Tag Archives: Story telling

The Power of Story, by Carole Howard

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.

Queen of Sheba Meeting with Solomon, from The Legend of the True Cross Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Queen of Sheba Meeting with Solomon, from The Legend of the True Cross
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

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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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Second Wind Publishing.

 

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Arc of Truth

Jay DuretBy Jay Duret

 

I am a liar.

I write fiction, that’s the job description.

I am fine with the undeniable fact that I will go to my grave as a liar, but I have noticed that some of my colleagues squirm under the label. They don’t want to lie for a living; they get queasy when describing what they write as “fiction”, the very word a declaration of mendaciousness. They believe, as I do, that lying can be a way to truth, sometimes the only way. But they want that idea to be more than just a line in a graduate student’s paper or an aphorism attributed to Hemingway. (“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” “You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true.”)

Because we live in an age where each of us can create our own narrative, some writers have cast off from the fiction pier and are floating into waters closer to the shore that has been called, forever, by the bad name “non-fiction”. The problem is, despite its bad label, non-fiction is a real thing. There is an underlying school of craft – we call it journalism – that has rules and boundaries. A fiction writer can’t simply declare that he or she has landed on the shores of non-fiction and proceed to take up shop there; doing that would subject the writer to the rules and regulations governing the craft of non-fiction, a weighty commitment, particularly for those who love fiction precisely for the freedom it offers from overbearing regulation.

But that doesn’t end the matter. For those floating in the waters between fiction and non-fiction, new possibilities are arising, and I do not mean Creative Non Fiction. CNF, according to Lee Gutkind editor of the magazine Creative Non-Fiction, is subject to the same rules of reporting that govern journalism. The “creative” in CNF does not mean creating facts; it means telling the story with some of the tools of fiction – pacing, suspense, flashbacks, etc. A good piece of CNF is no less required to be grounded in actuality than a piece of straight up reporting. As Gutkind puts it:

“Creative” doesn’t mean … that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: “You can’t make this stuff up!”

When writers ignore Gutkind’s maxim, disaster can follow. Truth in labeling is the way of American commerce, why should it be different in writing than in, say, soup packaging? I like this quote about the writer of A Million Little Pieces, an Oprah Book Club Selection that became a best seller before The Smoking Gun outed the book’s many fabrications:

James Frey wants us to believe that he is a tough but sensitive bad-boy writer with a drug problem. The truth is, he’s a sensitive but boyish bad writer with a truth problem[1].

No, calling fiction CNF will not solve the writer’s dilemma. Fortunately in this, as in so many things, writers can borrow from another art form: movies. With the bigger budgets and the legions of people involved in making a movie – they have producers, best boys, gaffers! They have lawyers on the creative team! – no wonder motion pictures have fished these waters better than solitary writers tapping their keyboards in lonely scows and leaky rowboats. The movie industry has created a finely gauged explanation of the territory between fiction and non-fiction and that can serve as an excellent guide for writers.

The foundation of movies – perhaps other than documentaries – is to have  extremely good looking actors and actresses pleasingly stand in for the sad sacks whose stories are being related (All the President’s Men – I mean, really, Robert Redford is a beat reporter?). Given that foundation, it is hard to say that any movie is actually “true” – but a movie will frequently self identify as A True Story. That’s a wonderful phrase and frankly might be just the perfect oxymoron to serve any writer in need of a forgiving description of their work. Yet if the body of CNF proves anything, it is that non-fiction can be told as a story and therefore A True Story may not be quite as oxymoronic as one might have supposed. No, further nuance is needed.

Based on a True Story – here is a category that gives a writer some freedom! Nothing in it says that lying is involved – the writer is telling truth! – it is just that the truth the writer is telling is devolved from an underlying truth;  it is an expression of that truth, just not exactly the literal truth that might be found in the Palace of Truth and Justice. True, but not true in the pedestrian sense a member of the public might have otherwise expected. Understood properly, BTS is a branch of metaphysics.

So much of fiction is BTS that the category – by itself – solves the problem for most writers. But for writers that paddle even further from the banks of non-fiction, the movie industry offers an even more flexible concept: Inspired by a True Story. This one is a winner. Short of flat out fantasy, what fiction doesn’t fall under the category of ITS? And how could any reader complain if that little bit of disclosure were to be appended to the description of a book marketed as fiction? How could the writer be called out? As far as I can see, the best approach for one bent on attacking the description would be to say that a dreary work was not inspired. That would seem easier to prove in a court of law or public opinion than the proposition that somewhere – anywhere – there wasn’t some true story that the writer’s tale sprang from. Yes, Inspired By A True Story does the job: it will lend almost any piece of fiction a fine patina of truthfulness.

As good as ITS is, it doesn’t quite work for me. I write many stories that are all or mostly dialogue. I have come to believe – for better or worse – that you can tell the reader all they need to know about the characters by what they say and they way they say it. Many of my stories have come to me by eavesdropping – one of those things, like lying, that are essential parts of a fiction writer’s trade. Often I will hear a conversation and later on, after I have played it through in my head a dozen times, I will put it down on paper and find that I have a story that – at least to my own taste – is of interest.

