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'Stories that tell who we are'
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LaVerne Paulson, a sixth-grade teacher, is contributing several stories to the Preston storytelling project. He's standing in his classroom, in front of a wall filled with airsickness bags he's collected. At last count, Paulson had about 115 of them. (MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)
There are wonderful storytellers all around our region. But some of the best are in small towns. Whether it's over the afternoon card game at Chic's Pizza or a walleye dinner at the Branding Iron, someone's always got a tale to tell. But very few people in Preston ever considered committing their words to paper -- at least not until now.

Preston, Minn. — This past winter, the Fillmore County Journal started requesting submissions from area residents for stories of the area. Contributors to the local paper's story project didn't need any prior writing experience. They only had to follow two rules -- the stories had to be true, and they had to be short. The newspaper plans to publish about 100 of the submissions in a book. Many of them are from first-time writers.

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Image Paulson teaching math

LaVerne Paulson has written three pieces for the story project. This is the first time Paulson, a middle school teacher, has gotten up the courage to submit his writing for publication. But he admits he's always been captivated by stories.

"My dad used to cut my hair for years. The first haircut I got by a real barber, my father told me that the only way they could get me to sit still was to read the stories in the paper," says Paulson. "They'd save them up for weeks and then when I was having my hair cut, they would read those stories to me. And that was the only way they could keep me quiet."

Paulson is fond of telling stories, too. He's got one that ends with the family dog being devoured by a wolf. And one in which his father shoots a bobcat while walking to church. But up until now, LaVerne's audience has been limited to the sixth-grade class he teaches at Fillmore Central Middle School.

"If you ask my students, my story problems I write for math are a story in themselves," says Paulson, as he relates a few of them.

The writing of these stories is so important, because it is a piece of Americana ... You have to share these things with your children and your grandchildren. Sit under a tree. Put them on your knee, and tell them stories.
- LaVerne Paulson

"'Seven herds of pink sharks have been circling the island searching for a munchable mole.' I've got things on here on rabid salamanders," says Paulson. "I just love the way 'rabid salamander' sounds. One that the kids really liked this last time around is 'an ugly bite-mark on the trout's fin was the result of many massive mongoose munches.'" Despite Paulson's passion for prose, his literary reviews have come only from his 12-year-old students. Sometimes, they even write comments in the margins of class worksheets.

"They'll say, 'Nice alliteration, Mr. Paulson,' or some other things. All they have to do is keep it clean," he says.

When Paulson found out the Fillmore County Journal was looking for stories, he took it as a sign from above. He says the paper's project was just the motivator he needed to wade into the world of writing.

The Journal will compile the stories and publish them in a book this fall. Paulson can't wait to see his words in print. But for now, he's working on new material by taking his tales on the road -- literally.

Paulson is Preston's drivers' education instructor. Between parallel parking attempts and four-way stops, his students hear many of this stories. They hear about his collection of motion-sickness bags. And about his brothers -- guys he swears can shoot the head off a bumblebee in just one try.

When asked about his submissions for the Journal's story project, Paulson says his best piece is one about a run-in with a mountain lion. But, ever the writer, he doesn't want the ending to get out before the book hits the shelves. As a concession, he offers to share a story about his father.

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Image The Fillmore County Journal

"He was raised in a deeply, deeply Norwegian Lutheran family. You didn't have playing cards in the house. They were tools of the devil. One day my brothers were shooting at a pheasant on a Sunday. And you didn't hunt on Sunday. You didn't do anything on Sunday except what had to be done. And living on a farm, we milked cows and that was about it," says Paulson.

"They were shooting at this pheasant on a Sunday afternoon and he (his father) found out about it, and went to take the gun away from them. Next thing you know, he's got it in his hands. Big puff of feathers and the pheasant drops like a rock. My mother made it for supper, and dad wouldn't eat it. He was so ashamed he had broken the Sabbath," Paulson recalls.

"I remember eating it. I don't remember how good it tasted. But he wouldn't even come into the room with it. He was that upset. He never was too proud of this day. But I wrote this story cause it tells something about him," Paulson says.

Not even a blind turn can get Paulson out of storytelling mode. He says the story project reminded him of something important -- you don't have to rescue someone from a burning building or sail around the world to have a story worth telling.

"The writing of these stories is so important, because it is a piece of Americana. I can't stress this enough. You have to share these things with your children and your grandchildren. Sit under a tree. Put them on your knee, and tell them stories. If they don't like it, they'll like it sooner or later."

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