05 October 2010

Thrice told tales

After a little research and consultation with a few peers, I have decided to place into suspended animation, and I may soon permanently retire a storytelling rule which I have observed for years: limit a story to three tellings.

It is a fuzzy memory at this point how I came upon this rule, but I do know there were a couple key observations of other story tellers which led me to conclude that it had value. The first storyteller was a man who participated with me in a number of Gestalt group psychotherapy workshops. This was in the late 1990's and early 2000's. The workshops were led by an experienced Gestalt therapist and they would be eight hours on Saturday and six hours on Sunday and a dozen or so people would show up and everybody would take a turn in the hot seat. If you have never done this I highly recommend trying it at least once. It is always entertaining and can be very educational.

This one fellow told the same story repeatedly. It was about an automobile accident in the desert in the southwestern United States, a fatality in his family, and an Indian witness who subsequently became a spiritual familiar to him. The first time he told this story, it was riveting; it was one of the most compelling stories I had ever heard. Every subsequent telling was flatter and flatter. Then one day I was watching Oliver Stone's movie, The Doors, and the opening scene of the movie was the same one I had seen in the Gestalt psychotherapy workshops until I was sick of it. Surely there was more than one fatal automobile accident in the southwestern United States witnessed by an Indian who made an otherworldly impression on one of the people in the crash; still the first idea that came to my mind when I saw Stone's movie was that my Gestalt group psychotherapy pal had made most of it up.

The second storyteller who was influential in my formulation of my rule about retiring all stories after three tellings was a woman who briefly came to some of the poetry shows I was involved in during the 2000's. This was a loose association of 30-40 poets and every week we would gather at an open mic and fifteen or so people would read their stuff. We had almost no restrictions, so there would always be a musician or two; sometimes dancers, or stand-up comics, or storytellers. This woman had a one-character drama about her experiences as a stripper. She was rehearsing for this dramatic arts event where they had a couple dozen short plays in one space and people would bounce around and see seven or eight of them before the night was over. So we saw her for the four weeks before her performance that she was practicing for; she did the exact same number for ten minutes for four straight weeks. We never saw her before that, and we never saw her again after that. The first time I saw it, I thought it was great. Times two through four were about as good as a re-run of Gilligan's Island that you saw ten times when you were a kid.

This is almost no evidence upon which to base so severe a rule as limiting every story to three tellings. I am sure there must have been other observations that contributed along the way, but in examining my rule these were the most obvious contributing pieces. In discussing this with others, I have heard support for the rule (or something similar) from people who described a goofy family member who told the same stupid story every Thanksgiving and Christmas for thirty years and they had heard it sixty times, but I have not had any personal experience along that line.

I took a class from the Houston Police Department shortly after I moved here. It was three hours a week for fifteen weeks and very interesting. One of the most interesting presentations was by a detective giving interrogation tips. He said you always have the person repeat the story several times. If they are telling you the truth, it changes subtly from telling to telling and hangs together. If they are lying, it is repetitious; it is practiced; the exact same phraseology occurs over and over; no new and consistent details get added the second and third and fourth and fifth times they tell it to you.

There is a nagging suspicion in my mind that part of my rule was motivated by a paranoia that too many of my stories have a component of bad faith to them and I fear being found out. Although my iron clad rule of telling no story more than three times is in suspended animation and I may retire it forever, I think the notion of not repeating a false story three times is gold.

One of the other people I discussed this with told me something very interesting. She does a lot of stage story telling and she said that there is a strange interaction between our memories of our life and our memories of stories we tell about our life. The memory researchers like Elizabeth Loftus have studied memory malleability and conclude a rather odd fact: most of what we remember is not the original event, but our most recent memory of the original event. My storytelling friend says that in looking at old documentation on her stories she has found that her memories have shifted in the direction of her vibrant stories, and there are some things in her life which she will now not use as story material for fear of polluting the memory.

In the Schoepenhauer's fate post I made a couple weeks ago I told a story that was formerly retired. The story about how I took my first job out of college is now back in my repertoire. Everybody I have ever told that story to seemed to enjoy it; it now seems silly to have censored myself so needlessly for so long.

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.