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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Spars

Live to Tell Again (Part I)

Writing a book, even a small one, is such a humbling but exhilarating process. For me, it is always easier and much more fun to be working on the first draft. When you are editing and staring at pages you thought made sense when you wrote them, that is where the painful work lies. My tendency is to want to add new material to fix any problem rather than fix and clarify what is already there. The doubts never end, not even when the final result is there on Amazon, ready to buy.

At one point, I was going to title this book Live 2 Tell, since it is the second volume in the series I am doing on storytelling, but the editors, correctly, anticipated that this would be a hard book to search under that title (with the number two in it). My first book Live to Tell still does not come up on the first page of results when you search that title, so I didn't want to add any additional hurdles to finding the second volume.

This volume has two of my best stories: the story about listening to the voice of the river a la Siddhartha, and the story about living with an old man in an isolated village in Sumatra. The only thing the man can say in English is "Hello, I love you," and he says it all run together like it is one word. I got to tell this story at the SAC conference last Fall, which was how I was able to ask Bil Lepp to write the preface for the book. I told this story in front of him, and he references it in the preface. I am very grateful that he agreed to write the preface, and I love his conception of me as someone who should never be heading out into the jungles of Sumatra in the first place, even with sunscreen.

The material in the introduction really dominates this book. I take a deep dive into my own background and how it shaped me into someone who simply has to tell stories. This compulsion, as I write in the intro, comes into direct conflict with the anxiety I feel getting up in front of audiences to perform. The result is an internal conflict that continues to rage within myself. I haven't been able to squelch the stage fright, but neither have I been able to stop myself from telling stories, and, at the very least, this second volume is an attempt to find and harness creative energy in this whirlwind of conflict.

The book is nonfiction, of course, and in the case of this book, that raises a whole new set of issues. In the first volume, I was concerned with what exactly constitutes a true story. This volume brings up people in my past, which include classmates from elementary school, my neighbor, Maki, and, among others, Kim, who is the first girl I ever kissed. Of course the largest presence in the introductory material is my own mother, who appears at first like an unhappy, tyrannical monster. Now my mother is still alive, and she may very well read this book and see herself, or the version of herself that I created and be somewhat taken aback, or insulted, or worse. I give accounts of uncomfortable hours spent at the dinner table, where we always seemed to be eating canned hams while my mother interrogated my brother and me about our days. In the long silences that followed our meek replies was the space where my storytelling began. And, in keeping with being a storyteller, I bring out every humph of dissatisfaction, stern glance, abrupt placement of her fist on the table to a level of clarity and concentration that should ultimately become unrecognizable in her real person. A very difficult scene to write was after I had told a story featuring her demanding, imperious voice and I then went to the lobby to meet my mother in person. I was worried she would be insulted by my portrayal of her. A hundred times I have recalled the opera Carmen in which the male protagonist sings a beautiful song about his beautiful mother, whom he loves as deeply as he loves the sultry, sexy Carmen. I watched this opera with my mother, and I know how beautiful she found this pure expression of a son's love for his mother. And what does she get? She gets me singing about ham dinners and flying accusations.

That very night after I told the story at the Throckmorton Theatre with my mother in attendance, a member of the audience came up and asked, "Does your mother really sound like that?" This prompted my father to burst out laughing, which assured me that nothing could be further from the truth. The mother of my stories is, and always will be, a character—quite separate from the mother who lives on Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley, where I grew up eating ham once every so often.

Live to Tell Again: Tales of Self-Discovery and Healing, published June 18, 2019 (Paperback) and June 15, 2019 (Kindle Edition)


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