Brian Doyle: The Power of Story

Brian Doyle

I remember sitting in the front row the small theatre at Chuckanut Community College in Bellingham, Washington. A medium sized man with a salt and pepper beard walked on stage with some random papers and started talking in such an entrancing way that I didn’t even noticed that 45 minutes had passed. We laughed with him, cried with him, felt vulnerable and I hung on every word. I don’t know what he did to me but I had never been so attached to anyone speaking in a very long time. He reminded of why I ever wanted to write way back when I was 16 years old and I thought maybe, somewhere along the way, that perhaps I’d be a writer, maybe someday, to tell amazing stories.

This is Brian Doyle and he has a story to tell.

Brian Doyle grew up Irish Catholic in New York City, a background that he pulls from regularly. Now that he is out here in the West Coast, that weird place on the other side of the country where everyone dresses casual, (the typical NYC attitude) with his Oregon raised wife, he is now here with us and enjoying the lack of class, ancestry and legacy structure and our intrinsic love of the natural environment. Even though you can still hear New York in his voice he fits in our environment well. Brian is a strange creature. He’s been a writer his whole life. Before he ensconced himself at the Portland Magazine he but his teeth in newspapers in magazines. As a young writer, he had his father, a newspaper man, to watch up late at night wordsmithing and then listened to his mom weave tales and tell stories to her children. I imagine him being as taken in by these scenes as I was when he was speaking on that stage. His father’s advice to him as a young writer came from the simplicity that marcated his parents as “rye, gentle, and wise people”:

Get a job

Write everyday, no matter what

Type fast

Learn to ask a question

Be Tender

Why is story still so compelling?

Brian lives a tremendous story. Obviously, as New Yorker he was deeply affected by 9–11 and lost two childhood friends in the disaster. And while he is not excited about the completion of One World Trade Center, he believes that he personally contributes to the War on Terror: “I can tell a better story than Bin Laden’s story, that’s my contribution.” Through the power of story Brian helps us understand ourselves, work through tragedy and give the complexity of lives simple context.

I asked why he thought story was so compelling. He described stories as a kind of sacrosanct food. “People have been sitting around the fire telling stories for a million years.” In his talks he always talks about how we as writers should “catch and share” stories. His passion for story is not only evident in his writing in stories like: The Typewriter in the Basement and How to Hit Your Dad, and How Did You Become a Writer but also in his novels: Mink River, Martin Martin, The Clover, and Chicago (out next year). His writing has a quiet intensity and authenticity that is sometimes hard to find in the world of blog posts and listicles. His writing is real and genuine and the sad part is that that feels like a breath of fresh air now rather than the normality of writing that was so evident not many years ago.

Don’t live a life of ads and sales pitches, have a story.

“Friends are story companions!” He exclaimed, “Take them with you on your stories and tell stories about what you did later!” His whole concept around story has me entirely enraptured. I felt really privileged to speak with someone who is not only the editor of a great magazine but also someone who knows how to be vulnerable before you and on the page. Not only does he make me miss the gritty streets of New York and the energy of the city but he reminds what is to live, survive, to love and to lose and all the people that came and go in that process.

The power of story is tremendous and Brian is a great storyteller.

Favorite Things:

Living writer? Annie Dillard, Jane Morris

Dead writer? Robert Lewis Stevenson, John Steinbeck

Who would you meet on a park bench living or dead and what is the one thing you would ask them?

Robert Lewis Stevenson or Jesus, with a glass of home made wine

Your Order at the coffee shop?

Small black coffee of the day

What are you listening to right now?

Bossa Nova, Samba, Brazilian from the 60s

Jazz older jazz, italian jazz, eclectic

What are you reading right now and why?

All the Light We Cannot See, James Norman Hall

To get samples of his amazing writing:

The Sun

Orion Magazine

The American Scholar

Originally published at on October 7, 2015.