Yet this is where I run into trouble. An editor will read my piece and ask if I am submitting the story as Fiction or Non Fiction or CNF. (Indeed, Submittable usually requires a commitment to one of those categories right from the start.) I could cover myself with a judicious use of the key phrase Inspired By A True Story but that disclosure – broad as it may be – needs some adaptation to apply to my type of writing. For when you start with an eavesdropped conversation, you never know whether the event that is being discussed is actually true or not. You may have happened upon two bullshitters – whose conversation you may be reporting truthfully – but there is no true story beneath it. I needed a way to capture that nuance.

At first I tried to explain it – but many of my editors did not possess the forgiving span of attention that the nuance inherent in this thing requires. And then I had an inspiration. Why not handle it with a picture, a diagram, an illustration? That would save me explaining the details to editors too busy  to focus. And that is how I came to memorialize the Arc of Truth.

I am not much of an illustrator but I like the way the arrow on the dial moves between black and white with shades of grey in between. Not fifty of them, alas, but enough for these purposes:

Arc of Truth3

 

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Jay Duret is a San Francisco based writer who blogs at www.jayduret.com. His first novel, Nine Digits, will be published by Second Wind Publishing this year. Visit the website: www.ninedigits.com. Jay welcomes feedback at jayduret@yahoo.com. Read his prior posts on the Second Wind blog:

Nom De Plume

Nom De Plume

Bridalplasty

Bridalplasty

Queen For A Day

Queen For A Day

Last Man Standing

Last Man Standing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] http://listverse.com/2010/03/06/top-10-infamous-fake-memoirs (retrieved July 23, 2014).

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Nighttime Intruder

DSCN0730

The other night I’d left my elderly, portly cat Lizzie outside to fend for herself.  I shouldn’t, even though the neighborhood is mostly quiet. My experience of living here is that when you least expect it—expect it! I was relaxed during the summer a few years back when the folks across the street let their pit-bull escape. When he body-slammed our screen door, barking and snarling—we realized he wanted to get inside and eat our cats. Fortunately, back then, all the fuzzy butts were hale and fast on their feet. The second time this lethal weapon got loose, his owners spent over an hour attempting to catch him, apparently because they were more afraid of him than he was of them. Anyway—that’s another story—but it should explain why I couldn’t go to sleep, knowing Lizzie was waddling around the nighttime yard. After a couple of hours, I gave up the attempt to lose consciousness and went downstairs to collect her.

Another neighbor has one of those parking lot lights blazing away in his backyard, which actually makes it harder to see because of the high contrast it creates. Behind our tall fence, under the old silver maple, we remain in a small slice of darkness. Close to my feet, out tiger Bob muttered something like “Wowie Mrrrrrrp” deep down in his throat. I had an intuition he was cautioning me about something. My eyes were slow to adjust, and, as I stood on the patio in my nightgown I heard the distinct sound of something brushing through the flowerbed about ten feet away. My gaze pried into shadow. That was when I saw of a blaze of white and then the pacing movement, a distinct side to side motion, whisking away from me, across the porch. An oily smell, traveling more slowly, was the final clue to who this intruder was, visiting my nighttime yard.

The better part of valor was to retreat, so I did, back inside to turn on the porch light. By the time I did that, nothing was visible, just my cats. Bob sat by the door.  Lizzie was a little further out by a small spruce, lying there in the classic meatloaf posture, front paws neatly tucked under her chest. Clearly, neither of them was alarmed, simply keeping a respectful distance, while the skunk came to drink out of the water pots/bird baths that litter my yard. We’d moved into drought , so I wasn’t surprised some of the local outlaws were availing themselves of the detente of the nighttime suburban water hole.

Juliet Waldron

Hand-me-Down Bride & Roan Rose @ Second Wind Publishing  & Smashwords

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Date Night at the Library

Back when I was single, the prospect of going to the library on a Saturday night was NOT a good thing…it wasn’t cool, it wasn’t hip, and it certainly wasn’t a way to attract a date worth having.

I must be getting old.

Saturday night is a great night to be at the library, especially when there’s a national event happening at libraries around the world at the same time. Date night at the library becomes something grander and a whole lot more fun when you throw in talented story tellers. I’m referring to the national Tellabration event held at libraries everywhere the Saturday before thanksgiving. Beginning at 7:00 p.m., the lies …er, stories start flying and the laughter begins.

At our local Tellebration, I learned about stupid hunting dogs (and one in particular that “don’t look so good” — which could mean he doesn’t see very well), fast cars (in this case, how a fast car got a girl’s attention and a husband all on the same night), and the importance of recycling everything (what would you do if you found someone’s yearbook in the bottom of a garbage can you were diving into for treasures?).

Storytelling is also educational. For instance, I learned that bulls can be mesmerized by flashlights on a night of frog gigging (bulls will attack if they think a flashlight causes them great pain – which one story teller suggested is possible when a third party sneaks up behind the bull and yanks hard on a certain body part while the bull is focused on a flashlight near a pond at the foot of hill). I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to weave that into one of my novels, but it sure was a fun story to hear.

Everyone’s a story teller, and everyone can participate in these events. Find a local storytelling group through your local library. Once the stories … er, lies start flowing, there’s to telling where you’ll end up.
http://www.mtairynews.com/view/full_story/10398265/article-Tellabration–draws-record-crowd?instance=secondary_stories_left_column

Laura S. Wharton is the author of The Pirate’s Bastard and the upcoming children’s book, Mystery at the Festival Phoenix, both published by Second Wind Publishers. Her website is http://www.laurawhartonbooks.com. Her next book signing will be at Barnhill’s Books in Winston-Salem, N.C., on December 11.

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