Dec 20 2010

Ancient Storytelling

Melissa Crytzer Fry

I was probably about 14 when my dad ‘planted’ a store-bought arrowhead in our giant vegetable garden, hoping I would find it while hoeing the potato mounds.

He was well aware of my obsession (and he also knew that neighboring farmers in our Pennsylvania hometown had found arrowheads over the years). Even at a young age, I yearned to hold a piece of this history in my hand – some kind of connection to people who respected the land as much as I did. I was always awed that Native American Indians might have lived in the woods behind my house, dipping their hands in the crystal clear water that gurgled from the spring-fed ponds around the area.

These petroglyphs in Tucson, Ariz. are well-preserved and a fantastic piece of history. Click to enlarge. Anyone know what they say? Additional image below.

Oh the stories I had already conjured in my young mind about the Native American Indian who would have carved the arrowhead I would find, leaving behind a clue for me, a treasure. (Only later in university literature and history classes would my interest become less narcissistic as I developed a more mature and heartfelt understanding of the Indians’ plight when settlers arrived. And even later, when I learned my paternal great-great-grandmother was herself Native American, my appreciation grew tenfold.)

Aside from the store-bought replica, I never did find the coveted arrowhead. (Thanks, Dad. I appreciate the effort. But you erred by not dusting the shiny surface of the knock-off in some of the fresh-tilled Earth. Or I just might have bought in to the lie).

After visiting a beautiful Native American petroglyph site in Tucson, Arizona, it occurred to me that my childhood fascination with arrowheads was, oddly, all about storytelling.

Just as the petroglyph tells a pictorial story – visible for many to see – so, too, does the arrowhead, though buried deep beneath its sharp edges. Even if I never held an authentically discovered arrowhead in my hand, it is still a symbol, telling the story of a culture changed forever. The storytelling continued in my family, as well, with my dad’s retelling of the “arrowhead Melissa once found in the garden.”

Long live the tradition of storytelling in all its many forms, and in all of its symbolic ways!

For Writers: How do you measure a story’s goodness? I’ve been thinking about this a great deal, as I am currently reading a book that did not gain critical acclaim, nor even positive reviews, sadly. Yet, as I read it, I’m awed by the display of literary talent – the combining of words, sounds, and combinations of words to paint vivid, breathtaking pictures and deep, emotional resonance.

Obviously, there’s more to a ‘good’ story than just good writing. In fact, sometimes a blockbuster novel isn’t necessarily a well-written novel. Sometimes the story, itself, is enough to carry the novel to fame. Sometimes the characters buoy the story. Sometimes the bending, weaving, careening plot. Sometimes the storytelling itself.

What are the attributes you look for when measuring the ‘goodness’ of a story? I had to think hard about what’s most important to me as a reader of contemporary women’s fiction, and surprisingly, I came up with only two key benchmarks by which I judge the novels I read: emotional depth of characters and literary talent (i.e. sensory description/settings). Plots are important, obviously, but I’m mostly interested in internal journeys and growth.


7 Responses to “Ancient Storytelling”

  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    My older brother and I used to spend hours in the fields after they were tilled and before the crops were planted, searching for these slivers of another way of life. We did find many arrowheads (okay, my brother found many), but I’ve never attributed our enthusiasm for them to storytelling until now! Thanks for sharing, Melissa!

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  • avatar M. McGriff Says:

    How sweet of your dad to leave that arrowhead in the garden! 🙂

    I think two things that make a really good story to me is a plot that just keeps pushing forward, meaning it keeps me reading to the point I can’t put it down. The second is if the book gets me thinking, whether trying to figure out who did it, what the protag should do next, or the book explores a concept that after reading the book I’m still thinking about it.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Yes… very sweet of my Dad, even though his plan wasn’t well executed ;-). I agree with you that a “can’t put it down” book is what we all hope for when we pick up a new read! And so is one that elicits thinking; I love a book that stays with me well after the read, and challenges my thoughts/beliefs.

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  • avatar Rachna Chhabria Says:

    Hi Melissa…its extremely difficult to measure a story’s goodness. Its different for everybody. For me it would be the Emotional Connect with the Main Character: how much am I connecting with her or him emotionally. It would also be about the Internal Journey of the Main Character; does he or she show the different emotions connected with the different facets of our lives.

    I also love well rounded characters who are not scared of showing their not so good sides to the readers. I am also partial to both a great story and a unique voice.

    Quite a long list, isn’t it?

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    Melissa Reply:

    Once again, we agree! It’s all about emotion for me – and I LOVE flawed characters, as you can see on my guest post at Write For Me ( http://bit.ly/eMZbNj). Thanks for commenting!

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  • avatar Rachna Chhabria Says:

    Just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Melissa!

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  • avatar Hallie Says:

    For me, it is the deep emotional connection to the characters and setting of the story. I like to be transported into the character’s world and these two things seem to get that done.

    Very cool pictures and I would have loved to find an arrowhead as a kid! Real or not! I am a huge fan of Native American history and secretly wished I was from the land of buffalo rather than the land of bratwurst. No offense.:)

    Great post, Melissa!

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