It takes a village to raise a storyteller

Near Elmhurst Road, back home in Saskatchewan

Near Elmhurst Road, back home in Saskatchewan

A week or two ago, TC and I were watching one of my favourite films, Big Fish (based on the novel by Daniel Wallace). In a nutshell, the plot revolves around Edward Bloom, a larger than life retired salesman and an incorrigible storyteller. As he lays dying of cancer, his adult son attempts to sort fact from fiction in the often “big fish story” of his father’s life. It’s a beautiful film and you should definitely watch it, but that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this post because while I was watching, I turned to TC and said, “That reminds me of Fred.”

Fred and Jackie (his wife) are my parents’ neighbours back home on the Prairie. Growing up, our two families spent a lot of time together playing, pot-lucking, camping, and car-pooling. It’s impossible to think about Fred without thinking about his stories. And it’s nearly as impossible to think about the art of storytelling without thinking about Fred. Some people just have the gift.

Do you ever examine your childhood memories and wonder if some events really happened, or whether you just remembered them so often imagined events took on a concrete shape (like a photo album where some of the images are staged but the photo itself is real)? I often can’t tell if one of my older memories is something I just dreamed, or if the dream I’m thinking of is actually a real memory. My family likes to twit me about my “faulty memory”, which I think is unfair. There’s nothing wrong with my memory–it’s quite good actually, and I remember a lot of things other people forget. The problem is, I seem to remember a few things that didn’t happen as well. I’ve noticed this when my high school graduating class shares memories of a classmate that passed away a couple of years ago. I don’t remember all the stories shared. But they so seem real to me, so “yeah, that’s just like him”, and I can picture my friend doing these things so clearly, it’s as if I remember that story too.

And it’s like this with the stories Fred used to tell us. Did my sisters and I, together with Fred and Jackie’s sons, really kick/paddle our way to the middle of Bright Sand Lake in an inner tube, accidentally pop it, and get blown across the lake? Of course not. But I remember our fear when the inner tube sprang a leak. I remember how dark it was when we beached on an unknown shore and peered through the reeds at the lighted windows of a hermit’s cabin (spoiler alert, the hermit helped us get back to our part of the beach and all was well). Did we really get lost in the woods one night, with carnivorous beasts surrounding us, only to be rescued by strange creatures that were almost as scary? No. But I remember the gleaming eyes of the evil Mud Bunnies, and the otherworldly shrieks of the Dukakis (spelling?) as they swung through the trees. I probably remember things about Fred’s stories that were never there in the first place.

But that’s how stories work, I think. You tell them, and some things get added, and some things fall away. Even the stories Fred has told us about his real life take on a different quality from the things other people tell me about their lives. I suppose that’s the danger of being a good storyteller–you make your experiences sparkle in a way other people’s don’t, making them suspicious. Surely, it can’t all really be true, can it? Is there some art there, shaping the experience, giving it arc and pace and climax, making it just a bit eerier or a bit funnier than it would be if someone else was telling the story? Of course there is. Storytelling is an art, even if you’re just telling your own story. And I don’t mind a bit.

Aside from my obvious pleasure in the fact that I featured prominently in several fictitious childhood adventures, you may wonder what all this has to do with me today, now. The point is that stories shape us, they shape how we speak, how we think, and how we remember. Narrative is so ingrained in human beings that we even create it where there isn’t any–did you know our dreams are only about 2 seconds long, and are just unrelated fleeting images/sounds? It’s true (I learned this in Psychology class). But we’re so attached to sense and narrative that when we remember our little 2-second dreams, our brain actually weaves them all together to form a story (albeit a very strange one, usually).

When thinking about my realization that I wanted to create stories, i.e., to write, I usually think about the stories that captured my imagination. Fairy tales. The dramatic games of “pretend” we played as kids. YA fiction. The 1984 film The NeverEnding Story. The Oresteia. The ballad of Tam Lin. And so on.

But what about the storytellers in my midst? Like my parents, reading to us and singing to us and telling us stories at bed time and doing their best to give answers to questions we were too young to understand? What about Fred, passing fireside nights with fantastical stories about his kids and their friends? What about my peers at school, and the elaborate fibs they told to impress each other? Aren’t their contributions of style and voice and creativity and commitment equal to (if not greater than) the contributions of the stories themselves? I think so.

I think too, about my friend Lisa, who lived just a bit farther down the road from Fred and Jackie. I was in junior high when she was finishing high school and she was the only one out of the kids in my neighbourhood who was writing, really writing, and caring enough to get feedback and develop her work (she and my older sister also heavily influenced my Our Lady Peace fandom but let’s not get into that, besides, Clumsy was a great album). Nowadays, Lisa is a writer (for a living!) and is working on a novel.

I think too, about the short-lived TV series “Jim Henson’s The Storyteller and especially about one episode taped onto an old VHS that we used to watch when I was small, and that I absorbed so unconsciously that when I thought about it later I couldn’t remember if it had been real (it was the story of Fearnot, and yes, it was real, I found it on Netflix). It wasn’t the folktales John Hurt’s Storyteller character told that were  necessarily special–it was the WAY they were told, the way the world of of the story bled into the fireside world where the Storyteller told his dog (who was a Jim Henson muppet) his tales, and the way that same Storyteller and his fireside bled into the tales themselves.

I think too, about beautifully-written books like Dianne Warren’s Cool Water that are exciting pieces of literature not because of WHAT the story is, but HOW it is shared with us (the language and the subtlety and the love). Or about a writer like David Sedaris, who makes the unusual parts of his life seem rather mundane and turns the mundane into something extraordinary.

It’s the artistry that captures me, the dedication to craft and to story. It’s the respect for a good story, and the acknowledgment of the importance of the teller, that inspires me. Every time I write, the stories I’ve read, heard, and seen find their way into my work. In the same way, I know that while it was my parents that raised and supported person I am, the storytellers around me (whether it was Fred my neighbour or John Hurt the actor) definitely chipped in to raise the storyteller I’m aspiring to be.