The Enigma of Storytelling
I wrote this over a year ago, and since then my understanding of storytelling and what it means to me has certainly evolved substantially. So, if I were to go back and write this same essay now, I would take a slightly different approach. But I still think there are parts of it that are resonant to how I feel about storytelling and its place in our collective culture.
For generations, India has deeply cherished The Panchatantra, a collection of fables that very much resembles the moral folklore of Greek storyteller Aesop. There are stories about love and hate, selflessness and greed, pain and pleasure, and right and wrong. Ever since Vishnu Sharma compiled The Panchatantra thousands of years ago, the stories have, according to scholar Franklin Edgerton, “been worked over and over again, expanded, abstracted, turned into verse, retold in prose, translated and retranslated.” The stories children hear in the rural villages of Southern India aren’t the same as the mass printed picture books on international shelves. The stories heard in Iceland aren’t the same as the stories heard in Indonesia. The characters are the same, the settings are the same, and even the beginnings and ends are the same. But the nuances of the stories themselves are infinite. Yet, despite the endless permutations and combinations, The Panchatantra is almost universally unchallenged. It seems irrelevant that what people hear has been filtered by the minds of millions of people who heard and passed down these stories before them.
So when I read Tim O’Brien’s “How To Tell A War Story”, a haunting piece that chronicles the horrors of the Vietnam War, I was exposed to a world of frustration and angst in storytelling that surprised me. Why did people change the stories they told? And what compelled an audience to surrender to something so irresolute? O’Brien drew me into the fascinating relationship that exists between a storyteller and his audience, and both the conscious and subconscious expectations each has of the other. O’Brien struggles to revive battlefield experiences through words. Every time he tells the story of how fellow soldier Lemon died in Vietnam, his sharing of the experience changes. When he tells the story for the first time, Lemon and his friend Rat Kiley were just “goofing off…they didn’t understand about the spookiness,” (2). Lemon stepped on a land bomb and exploded. That was it. When O’Brien tells the story again, the focus shifts to Rat’s reaction, as he shoots a baby buffalo into “chunks of meat below the ribs”, (7). We now see Rat in a paralyzed state of sorrow and disbelief. We now see a monster of emotions swirling inside a character that wasn’t even the focus of the original story. And when O’Brien tells the story yet again, Lemon’s face “was brown and shining” (9) and the “sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him into a tree,” (9). The story of a human being’s death transforms from almost dismissive to haunting to beautiful.
No matter how many times O’Brien tells his war stories, he’s never satisfied. He doesn’t know how to “separate what happened from what seemed to happen” (2), how to tell a story when “right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty,” (8). Even when he comes so close to nailing the core of those haunting war moments, those forever ingrained moments of terror, sorrow, grief, and courage- the heart of the stories still lie deep within his soul, like a nagging itch that grows and grows with time, begging and screaming for its owner to do it better justice. He realizes over time that it’s not obtaining the elusive truth that matters. It’s the journey trying to that does.
But if it’s so difficult to express our own thoughts, let alone bridge the disconnect between ourselves and the audience, then why even tell stories? Why drag ourselves into something so nebulous? And even when we get close, so close, aren’t we back to where we started? Far, far away from doing justice to the experience that lives in some mysterious part of our conscience, and even further away from connecting to our alien audience? The entire process may feel like nothing more than a muddle of confusion where “you can’t tell where you are, or why you’re there, and the only certainty is absolute ambiguity,” (8). But that muddle is an indispensable obstacle, one that both the storyteller and the audience must trek through in order to reach their respective understandings.
