The Story Teller

Story tellers today tell stories in a variety of modes:  biographical and autobiographical forms (from brief sketches to lengthy–published or not–tomes),  fictional pieces (from simple made-up jokes to tales of ghosts and goblins to massive novels, published or not) to the oral presentation of  stories of past experiences involving oneself or others.

Stories are narratives, requiring a narrator or narrators, a plot with a character or characters, some kind of purpose or theme(s), and a setting or settings in time and place.  Literature as we know it began with stories being told to one’s peers even before there was–in these “pre-literate” times– any kind of writing.  Some stories, though, had visual accompaniment, as we see with the ancient cave paintings found in recent times in France and Spain.

When we think about stories and story telling,  we are often subject to a fallacy: believing that more recent forms and species of narratives are inherently superior to earlier,  especially much earlier, works.  This may be because we have become accustomed to having access to,  and often ownership of, high speed and “high-tech” means of everyday communication.  And these, so say their manufacturers and testimonial users, are always “better.”

In the case of literary works,  this is a risky assumption.

The greatest story teller of all time is the author called “Homer,”  the putative composer of (and as well perhaps the reciter of) of the two great masterpieces of Hellenic and Western and World literatures,  “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”  Homer is thought to have flourished in the mid-ninth century B.C. ; the texts most often used for the translations into English in our time are usually dated as being extant from the sixth century B.C.

Oral story-telling today is not a dead art, but it is certainly less prominent than in times past.  And there are accomplished story tellers who bring their craft and art to children in libraries and sometimes to adults in cultural enclaves that continue to persist in recalling and celebrating the listeners’ origins and their histories.  (One example here would be Alex Haley’s monumental “Roots,”  a combination of fictional and factual material which he termed “faction,” and which culminates is his sitting down to listen to the “griot” in African Gambia, who, in an oral retelling of tribal history, relates the story of the slavers’  taking Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte by force  away from his–and now Haley’s also–homeland.)

One of our great contemporary story tellers uses a weekly radio program as his primary medium.  But Garrison Keillor also writes a weekly column for “The Chicago Tribune,” which is built upon the success of “A Prairie Home Companion.”  (You might wish to find and read my column this week in “The Sandspur,”  which primarily focuses on Keillor as a living treasure in our country,  an “American Master.”)

In a recent newspaper column,  Mr. Keillor responds to a query from Stella Ragsdale of rural Edgartown,  Massachusetts.  Ms. Ragsdale,  having recently moved from New York City to the farm,   thinks that she has so far learned more as a writer on the farm about “the more difficult and humble art of story telling.”  She asks Keillor how he started out and “do you think of yourself as a story teller?”

Here is Keillor’s reply (this guy can say more in a couple of sentences than some writers can in an entire chapter):  “I am not a storyteller, Stella, but I impersonate one and that is almost as good.  Storytelling is an intimate art, practiced between people who know each other well, and I’ve known some great ones, a sculptor named Joe O’Connell and my great-uncle Lew Powell and the late Chet Atkins.  Chet was a true storyteller.  He blanched at the thought of doing it onstage, but when he drove you around in his pickup truck, he’d tell a whole string of stories, some them ribald, about Nashville stars and he’d imitated their voices beautifully and he embroidered the stories beautifully and,  listening to him, I just sat and laughed and wished he’d drive forever.  I don’t have that gift.  What I do have is chutzpah, to stand up in front of an audience and take them into my confidence and try to tell a story, which often as not turns into an essay instead.  But sometimes it hits on all two cylinders.  I started out, as you did, writing lofty things and then, out of curiosity, got started as a performer, and that, as you know, is a whole other game.  The difference between high lit and performance is that high-lit writers can imagine that their readers are as fascinated as they are. In performance,  you can see the audience and that is a sobering sight.  There is nothing as scary as seeing an audience look off toward the wings, hoping that some one else comes out soon and does something interesting.”

Comments and questions always welcome!

RJR

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One Response to “The Story Teller”

  1. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Quite interesting, Raymond. But you are a sucker for a clever wordsmith.
    RJR

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