24 September 2010

Just a Story

I thought I was going to write about books, and how reading education is getting it all wrong. Certainly I was writing about reading books when I began composing this in my head. But, as is often the case with the things in my head, I didn't end up exactly where was expecting to. So this is not about books. I will write about books tomorrow, maybe.

We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say — and to feel — “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” ~John Steinbeck

If you wish to annoy me, utter the phrase “just a story.” Mostly I hear it about the Bible, but people use it to deride almost anything with a narrative. “Just a story” is supposed to mean that we don't have to take it seriously because it's not REAL. Of course, anyone who has read The Velveteen Rabbit knows that real is a fluid construct. But then, The Velveteen Rabbit is “just a story.” (Unless you've ever loved anything enough to make it real. Then you know the truth.)

The Bible, of course, is “just a story.” And since it's just a story we can ignore it entirely, it's worthless. So are the Greek Myths and Aesop's Fables and the various tales told by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. They're all just stories, meant to distract us for a while until we can get back to serious real things that matter.

Your personal family mythology is “just a story.” It doesn't matter that Great-whatever Grampa came over on a boat with all of his worldly possesions in a single suitcase. It doesn't matter that your parents met at a mixer which your father was roped into after he attended a bachelor party and thus was already a bit drunk (true story) or that your father drove his motorcycle up and down your mother's street until she agreed to go out with him (probably false, as I don't think Dad owned a motorcycle.)

There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before. ~ Willa Cather

But why are those stories so distracting? Why does IMDb list 44 film adaptations of Cinderella, and Amazon more than 4000 books with Cinderella in the title. Even accounting for the marketing genius of Disney, that's a lot of Cinderella. Why do we love Cinderella? After all, it's just a story. The people in it are made up. Most of the people in the Bible are probably made up, too. If Moses was indeed a real person, then he probably wasn't quite how he is portrayed in the book of Exodus. Heroic tendencies, and even his fatal flaw, were probably buffed and polished over time to create the character we know now.

Their story, yours and mine -- it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them. —William Carlos Williams

That's the reality: Cinderella and Moses and the turtle that the world rides on, even the story of how your great-whatever came to live here, they're all made up, the collective creations of many imaginations, of the people who told the stories and the ears that heard them, and the small children who asked “tell it again!” and “what happened next?” All those people shaping a story, saving it, noticing that their Aunt or Cousin or neighbor is just like one of the characters. How could anything real come out of that?

Nothing real has ever come out of anything else. If we pay attention, a story tells us about where people lived and what they ate and how they loved each other and what made them cry. There isn't anything else to know about people.

In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood. Take the tale in your teeth, then, and bite till the blood runs, hoping it’s not poison; and we will all come to the end together, and even to the beginning: living, as we do, in the middle. ~Ursula K. Le Guin
Our stories are real. They were created by real people, preserved by real people, and even the gods and demons in them are based on the things we know best: real people. The people in the stories, they are real, because we make them that way, just like the boy in The Velveteen Rabbit.

3 comments:

  1. I don't think Dad had a motorcycle either, but I'm still curious about that Studebaker and how it got upstairs.

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  2. Like. (I wish blogs had Like buttons.) Particularly this bit: "where people lived and what they ate and how they loved each other and what made them cry. There isn't anything else to know about people."

    ReplyDelete
  3. 'nora, I actually included the Studebaker story in a first draft of this entry, but cut it because it didn't help make the point. But yes, I do want to know how it got to the top of the stairs.

    (Not) Maud, thank you.

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