“Metalogue: About Games And Being Serious” by Gregory Bateson offers a unique perspective about discovery through experience that sheds light on O’Brien’s own storytelling philosophy. Bateman’s belief in dialogue’s inexhaustible power to exploration mirrors O’Brien’s belief in the potential of storytelling. Bateson explores a complex dialogue between a father and daughter who are struggling to find meaning in their talk. In the context of O’Brien’s conflict, the father represents the storyteller, and the daughter represents his audience. Frustrated by how her father perpetually changes his approach to their conversations, the daughter asks, “Is it you that makes the rules, Daddy? Is that fair?” Is it fair for the storyteller to make the rules when the audience is part of his experience? The father responds that it is fair, because “the purpose of these conversations is to discover the rules, which rules are always changing and always indiscoverable,” (34). He says the mind should find itself in challenging, nebulous situations that constant dialogue and exploration can ultimately help clarify. Muddles aren’t bad, muddles are what open other doors. Just like O’Brien’s changing stories. Out of confusion comes understanding, out of understanding further confusion and understanding. It’s an ever-winding, cyclical process that forces us into foreign territory. Both Bateson and O’Brien insist that comprehension, or enlightenment, is a process for both the storyteller and the audience. Persistence is key. People have to keep at it, keep carving the ice until they find what they’re looking for in its purest form.
To better explain this shared process of discovery between the storyteller and the audience, let’s take a look at If On A Winter Night’s Travel by Italo Calvino. The semi-experimental piece delves into the art of reading, and the way the writer and the reader respectively approach a story. Perplexed and slightly annoyed that he can never settle on a definitive meaning for anything he reads, Calvino says: “At every rereading I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time. Is it I who keeps changing and seeing new things of which I was not previously aware? Or is reading a construction that cannot be repeated twice according to the same pattern? Every time I seek to relive the emotion of a previous reading, I experience different and unexpected impressions, and do not find again those of before,” (110). Calvino reveals that meaning is rarely static or inherent. As storytellers, we constantly reshape the world. As listeners, we constantly reshape our understanding that in turn yield innovative thinking. The process is just an incredible exchange of difficult questions and even more difficult answers. And because of this, the legitimacy of stories can come into challenge. If a storyteller has the right to keep changing what he says, then does his audience have the right to doubt his honesty? Is changing a story the same as lying?
My grandmother used to tell me a classic from the Mahabharata, a legendary Sanskrit epic that remains the anchor of Indian storytelling. The one she told me was about Krishna and Sudama, close friends who studied and grew up together. She told me that same story for years and years. Every time she began to speak, I was enveloped by familiarity. Off I went, through small villages of modest families who lived modest lives, into a rich history of scriptures and legends of heroes I knew like I knew my own family, into deep winding forests of thunder and lightning and rainstorms, through electrifying moments of rebellious youth and wonder and mischief, sighs and sounds and laughter and tears. I loved it every time. Krishna and Sudama. The boy who loved butter and his playful companion. Day after day, week after week, year after year; I grew, but Krishna and Sudama didn’t. They were still the same people with the same adventures, and they always would be…made immortal by the timeless power of storytelling.
Ah, and there came the bittersweet conclusion, as Krishna and Sudama exited the forest. Sudama had lied to Krishna and left him hungry and stranded in a dangerous storm. He had gone against the orders of a legendary sage who blatantly instructed him to protect his friend from harm. Sudama was flung into a deep moral crisis, trying to reconcile the two feuding parts of his mind- what he thought was right, and what the sage said was right. Yet, despite the fear and conflict, Krishna and Sudama leave the forest unwilling to let those flaws come in the way of their beautiful friendship. It was the heartwarming ending I was waiting for, that I had waited for and been granted with so many times. But then one day, my grandmother’s voice didn’t come to the soft ending it always did. It was hanging, suspended in deep space, leaving me at edge of some invisible cliff I couldn’t even see because I knew my story was already over. The voice grew low, and delivered a single line: And then…they went their separate ways….
Was this possible? Was she allowed to add more to this story? No. Krishna and Sudama’s story ended when they left the forest. That was it. There was no going “their separate ways”. Why had my grandmother waited till now to do this? After pausing just a few moments – moments that in my mind lasted several eternities- she continued, launching into the second part of my beloved childhood treasure, entering new territory I didn’t even know existed.
