriptions, and all the salient plot points. Stories are made to deliver information, and when the retelling imparts nothing new, what’s the point?

Years passed before I understood. My father is not a newscaster or journalist; his goal is not the presentation of information. To him a story is a tool to unearth a memory; repetition is the crucible to refine it, burning away the muddy irrelevancies of life and reducing the past to its essence. What remains are the moments worth remembering and passing along. In this way, my father is a kind of Homer, chronicling the odyssey of our family and repeating the ballads until he is sure the oral history will be passed to the next generation.

Even more, he taught our family the power of personal narrative, telling stories that opened up private windows to his life, letting the emotions of the original event resurface. His firsthand accounts focused on the internal experience, not the external plot of the story; he allowed the listener to live vicariously inside his memory. Stories told in this way are intimate, electric things. They are a way to connect, to bond, to draw one’s self closer to another soul.

A child cannot be raised in such an environment without learning how to tell stories, and my father is a expert teacher. He grounded me in exposition, description, and dramatic timing. By example he taught me to hook a listener, craft a phrase, twist a plot, nail a punch line.
Did my father decide my career? Absolutely. My three distinct fields of interest–theatre, history, and writing–share a common theme: they are nothing more than storytelling. History records the stories of people; writing preserves them for posterity; theatre enacts them on the stage. I am a storyteller, like my father before me. And now, when I am home and my dad launches into a favorite tale, I listen and smile.

I’ve heard this before.

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