When the acclaimed memoirist Frank McCourt died this week, he was lionized for the simple and sad storytelling in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Angela’s Ashes,” which recounted his impoverished childhood in Ireland. But he spent much of his adult life as a high school teacher in New York, where he prodded his writing students to tell their stories, using himself as an example. One former student, who became a writer, said, “He used to sort of recite from memory the stories that became ‘Angela’s Ashes.’
Some of his fellow teachers admonished him for revealing so much of himself, noting he had a right to privacy with his students. According to the New York Times essay on McCourt at his death, his colleagues would say, “Your life, man. It’s all you have.”
But he knew something the others didn’t. “The advise was wasted,” he explained, “My life saved my life.” In other words, telling his life story to his class and, later, in his book helped him heal and find out who he really was. And, not incidentally, the students loved him for it.
One common exercise in his class was asking students to describe what they had done when they got home from school the night before. “He would coax it out of us, showing us how to pay attention to mundane but telling details,” one former student remembered.
When McCourt asked one of the kids what he did the night before, the student said, “I did my homework.” “ No, no, no,” McCourt replied, according to the recollection. “What did you do when you walked in? You went through a door, didn’t you? Did you have anything in your hands? A book bag? You didn’t carry it with you all night, did you? Did you hang it on a hook? Did you throw it across the room and your mom yelled at you for it?”
The point of all this? Telling stories simply and plainly, but with plenty of details, is what turns mere communicating into something much more. It’s the stories that people remember, whether you’re a memoirist, a salesperson with a customer, or an executive trying to inspire a team.
With personal details and anecdotes, you begin to paint a vivid picture that brings the story, and the message, to life and makes it memorable.
Frank McCourt knew this in his bones.