Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What I tell you three times...

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, storytelling

Telling stories is the most human of human activities. Even autistic people tell stories (those who are capable of speech). In a disorderly, chaotic world, stories make the meaningless meaningful, the chaotic orderly, and the confusing sensible. We use stories to amuse ourselves and others, to "one-up" rivals, and ultimately to define who we are.

As a professor of American Culture and a practiced storyteller (both print and performance), Bruce Jackson is well suited to "look under the covers" of stories and storytelling in his book The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories.

As I began to read the book, I wondered if it might ruin stories for me. I remembered once, walking with a lady friend: as we passed a particularly lush lawn I noted that it was all crabgrass. I told this to my friend, stating that a grass that is so strong might as well be used for lawns; it thrived better than all our "bought" grasses. She scowled and said, "I thought it was real pretty until you said that."

Dr. Jackson delves into stories in three areas: Personal, Public, and "Too Good to be True" (but we accept them anyway).

We all tell stories, all the time. When my wife and I tell each other how our day went, we're condensing a confusing scramble of little-related events into two or three "bullet points" that meant something to us: we're telling stories. When a friend asks how my son is doing at college, most of my reply is in story form. When something amusing happens, I or a friend will recall a similar incident, highlighting the recitation to display the similarity, often with an amusing twist.

Are our stories true? Never, and always. Here is one I've told when instructing young spelunkers on the first principle of caving/climbing safety, "It IS possible to get into something you can't get out of":
My Dad sometimes took me hiking in the desert. Once, when I was 12, we took different paths. I would up climbing a cliff, until I got to a point where I couldn't go up, and could not see how to get back down. I was ~30 feet up. When he found me, he told me, step by step, what foot to move in what direction to find footholds so I could descend safely.
It is a true story, but I leave out a lot of details, such as that I hollered for a while, or the gray color of Dad's face when he caught sight of me.

Sometimes we read or hear a story and appropriate it, such as this one I have told a few times:
My family dined at Chinese restaurants a lot. I learned to use chop sticks very young. Once, right after we began eating, a waitress looked at us a moment, then dashed to the back of the restaurant. She returned with two small Chinese children, and said, "See, they eat with chop sticks!"
This could have happened to us, but it didn't. I read it in a Reader's Digest in the 1970s. But I've used it as though...Did I lie? Strictly speaking, yes. It is harder to say whether the rock-climbing story is wholly truthful because of all that I leave out. To this day (I am 60 now), Asians are amused and often remark on my skill with chop sticks. In a certain sense, then, the restaurant story is still happening.

Public stories are a more collective effort. The author dwells for a chapter and a half (and parts of others) on the story of O.J. Simpson's murder trial and the very public drama so many spent a year of their lives upon. The whole truth will never be told in full (unless someone gets to the murderer with a syringe of pentothal). But the story, a collaboration between the police, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, OJ, the victims' families, journalists, broadcasters and a hugely willing public, lives on and is still morphing this way and that, in two versions, a black one and a white one. On this stage, the race tensions of the mid-1990s were played out (By the way, I find it refreshing that, less than fifteen years later, Barack Obama is a serious contender for President. Things do change).

But OJ is not the only megastory of these times. Jackson discusses whether Bob Dylan was booed at Newport, the archetypical hero embodied in the Lone Ranger, the need to "break the mold" for some stories to be told, and the euphemisms public (and not-so-public) figures use to distance themselves from responsibility for the consequences of the stories they find themselves enacting: "Mistakes were made", or "Events resulted in the officer dying" (this by the officer's murderer).

The penultimate chapter chronicles a truly inventive imposter and the widespread fraud he perpetrated on the author and others. He was such a charming raconteur, that even those who knew he was lying let it continue for quite a while, until he got so far out on a limb nobody could keep silent any more.

Ultimately, while "the story [of our own life] is true," none of us can ever tell the whole truth—it would take longer in the telling than in the living. Somehow, most of us recognize the boundary between the lies we have to tell and those we don't. The "real liars" help us define that boundary.

No comments: