Storytelling…

Readers of this blog know I’ve recently doubled my storytelling power. I’ve entered a collaboration with A. B. Carolan. He is rumored to be a descendant of the great Irish harpist and troubadour Turlough O’Carolan. Whether true or not, he was a child who was stolen and raised by leprechauns, who either taught him or honed his skills at storytelling. He now lives in Donegal, Ireland, where he communicates frequently with me, as all good collaborators do. We don’t always agree and argue about turns-of-phrase and the bons mots, but we both favor Jameson whiskey, a mighty fine drink.

Storytelling dates from human beings’ pre-history. It makes us more human.  If readers and writers disappear, we will be less human.  Cultural anthropologists (I almost became one) and other scientists often study the hunter-gatherer foundations of civilizations and use the few remaining hunter-gatherers as test groups for their theories. They predate agricultural society and got us started down that long road to where we are today. Stephen Greenblatt in the Times’ op-ed column “Why Our Stories Matter” (12/21/17) asks: “How did humans learn cooperative behavior such as food-sharing, the care of others, the coordination of tasks, [and] the acceptance of [social] norms?” His answer: it “…has everything to do with the stories we tell.”

I suppose many of these stories originally were pantheistic myths to explain the world around the hunter-gathers: day and night, sun and sky, the seasons and weather, flora and fauna, and so forth—simple stories that acted like social glue. Fast forward to the wandering minstrels of the Middle Ages, troubadours like O’Carolan and his predecessors, and even the singers in Harvard Square, MA, where Joan Baez acquired fame as a folk singer before she became political. These were often poets as well, creating sagas of romance, heroism, and war and conflict. And let’s not forget those Irish monks who preserved the great classic stories that would have been lost as warring Viking hordes burned and pillaged their way across Europe.

Storytelling is as old as any cave painting, I’m sure—it’s the oral/aural part of ancient art while those paintings are the visual, but they probably often told similar stories. No fiction writer should ever forget this tradition. No fiction reader should either. The ability to tell stories, listen to them, and read them, is quintessentially human. While one can argue that plays and movies tell stories too, they start with and depend on the written word. When I saw the movie The Shape of Water, I noted that Guillermo Del Toro, the director, had written the story and collaborated on the screenplay, and immediately thought, “That’s why this movie is so good!” All plays and movies start with the written word; the great ones carry on the storytelling tradition that makes us human.

I like to think I tell good, entertaining stories. Some are better than others—that’s a given—and some readers will never see because I don’t think they’re good enough. Note that I don’t say that agents or publishers think they’re not good enough. Too many of them don’t know a good story when they read one, and too many care more about profits and representing publishers, not authors, than great storytelling.

That’s what we’ve come to these days. Too much of our entertainment is passive drivel that can’t even compare with the most pre-historic oral myths or cave paintings. That’s sad because humanity is becoming less human in the process. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is effectively occurring now as reading and literacy take their nosedives into irrelevancy, and we humans will have no one to blame except ourselves.

Have you read a good book lately?

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In libris libertas….

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