Thursday, 2 December 2010

Where do Stories come from?

Jim Linville posted an eccellent paper on Myths on his blog yesterday and it set me thinking about a kind of analysis of story-telling which I started a few weeks ago but never took any further. Maybe it's time to revist it and see where it leads.

I should be careful how I express my reservations about the concept of myth in the study of biblical stories. I most certainly do not mean to imply that I think it's the other peoples stoies which are myths whereas ours are eternal truths. Nor do I want to ditch the category – I'll probably come back to it at a later stage. But that's the point – at a later stage.

The trouble, for me, is that the idea of myth carries a lot of baggage and certainly within church circles it is liable to put up barriers. My guess is that beginning undergraduates will sometimes find it hard to get their heads around the notion.

And the problem with defining a category tightly is that it will inevitably exclude material. If myth, then not historical narrative and so on. But my interest and my approach are those of the storyteller, despite my quarter century as a clergyman (albeit a very liberal one – Bishop Jack Spong's far too conservative for me).

If we begin by defining our categories of stories I suspect that we will be in danger of missing some very interesting continuities between the stories of one category and those of another. So I want to begin with the a single heading – stories – and consider the process of their creation, re-creation and and their dissemination. And the trouble with this, of course, is that there won't be any actual evidence for any of it. It will all be conjecture and possibility, nothing more. So most academics might want to shy away. But, what the heck, I'm not a historian, I'm not textual scholar, I'm not even a preacher any more more – liberty, I love it! I'm a novelist and we are allowed to do these things.

So here goes with a very tentative first attempt at an analysis. I include under the defintion of story anything that is told and re-told, whether written, published or passed on by word of mouth – from the epic novel to the one-liner. So it includes Tolstoy's War and Peace and my own, “I was in the Singer Cafe when I heard that Kennedy had been shot;” the news items in the papers and modern myths and urban legends; the stories that Grandma tells at family gatherings. Stories from the dawn of civilisation and the parables of Jesus and the Rabbis. And anything else you can think of.

I want to concentrate, not upon what the stories are, but upon a much more elusive goal, the provenance of stories, the ways in which they are generated. For the most part, of course, this information is simply not available or can only be surmised so I begin by reference to personal stories whose provenance I am fairly sure of.

My initial breakdown of the ways in which stories are generated is as follows:

1.Telling what happened. The most straightforward way to generate a tale. Example: On Sunday we walked from the campsite to Torosay Castle where we looked around the gardens. After drinks in the cafe we walked to Duart Castle and on the way we saw a golden eagle in flight.

2.Telling what “must have happened.” Example: While we were away, some youngsters were playing in the street at the back of our house. Their ball came over the fence so they came to the door to ask to get it back. Getting no reply and seeing that our car was not on the drive, they realised that nobody was at home. So one of them climbed over the fence at the side and retrieved the ball. However, the drop on the inside of the fence was too high to climb back easily so the youngster went and found a wooden box which was beside the shed and used that as a step up, breaking it in the process. We didn't see any of this and nobody told us about it. All we noticed when we got home was that the box, now broken, which had been by the shed was now at the foot of the fence on the opposite side of the garden. Nothing else at all had been disturbed. The story is the most likely stab at explaining a minor puzzle.

3.Telling what happened but misunderstanding it: Example from a story which is happening as I write this: Two guys on an online forum frequently engage one another in argument which can, to the onlooker, appear to degenerate at times into very boorish quarreling. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. On one such occasion when the topic was a theological issue on which they disagree quite fundamentally, the exchanges seemed to have become very hostile. At this point another member of the group intervened to protest, referring to their argument as playground behaviour. This brought a quick response from one of the participants: We weren't having a "spat". We were having a discussion, veering into an argument. Danny and I are friends. Friends don't always agree.

4.Adding a context to the telling of what happened. Example: When driving through Prees Heath as we travel between Cheshire and South Wales , I will sometimes tell this ultra-short story of my father. It was along here that my father would stop for a cigarette during a 100 mile time trial. Actually I don't know where he would stop, only that he did - this was the 1930s when training and trying too hard were still rather unsporting. Prees Heath was the starting and finishing point of the 100 mile course which he used to ride and I can't imagine him stopping during a shorter race which would have have been based upon Goostrey. So I give the snippet a context – which must have been right for some of his stories even if I don't know which.