The thrilling story of jovial teens was gone. Now Sudama was poor and couldn’t feed his family. Krishna was rich and lived in a mansion. They had clearly gone “their separate ways”. I didn’t like it. Now, Sudama only had memories of his best friend. Distant, blurred memories. It was like taking my story and watching it from a distorted glass lens. This story was darker. This story was a grown up story. This story had starving children and begging wives and desperate fathers who didn’t have the courage to ask for help. This story had confused and frail men who were once bold and energetic teens. This story took my Krishna and Sudama and made them someone else’s, gave them to someone who wanted tears instead of joy. This was not my story. But because my grandmother had told it, it was now real. Now, I could never think of Krishna and Sudama leaving the forest happily. Now, there would always be a grim Part Two.
So had my grandmother been dishonest to me for so many years? Is hiding something the same as lying? And was she obligated to stay true to what I knew? I didn’t know. But I did find out then that even the things we think we know the best are never fully understood, and can often be rendered totally obsolete by subsequent stories. I realized that stories don’t just end when we want them to. They never ended for O’Brien He understands that unfinished stories can come back and “hit you twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling your story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again,” (8). There is no end. And that deepens the fissure between the storyteller and the audience because neither experiences the closure they seem to crave. The father and daughter in Bateson’s “Metalogue” don’t. Italo Calvino doesn’t. And neither did I. For O’Brien, the constant metamorphosis is perfectly justified because “you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that…nothing much is ever very true.”(9). My grandmother kept telling me the story I thought I knew better than anything else, and then shattered everything I knew by changing it. Treading on unfamiliar ground is an experience shared by both the storyteller and the audience. And therefore, it is essential for both to understand that the story is a joint journey made possible by the muddles, confusions, and changing understandings that exist on both sides of the spectrum.
O’Brien questions our notions of truth to show just how subjective the term is when it comes to sharing experiences that are so deeply personal. Truth transforms when it’s shared. It becomes something slippery, something fluid and formless that is lost in the continuum of external interpretation. Tim Burton’s film Big Fish adds another dimension to the question of honesty in storytelling. Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) feels alienated from his dying father Edward (Albert Finney) because of the seemingly fabricated, larger than life tales he keeps telling his son about his past. Will doesn’t want made up fairy tales about mermaids and giants and true love anymore. He wants to know exactly who his father is, not a projected fantasy. But the more Ed Bloom keeps telling his stories, the angrier Will gets, and the more bitter he becomes towards storytelling. Infuriated and fed up, he says, “You tell lies, Dad. You tell amusing lies. Stories are what you tell a five year old at bedtime. They’re not elaborate mythologies you maintain when your son is ten and fifteen and twenty and thirty. And the thing is, I believed you. I believed your stories so much longer than I should have.”
Are stories just “what you tell a five year old”? Will Bloom is a concrete man who wants defined answers to pointed questions. He doesn’t want to explore or discover. He wants a clear-cut image of his father’s past so he can move on with his life. Stories cannot exert their beautiful force within this self-absorbed mentality. And this is where the audience really comes into the picture. If Will were more receptive to the “truth” in his father’s stories, then the stories would give Will the “truth” he wants. Edward Bloom’s heart and soul exist in the tales he tells. In Ed’s own words, “A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories.” And in order for these stories to truly live on, we must go back to O’Brien’s point that stories don’t just exist to recreate reality, they exist to render an “intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of your living self” (8). That’s a crucial part of a storyteller’s job. To invent that same kind of a feeling in his audience that he feels within his own soul.
I think O’Brien explains it best when he says “it comes down to gut instinct. A true story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe,” (6). The confusion and the muddles, the expectations and the disappointments- it’s all a tremendously rewarding process if a story can become a true, human relationship between its creator and its audience. And if it can become that, then it becomes an everlasting fountain of exploration for humanity.
On my bookshelf are many versions of the Panchatantra. At some point years ago, I stopped reading them because I thought I had already read it all. Now they just sit there and collect dust with the rest of the books I’ve abandoned after a first read. It brings me a tremendous sense of joy and relief, and also a newfound sense of exhilaration that I’m actually not done. Because the people telling these stories will never be finished. Somewhere out there, there is more. And there always will be. All I have to do is listen.