The joy of story-telling is more-or-less always on my mind because my granddaughter and I frequently make up stories. They usually involve playgrounds and dinosaurs and they’re always a hoot.
I recently saw a more serious kind of story, though (lucky me!): Pierro della Francesca’s “The Legend of the True Cross” in Arezzo, Italy. I was awe-struck by the 15th century frescoes’ power to tell a story to a population who, largely, couldn’t read or write. The story told is how the wood from the Garden of Eden became the cross on which Christ was crucified.
From an art history point of view, I learned, the frescoes are remarkable for their geometrical perspective and the elegance of the Biblical figures presented. From a religious point of view, the series is important because of the way it integrates various parts of the narrative.
For me, even with my limited knowledge of art history or the Bible, it was a breathtaking moment.
There I was, in the Basilica of San Francesco, surrounded by 10 beautiful and enormous paintings with exquisite detail and glorious colors telling an oft-told story in a new way. “Wow” doesn’t do it justice, but it does capture my reaction.
And I got to thinking about the power and uses of story-telling – and not just the ones with playgrounds and dinosaurs.
Some stories deliver a message, like the one my mother told (and re-told) of my grandmother, in Poland at the end of the nineteenth century, coming to America. Her parents were against the idea, but she persisted. (Parents of 16-year olds can relate to this.) The rabbi advised them that she only wanted to leave because they didn’t want her to. If they gave her permission, even provided the money, she’d never leave. (Reverse psychology, way back when!) You know what happened next. The rabbi was wrong.
Tragically, her father followed her to America to bring her home and, while here, had a fatal heart attack. My mother never added, “The moral of the story is that if you go against your parents, dreadful things can happen.” She didn’t have to; the story did the work.
Others package up a universal truth (Emperor’s New Clothes, Boy Who Cried Wolf), introduce us to endless variations of characters and situations, transport us, sell a political candidate (don’t get me started!), or teach us about history. Often, the narrative becomes the truth.
(I hate to admit it, but my husband has been saying this for years. Every time he tells a story and I point out that it’s not exactly the way it happened, he insists it doesn’t matter.)
For example, what did George Washington say after he chopped down the cherry tree? Not so fast. He didn’t say “I cannot tell a lie.” In fact, he didn’t even chop down that tree. It’s a great story to demonstrate his integrity and courage, but it didn’t actually happen.
And many of my religious friends tell me they don’t think biblical stories need to be taken literally, as history. Maybe the Red Sea didn’t actually part, they say. It doesn’t matter. The story resonates. The story tells a truth, they say, more important than the historical truth.
Is that why we write? To tell a story that conveys a truth, whether literal or not? Even if it’s “only” our own personal truth? And is that why we read, to hear others’ truths? Or is it more about entertainment?
And what stories have particular resonance for you, whether they’re literally true or not? For me, there’s the story of the prodigal son (aka my brother), which showed me a helpful way to interpret a family dynamic. And then there’s the forever-haunting story told in Sophie’s Choice. And, of course, there’s the story of my magnolia, which is absolutely, positively 100% true!
And many more. How about you?
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