Lost stories of a lost world

I know only only a few songs by the Moody Blues.  I had one album on cassette way back when, but I don’t even remember which it was. On  the way home tonight, I heard “Lost in a Lost World” and it struck a chord. I’m always impressed at the timelessness of some song lyrics.

I woke today, I was crying
Lost in a lost world
So many people are dying
Lost in a lost world
Some of them are living an illusion
Bounded by the darkness of their minds
In their eyes, it’s nation against nation against nation
With racial pride
Thinking only of themselves
They shun the light

Of course, I’m a sucker for a good story, whether the ending is happy or sad, that mirrors how I feel.  So story songs are my favorite. I’m an unabashed fan of Harry Chapin’s music. Certainly Taxi is in my top 10, but A Better Place to Be is probably my favorite and the one I am likely to sing to someone at bedtime – that is if John Prine’s Sam Stone was not enough to put a child to sleep. Zach is probably fortunate that he grew up before I discovered Tom Waits and did not sing Tom Traubert’s Blues, A Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis (I actually knew a call girl in my time at SIUE – she was my girlfriend’s roommate and had spent the summer working in a brothel in Nevada – but that’s another story), and I Hope I don’t Fall in Love with You. Then again, these songs might have softened his temper a bit and are perhaps a bit cheerier than Puff the Magic Dragon and some of the folk songs I sang to him.

Back when I was involved in the scout troop, storytelling was a key ritual. It built and reinforced community.  Friday and Saturday nights of our monthly campouts found the adults sitting around a fire telling and retelling the troop’s stories. For newcomers it often seemed off-putting at first since most of the stories were about boys that aged out already. But these stories were the core history of the troop. It was a small, but truly boy-led troop. The adults were there primarily for oversight and instruction. And to keep things from getting too out of hand. With this model, there was lots of room for stories to develop since there was very little, “No, don’t do that.” Zach created quite a few stories for the troop.

Saturday night campfires involved mandatory skits. It was more than entertainment, it was about encouraging creativity and performance for peers. A lot of the skits were rehashed versions of skits from Scouting or Boy’s Life magazines . Occasionally they were new. For a couple of years, Zach and one or two others would steal ideas from “Whose Line is it Anyway” and do improv like “Scenes from a Hat” where they would draw random slips of papers with scenes to act out. It ranged from groans to laughter. Adults had to had participate as well. But, other than Scout Vespers there was almost never any singing around the fire. Occasionally one of the assistant scoutmasters would sing ballad of the “Uneasy Rider” to which I would respond with the “Talking Ben Tre” blues and thus kill any further song. Apparently, anti-war songs weren’t the right tone.

It was all about the stories though.

Storytelling with data is much of what I do. However, it tends towards the implicit more than the explicit. When I was in the MFA program, one of my colleagues at the museum was fond of criticizing my paintings as he felt the stories were too obvious.  “Tod, my problem with your work is it that it is story-based and the stories are too obvious. Good art is always implicit, never explicit, as David says,” (our boss). “I think if you want to paint butts, then just paint butts, no stories.” First, he may have thought the stories were obvious, but he never quite got the stories right , he just saw a story. And two, he was the one that did nothing but paint butts. That was his thing.

The difference between implicit and explicit art or storytelling, is interesting. The explicit leaves little for the audience’s imagination to do.  Perhaps. I think it depends on how much they are engaged in the story. A two-dimensional painting or drawing can only do so much of the work. A video or movie can do much more, but still can’t do everything. And a story read or recited leaves as much to the imagination as the storyteller chooses. Implicit art simply leaves out detail allowing the audience to make more choices and assumptions, even as far as what the basic point of the piece is. To my mind, it can be somewhat lazy, if it is not somehow clear that the work is only about the aesthetic.

Transcending the discussion between implicit and explicit is Picasso’s “Guernica” painted in reaction to the use of town (of the same name) for bombing practice by the Nazis. The nearly monochromatic approach to color, Cubist style, and general abstraction take this painting far from the explicit save for a clear depiction of death and woe.  At the other end of the spectrum is John Singer Sargent’s “Dr. Pozzi Comes Home.” On the surface, this is simply a beautiful full-length portrait of an apparently beautiful man. It is pretty explicit on that level. On the other hand, there is seriously implied humor in the painting on multiple levels – especially with knowledge of about eight or ten words of the backstory. Both paintings tell stories and are deserving of hours of study and appreciation.

I used to try to write enrollment reports and a couple of special region reports that were storytelling about the data leading to an inevitable conclusion based on the presented data. It didn’t work. Every report or whitepaper had to have an executive summary that told the answer, and that’s where ninety percent of readers stopped. Also, agency heads in the past really wanted to impose an authoritative voice that was generally dry and matter-of-fact. My response was to reduce my writing to the bare minimum, and provide more and more data on the website making it a Pandora’s Box of higher ed stories. The stories are there, you just have to pick one to follow and know that the ending may not always be happy.

In participating on a forum for people with acoustic neuromas and associated brain tumors (like mine) I have experienced first-hand the power of individual stories when shared in such a forum. The sharing of a common struggle with a new member who is equal measures of terrified and curious lead to a reduction in fear from the comfort of knowing that others have been down a similar path and have had successful outcomes. Knowing further of the challenges and the less successful outcomes creates likely boundaries that reduce the fear of the unknown. My own story tends to scare the hell out of newbies, so I always warn, “I am not typical. I am an extreme case, and look at me now.” (Some might say this applicable beyond my my brain tumor.)

Forums, blogs, social media, Listserv archives, and all the other digital methods of sharing, capture the informal storytelling on the Net. These stories range from the mundane, the silly, pointless, to the powerful, the life-changing.

I stumbled across this while catching up on Twitter:

This is why, as Sir Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in his book Remembering (1932), no two people will repeat a story they have heard the same way and why, over time, their recitations of the story will diverge more and more. No ‘copy’ of the story is ever made; rather, each individual, upon hearing the story, changes to some extent – enough so that when asked about the story later (in some cases, days, months or even years after Bartlett first read them the story) – they can re-experience hearing the story to some extent, although not very well (see the first drawing of the dollar bill, above).

“The empty brain”. Aeon, Robert Epstein.

Is this another way of saying that the observer interacts with the observed and that only at the end of the story do we know if the cat is alive or dead? Taking it further, doesn’t this tell us that the status of the cat changes for both observers as the chronologic distance from the original story increases? (Yes, I tend think about time in terms of distance instead of interval.) Our stories change the listeners and the stories change through retelling by others, and even ourselves. Recording our stories, by writing, painting, song, whatever medium is appropriate, gives them a bit more permanence and the ability to reach a greater audience. Not necessarily a much bigger audience, but one outside our relatively small circle of social existence, to others that might need to hear our stories.

There is an audience for every story, especially those that are most difficult to tell. It may seem otherwise, but there is comfort in knowing that someone else has been down the same path. Perhaps they merely survived, maybe they thrived, or died. But knowing the story and similar stories provides path ,and a path is generally more comfortable to walk than to break trail. But there will always be those who wish to break trail to write new stories.

While I think we will never not need stories, especially good stories, I think more than ever we need true stories right now. I think we need to dig past many of the contemporary retellings that have transcended myth and become fact in today’s news cycles. We need the stories of individuals as actors in history, as everyday hero and protagonist, who struggle to make their own path or follow the paths of others. I’ve learned recently just how important some of these stories are because they rarely are told. When someone stumbles upon a story, and reaches out to the teller, a connection is made, strengthening both, and letting each know they are not alone.

There is an audience for every story. And a need for it to be told.

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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