Monday, May 17, 2010

Tell Me A Story: An Essay on the Stories We Tell

At the top of Bastian Square is a green Irish pub featuring the Beatles tribute band, the Sutcliffs. Both the vehicular and pedestrian traffic in this area is bumper to bumper noisy and the early Beatles Ya Ya Ya's are perfectly consonant to the setting. At the bottom of the Square, right next to the harbor, one catches the cooking scents of the fancy cafes, and the cacophony of seagulls dipping and diving overhead awaiting the food crumbs being tossed from the patrons seated in the outdoor cafe patios. On the demarcation between the top and bottom of Bastian Square there are merchants and their kiosks of oil and watercolor paintings, knitted scarves, and carved jewelry. There is also an organic food market. And because of the generosity of the clerks at that food market, a disproportionate number of reprobates and panhandlers linger there. It was from this rabble that a jocund cadge with a castaway beard approached me with his story:

I used to play in a band you know. We played lots of Creedence Clearwater Revival. I love J.C. Do you know any CCR? (I had just finished Have You Ever Seen The Rain which probably prompted his CCR chat.)

Yes I know some CCR. How about Bad Moon Rising? I replied.

Bring it on! He yelled emphatically as he jumped up and down, clicking his heels in Mr. Bojangles fashion. I did play Bad Moon Rising and he sang right along, word for word, dancing through the whole song. He and I ended our CCR set with Hello Mary Lou.

Yah, we used to play everywhere, he stated as he continued his story. Our agent had us do the Interior; then we went to northern Alberta, Grand Prairie, finished that tour playing in a few bars in Calgary. It was great. But it ended there. My brother quit the band. His girlfriend had a kid and so he went back to drywalling. Me, I came back to Victoria and worked for a landscape company. This was in the 80's and I've been here ever since.

Still working landscape? I asked.

Naah. That lasted only a couple seasons then I hurt my back. Haven't done much since. My name's Bob, by the way.

Bob seemed so genuine when telling me this story. While busking I've heard lots of stories from lots of people, and for the most part, the person telling the story also happens to be the hero of the story. What compels people to come up to a singing stranger and tell their stories I am thinking is akin to busking, since both have to be among our earliest forms of community entertainment. We are all brothers and sisters under the storytelling sun; we have different faces and different names, but we have the same stories.

Many people have approached me over the years to tell me that they were used-to-be musicians. They tell me about their bands, their music, the fun times they had. Music is the main theme, but not the only theme. Tourists toss me coins as they talk about their holidays, where they've just been and where next they're going. These are the second most themes.

And in my other life I know lots of people with story themes. When I was a young man I worked with Wilhelm, a guy who was a member of the Hitler Youth Program during the Second World War. Wilhelm had the Desert Fox, Rommel, as his commander. Every day working with Wilhelm there was a story of war, and I especially remember the one where he and his fellow soldiers had to shoot and eat storks to survive. Wilhelm very much reminded me of my father's war buddy who fought in Normandy. Everyone in our town had heard his twenty year horrific dissertation of that battle on the beach.

I used to coffee a couple times a week with colleague, and all he ever wanted to talk about was work. He was the hero of his classroom. He had the students do this, then do that, then this happened, then that happened, and his philosophic spin on teaching was always his essential close. To keep my recreation time fun, I quit going for coffee with him.

One of my present colleagues loves to cook. No matter what topic in which we engage, it will always include a Last night I marinated this, or I added such-and-such a spice to that, or I sprinkled whatever with whatever and let it simmer for whatever time. He either fancies himself as a cooking connoisseur in his evening hours or more likely, he just cannot escape his passion.

Another acquaintance of mine played in the Western Hockey League. Most of his conversations somehow include I remember when I was playing with the Bruins and there was this ...

A significant number of us have friends who love to brag about their children. A guy I like a lot has a son who has just recently been elected as an MLA. Since the election my friend continuously talks politics, literally.

And most of us know people who continually tell stories that are lies; and over time most of us try to distance ourselves from such gratuitous conversations.

According to philosopher Sam Keen we are but featherless gregarious storytelling creatures, and projective psychologists insist we identify ourselves by the stories we tell. Storytelling is our philosophy, sociology, and psychology. The need to tell stories is essential to our species. In fact, there seems to be an efficacious need for people to disclose their life snap shots even to strangers. We are all familiar with the sitting-next-to-someone-syndrome, where on a bus, or train, or plane some of us are more than willing to exchange even our intimate life stories in order to galvanize with complete strangers who just happen to be near.

We are Tony; we are groundlings. We are liars; we are soothsayers. We are braggarts; we embigger. We are modest; we minimize. Some of us have plot lines that are incoherent; some of us perspicuous. We are all this and more, and the sounds of silence are not at all akin to our noisy noetic natures.

I know that I am a featherless gregarious storytelling creature. My blog is proof of this. And being the hero of my stories is must. My narratives are proof of this!

Historically, my stories have not always been about busking. When I was a barfly I told party stories. When my children were little I told bedtime stories. When I was a swimming instructor I told pool stories (and I've lots of those!). Now that I busk, I tell travel stories.

Perhaps we tell stories to escape our dossier of everyday doldrums. Perhaps we hyperbolize to keep ourselves socially hale. Or perhaps our chatter to others is just selfish artifice, a way for us to stay connected in our social world.

I believe the stories we tell and the characters we re-create are the action heroes we imagine ourselves to be, and as my final furtherance I'd like to combine my notion of projective psychology with that of Popey the Sailor:

I yam what I yam by the stories I tells.


  1. I brought up the topic about the 'Story of Perception' during my recent Crisis Training and how we perceive our situation to be, will determine how we react. We had to do an exercise where we had to think about a wonderful happening in our lives and then talk about it's impact mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually (the Medicine Wheel Model). Anyway, I chose a relatively neutral event (a time when I won an art award) and realized after I had discussed it (and answered all the questions), it suddenly turned into a very important turning point in my life. And see, that is why I chose a neutral event. I expressed to the instruction that I was almost positive that had the questions been about how the 'traumatic event' affected my life (mentally, emotionally, etc.), I would have felt that award ruined my life. I don't have proof of that however, but I thought picking a neutral event was a pretty good control for that psychological experiment on myself. Or maybe it wasn't who knows?

  2. Preception is just a state of mind. A seed is either real or infarance. Think of a seed, according to me as a way to make people think. It can also be a source of nutrition. Either for the mind or the palate.

    A seed is a food for thought?