5.Telling what happened but getting some details wrong, whether inadvertantly or deliberately. Example: Several of us lads would meet in the pub for a few beers and to have a laugh. Almost always the first thing we would do would be to exchange jokes which we'd heard since the previous time we met. One time I told this one: “Why do you only get the queen's head on a fiver, never a full length portrait? Answer – so you can't counterfeit.” Laughs and groans all round and the loudest guffaws came from Gormless Dave who loved jokes but always got them wrong when he tried to tell them. So a bit later when Alf walks in, Gormless says, Hey, Bob, tell him the one about the fivers. To which I replied, No, you tell him. So Gormless tries to remember how it went and comes up with, “Why do you only get the Queen's head on a fiver and never a full length portrait? Answer – so you can't tell how many legs she's got.” Actually that's modified a bit to improve the telling. The only joke I can really remember him mangling was really too lewd for me to pass on except among the lads when rather rat-legged. My version has the benefit of being somewhat funnier as well as showing poor old Dave as rather more gormless than he really was. Not sure that his name was Dave, I only really remember Ronnie and John.

Example 2: Rev John arrived to preach, as a guest preacher, at a village church. As he dismounted from his motorbike a steward approached him. “You can't leave that there. This is a church.” John replied, “Yes I know, I'm your preacher this morning.” I may, however, have got this wrong because recently another minister, Rev Mike, recounted the very same story of himself. And, what is more, I may be mistaken in thinking it was Mike who told it – could have been someone else. I will check but not until I have actually passed this on. Just to make my point, of course.

6.Fusing two stories into one. Example: Following in my father's footsteps I took up cycling and joined his old club. I dabbled a bit with time-trialling but was never very good. The last event I rode in was the Duckinfield 50 some time in the mid sixties. About three quarters of the way through, I was riding flat out, head down, making it hurt like hell, along a stretch somewhere in Vale Royal when I thought, “Why on earth am doing this? I'd much rather be enjoying an easy ride along these great country lanes.” Later in the day I told my father about this and said I probably wasn't going to race any more. “Yes,” he replied, “I remember feeling much the same. I just used to stop for a few drags on a cigarette and then carry on.” In fact, this was not when he told me about his own cavalier attitude to smoking and racing but it fits quite neatly in the context of my own tale. Makes a better story of it and, at the same time, says that in some respects I am the same sort of guy as my father.

7.Changing the characters or the settings. Example: The novel which I am wiritng at present is a reworking of an earlier story. The action now takes place in Cheshire instead of Lancashire. One of the main characters now has a different backgroud, different profession and different name. Another remains much the same as before, and a third is altogether new. Or, probably also under this heading: Some time ago I heard this one: A guy goes into a fast foot restaurant in Poughkeepsie. When the waitress came to take his order, he said, “Tell me, how do you pronounce the name of this place?” To which she replied, slowly and deliberately, “MacDonalds.” Too good not to pass on but to do so, I gave it Welsh setting with a guy stopping at the Little Chef at Rhosllanerchrugog. And I recently came across a Milngavie and Burger King version.

There must be lots of version of this one, but could any of them be true? Consider this story which is of the same kind under a more generic heading where there are two names, one of which is unusual and the other not so: A couple approach the minister because they wish to be married. Giving their details, the man says his name is David McGoggley, to which the minister responds by asking where that name comes from. “My father was called David,” said the man, “and so was his father. And I guess if we have a boy we'll call him David as well.” Same sort of thing, really, but that one is true (apart from the minor detail of the actual name which I changed to protect Mr McGoggley's privacy) and the marriage is entered in the registers of the first church where I was minister.

8. Deliberately misleading, for either malicious or benevolent motives. We can all think of an example, I'm sure, but how about, “Honest, Guv, on the night in question I was at home with the wife. Watched telly all night.”

I am sure that these categories overlap – they could probably be reduced to just three – True, Partly true/partly false, and False. But my interest is in the processes by which stories are generated and for that reason I am sure that the more fruitful path will take us in the direction of further elaboration and subdivision. But let's stick with these for now.

What is probably clear from the above is that to be sure about which categories apply we will need to be talking about stories whose origins we ourselves know about firsthand. But if we had a collection of stories whose provenance had been subject to some thorough research, it might help our analysis along. And we do indeed have such a collection in the splendid work of the Mikkelsons at So that's our next stop before turning to the question of how all this might offer to shed light upon such diverse pursuits as the writing of fiction and reading and appreciation of stories generally.

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