by Guest Blogger Jill Jepson
My father was a talkative man. Like many of his generation, he fought in World War II, and he spent much of his life telling about it. His stories about the war were a staple of my childhood. At every meal, every holiday, every Sunday at home, he told about the years he spent in Algiers and Corsica.
When I was a child, I hated hearing his stories. For one thing, most of his experiences involved hardships, and it made me sad to think of my father suffering. For another, he described the same events so often that, by the time I reached junior high, I had them all memorized. Listening to accounts you have heard many times before is difficult for anyone—for a teenager, it is torture.
My father died last summer at the age of 91. Right up to his last day, he continued talking about World War II. But by then my feelings about his stories had changed. I realized that it wouldn’t be long before there is no one left to tell eye-witness accounts of that war. I recently read of a town that stopped holding its annual Veterans Day parade because the World War II vets who used to march in it had all passed on or had grown too old to take part. In a very few years, all the people who experienced that war will be gone. No wonder my father spent his life telling and retelling his stories, repeating them to anyone who would listen. He was making sure what happened then would never be forgotten. He was bearing witness to the experiences of everyone who lived through that war.
Growing up with my father’s stories has shaped the way I think about being a writer. I believe that, at our core, all writers are storytellers. I don’t mean just novelists, but journalists and poets, essayists, even academic writers. We, like my father, are all part of the ancient tradition that started when prehistoric people first gathered at night to relate their experiences. A very venerable lineage.
The act of storytelling is the most important part of the writer’s work. Stories are not trivial things. They are essential. They shape the way we think about the world. They teach us moral lessons. They safeguard human knowledge. They help us understand what life is all about.
When writers tell stories—through novels or memoirs, screenplays or poems—they are recording what it is like to live in this world, what it means to be alive. Writers observe the human journey, pass it on to others, and make sure it isn’t forgotten. My father did this around the kitchen table. I try to do it in my small way in books and articles. To me, it is sacred work. To preserve and record some tiny part of the human experience. To bear witness.
Jill Jepson is a traveler, professor, and transformational life coach, and the author of three books and over 60 articles. She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Chicago as well as degrees in writing, psychology, social science, and Asian studies. Using her extensive travels to places as diverse as Guatemala, Syria, Siberia, and Afghanistan, her writing explores spiritual traditions, history, culture, personal growth, and the writing process. Through her business, Writing the Whirlwind, she offers coaching and online workshops for writers, activists, and others. You can visit her website at www.writingthewhirlwind.net.