2006-03-22: Storytelling, Anecdotes, Myths and Lies
Over the last few days, I have had several conversations about honesty and stories.
I'm reading the Little House books to the boys. I loved these as a kid, and I'm happy to share them with my kids. Y'know the part where Pa is telling the story about the Panther in the Woods? His father got chased by a panther, it's very dramatic, all ends well. As he tells this to Laura and Mary, is he embellishing? Sure, it's an anecdote, but how much has it become myth? It actually happened, so he's not lying, but is he telling the truth?
There's this progression from bare truth:
I cut my knee on a barbwire fence when I was 9
I was running down a mountain and I didn't see the barbwire fence, and I cut my knee.
My sister and I climbed up the mountain behind our house, and on the way up we went under a barbwire fence. It was a long climb for a 9 year old, and longer for a 6 year old. When we finally came down, I was leaping down the mountainside. And I had long forgotten the fence. I ran smack into it, and cut my knee. It bled like mad, and I needed a big bandage. The scar's about 1 1/2 inches long across the top of my knee, see?
When I was 9, my step-father took my sister and I on a hike up the mountain behind our trailer. He was a great dad when he was sober, and this is one of the really good memories I have of times with him. We packed a snack, and set off to find the top of the mountain. We climbed and climbed, following cow trails and scrambling up on boulders. At some point, we ducked under an old rusty barbed-wire fence. I bet Daddy held it up for us to go under. We kept climbing, and at last we came out on top of the mountain. It was bare and bright in the sunshine after the shade of the wooded mountainside, and there was a pasture with a white horse in it. We probably gave bits of our snack to the horse, and I remember there were tufts of wool on the shiny fence and Daddy said that meant there were most likely sheep in the pasture too. We stayed a while, then went down the mountain. Going down was fun! I felt like a bird, racing and leaping down the hillside. Suddenly I was stopped short and there was a sharp pain in my knee. I had forgotten about the fence! My knee was torn open and bleeding. I have a faint memory of Daddy wiping my knee and tying a cloth around it, and we talked a bit about lock-jaw and had I had my tetanus shots while we slowly made our way down the rest of the hill. I remember that Daddy didn't ever scold me or make me feel bad for running into the fence; it was just a thing that happened, not too big a deal, and certainly not more important than the adventure of discovering the horse on the hill-top.
See that? Each one is true, but the whole texture changes. Now, if I said (as I may have in Jr High) that I got the scar falling off a horse, that'd be a lie. But a believable one, and I did fall off a horse a couple of times.
So, where does an anecdote become a story, and a story become a myth? Here's what I think: I think a myth has something to say about the characters in it. I think a myth is different than a story in that a myth has something to say about the basic truths and values of a people or place, whereas a story can be merely funny or scary, and can jump place or people. There are lots of versions of Cinderella, but Odin on the WorldTree is Norse. Myths get told over and over, often in ritualized ways, whereas stories pass time and entertain. I think family myths tell you what is valued in your family better than if you asked folks "So, what does your family value?"
I think that being honest is a very important thing, to the point where if the kids do something they know is wrong, and they tell me what they did, they won't get in trouble. There might be consequences, but they are not 'in trouble.' Even if they lie, and then confess and say "I wasn't telling the truth; here's what really happened", they still won't be 'in trouble'. If they lie, and I find out? Trouble with a capital T.
How does being honest apply to storytelling, to mythology?
I want my kids to know the family myths; there are members of the family they will only ever know through the stories I tell them. How clearly do they need me to distinguish between Little Red Riding Hood and the time I was lost in the park? As I examine my family myths, how much honesty do they need about the crappy parts?
2006-03-22 21:12:56 Matt Wilson
Aw, I could talk about your kids all day, and I haven't even met 'em.*
So there's the question of how is 'not being accurate' the same as 'telling a lie?' And when is 'not being accurate' good or bad?
That's a tough question, he said uselessly.
What's interesting to me is the idea that there's maybe sometimes more potential for learning when stuff is a myth than when it's just some stuff that happened.
* I might be in Kinderhook, NY this summer, though! Meredith and I discussed the idea this morning. Her dad lives there. How far is that from yous guys?
2006-03-22 22:16:31 Emily
It seems like the level of honesty about the crappy parts increases over time as kids become more able to understand & take it in. Although, it's interesting that the myth version of the barbed-wire fence story has a lot more the crappy parts than the anecdote version. Like Matt said, there is more to learn from there. There's just *more* there, too! More of you, even if it's parts that got made up over time. They might be composited in from other parts of your experience that didn't actually happen then, like the feeling like a bird when you ran down (though that may well have been how you felt that day).
Honesty in storytelling is about balancing the truth of what happened with the second truth of what is being communicated in the story. Every story we tell is framed that way for a reason, and every time we retell something, we are in many ways lying—even someone else who was there would remember it in a different way (hearing Serena's version of the same story is fascinating, it's not contradictory, just contains whole other levels of her own meaning & myth).
We're always picking and choosing, but then, sometimes when it gets too far away from the truth, suddenly there you are lying. Where is the boundary? What is that about?
2006-03-23 02:11:30 Meguey
I've been thinking a lot about storytelling, myth, etc for three reasons:
1)1001 Nights is (very, very nearly) ready for playtesting, and it's all about this stuff. What is role-playing after all? Storytelling. Take away everything else, it's storytelling. At least to me.
2)I'm making a concerted effort to consciously tell more stories and family myths to my kids.
3)It's time to tell/read them Bible stories. Sebastian hit a reference to 'the Holy Grail' and he didn't know what that was. He's gotten to 9 without it, but now he needs those cultural stories/myths.
Matt, you're right on:
"What's interesting to me is the idea that there's maybe sometimes more potential for learning when stuff is a myth than when it's just some stuff that happened."
And it's more effective to use family myth to explain why it's important to be careful opening cans (insert myth here) than to just say "Can edges are sharp; be careful."
2006-03-23 21:10:58 Emily
Myth is more "sticky". If you like a story, you'll think about it & get more out of it than plain old advice.
2006-03-23 21:20:00 Meguey
Which is where all this connects to gaming!
2006-03-26 21:57:15 Sydney Freedberg
Meg, I notice your ancedote ==> myth progression keeps embellishing and getting more detailed. But that's hardly universal. In cases where we have real history to compare to the legendry (e.g. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln), it seems that mythmaking is often about making the story simpler, boiling away ambiguities and tangents until you get to whatever is the essential, resonant point for the culture in question.
Now the myths that really rock, for me, manage to do that boiling-down without being reductionist: They tend to slam you straight into a paradox that has its own central particle-way contradiction from which infinite possibilities emerge. Thus "man can do anything, and man is doomed" from a lot of Greek myths, "we must do evil to preserve the good, but does make us evil?" from the Mahabharata, and the whole electrifying package of divine-human, life-death, power-surrender paradoxes from the Gospels.
(N.B. that I consider the Gospels to be historical documents, albeit filled with compression and transmission errors like all human records, and I believe in the divinity, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, so when I say "myth" I do not mean "I don't belive it." I mean "essential story as opposed to a mere exhaustive accumulation of accurate data.")