If we don’t truly understand what a story is about, of course we will focus on the facts, on the actual events – because we’ve misunderstood the purpose of the story, of story itself.
When you look at the rise in popularity of digging into family trees and finding your ancestors (The BBC show Who Do You Think You Are is both an excellent and typical example) it is in fact the family stories surrounding those people that most interest us. Possible and potential connections to the famous and infamous, historical indicators as to why we might behave or react the way we do (I’m a bitch because Great-Grandma was bonkers) and dramatic tales of bravery, principle and brushes with death. It is these that both attract us and feed our souls – but are we really after the actual truth behind whispered family legends and stories repeated since childhood? If the legends have inspired, taught and passed on wisdom, what if the facts turn out to be very different, and if they are, does it matter? Do the “facts” take away the lesson we learned from the legend? Does “what actually happened” matter more than the myth that fired our soul? And when we tell our own stories, do we always tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, or do we embellish, add, conflate to serve the soul of storytelling? Would some equate our mythmaking with lying? Considering the things we learned about truth and the sometime necessity of hiding truth from Much Ado About Nothing last time; is absolute honesty always the virtue it is painted as and something we should aim for? Or perhaps in painting a picture with words we seek the core of truth and wisdom, and creation of community and solidarity?
When I look at some of my own family legends and stories, I can see the beauty of story and the irrelevance of fact. For example, I grew up with a story of how my dad grew up in a household that had chickens, but “you have to be careful around those bad boys, because bantams are vicious”. One attacked my dad with it’s spur on the back of its foot and ripped dad’s calf! ouc! Imagine the blood. So the moral of the story is, all animals are dangerous if you don’t treat them right, a dog will bite you, a cat will scratch you and even a “timid” chicken will “have” you – be nice to animals people!…. And then in the last couple of years dad ‘fessed up (he says he never told me it was him, but all my childhood the story was about him, I swear) and it turns out it was his twin brother. All this time, what I believed was a lie. It wasn’t how it happened. BUT, does that take away from the real truth of the story? The moral remains the same, the TRUTH of the story remains the same. And we’re back (again) to letting a story be about more than the events of the plot. If we don’t truly understand what a story is about, of course we will focus on the facts, on the actual events – because we’ve misunderstood the purpose of the story, of story itself.
So when I hear those family stories, the one where Grandma Felicia entertained Keir Hardy and Mrs Pankhurst, or Grandad saved Saint Paul’s Cathedral (he was part of the bomb disposal team that dealt with unexploded bombs in the Cathedral crypt) or mum replanted those bushes upside down that time, these too are subject to the same “laws” of story telling. These stories are more than the facts of what happened, more than the who and the when. They help me understand who I am, where I’ve come from. They allow us to be proud, they show us our shames; the bring us comfort, they hold up a mirror to our hates and prejudices.
I’m not sure whether I think the facts matter or not – As a student of history I know how even proven facts can be manipulated, how the victor generally gets to “write” the history we read and know, how easy it is to distort those stories of our past by simplification and distilling the nuances of hour long discussions and debates into simple “facts”. For example, one of the most accepted black and white historical facts known in England is that in 1066 The Normans Conquered Anglo-Saxon England. Would it freak you out if this “basic fact” were not the truth? – It’s perhaps more accurate to say that in the latter half of the 11th century the Anglo-Saxon Court of England was increasingly influenced by Norman Culture, opening it to more easily adapt once William the Conqueror Forcibly advanced his claim to the Throne. Or… England was Anglo Norse by 1066, and the Normans too were essentially Norse with a bit of French Flair, so it was merely a violent merger of two Norse Territories. Or… well, you see? Nuance. And so when point of view can affect so much of how we see our past, ensuring we understand the kernel at the heart of both “real” events and stories passed down becomes that much more important. We simply can’t rely on the “facts” of an event – so let’s instead focus on the truth.
And Truth is such whether it is transmitted through story, through history, through reportage – and deliberate obfuscation of the truth exists in all those modes as well. Don’t be distracted by what may or may not have happened and seek out the truth, the heart of the matter – and in your sharing of story, hold on to that heart when you add your own flair.