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The Best Tales to Tell, the Best Stories to Write

collateral tales

collateral tales

Who has the best tales to tell, the best stories to write? Among the most dogged memes related to this questions is that “life” writes the best stories and the best tales are told from “experience.” This meme originates in an ambiguity and a confusion of what tales or stories are.

But first, let’s allow the dogged meme to speak for itself! Here’s a recent commercial for the Pedigree Adoption Drive. It’s quite powerful:


Pedigree Adoption Drive—Heroes (by TBWA\Chiat\Day, Los Angeles)

The problem is, “tales” or “stories” can be rather different things. By that I don’t mean the difference between tales and stories, of which I briefly wrote before. So let’s collapse both terms into the single term “story,” for simplicity’s sake. As John Barth once wrote:

The story of your life is not your life. It is your story.

Take One.
What happens to us in “real life” is not a story. It is a string of events. We can build a relational network with these events as nodes, connected by those causes and effects we can identify. (Why can’t we identify all causal relations? Look up Chaos Theory, for starters.) As soon as we try to “make sense” of it, we tell ourselves a story. Actually, we tell ourselves a story about ourselves all the time by doing exactly that: building a vast cause-&-effect-based network at the center of which the “I” rather emerges than is constructed, although we give the latter our best shot all the time. And all these big, nasty holes we encounter with regard to missing causes & missing effects we fill up with shovelfuls of imagination and, alas, with bucketfuls of superstition as well.

Take Two.
Wait! That’s ass-backwards! In Literary Theory, it’s the other way round: a string of events is a story (“The King died and then the Queen died”) and when you causally relate them, you get a plot (“The king died and then the queen died of grief”). Well yes, and although that’s not Literary Theory (as such) but a take by E. M. Forster, this framework works very well in many cases.

So what is it? Well, both. I did these two takes so you can watch the confusion at work. What it all comes down to is what you mean by “story.” Do you mean by “story” a string of events, so you go with Take Two? From there, then, it’s only a short step to the “life writes the best stories” meme because a string of events someone scribbles onto a piece of paper won’t ever have the power of a string of events as related by somebody who actually experienced these events. One of the reasons, incidentally, is that the latter provides a powerful “ending,” namely the living “I” of the teller.

But if you mean by story a “crafted” story that transforms the “plot” into a gripping, well, story, then you go with Take One. A well-crafted story is gripping not only because it makes sense in a way strings of (fictional or real-life) events never can, but because something will emerge that goes well beyond both the events and the cause-&-effect relations. In the case of a story, in this sense, we call it meaning. In the case of our own life story that we constantly tell ourselves, we call it “I.”

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