Tag Archives: oral tradition

When Storytelling Does Not Promote Memory

dadA funny thing happened to me recently on the way to a story. I had related a family tale about my deceased father for my column in the Sun-Sentinel Jewish Journal and sent the piece to my mom, because I thought it would please her. It did, but she pointed out a correction: The plot of the story was just as I had described it from memory, but I had misremembered the setting. I set the story at Fort Dix in New Jersey, where logic told me it had occurred, because it involved my Trenton-based grandfather’s visiting my dad in 1942 at an Army base. However, the story had actually happened at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

There are times, like this one, when life imitates academia. I am always explaining to students that in the heyday of the oral tradition, when the tribal storyteller told the story of a hunt, it made no difference  whether 10 or 12 buffalo were killed; what mattered was the bravery of the hunters and the beasts. That’s why the oral tradition worked so well—numbers and details were largely unimportant, so each generation could fill in the gaps with his or her own imagination, insight and knowledge. (Sort of like some of our reportage today.) It wasn’t until commerce emerged that it mattered just how many buffalo hides were traded for just how many sheaves of wheat.

Truth, my explanation continues, comes in many forms. Two of them are (1) documentable, verifiable truth, the kind that the media (largely) aim for, and (2) universal, human Truth, such as love, fear, greed and heroism. The first kind is largely an illusion: there are so many perspectives on any one event, it is often impossible to pin down the mercury-like bubble of fact. We simply do our best. The second is more meaningful, to my mind, but appears to many eyes, and hearts, as the stuff of children’s stories, old wives’ tales, or worse. Sometimes, of course, it is. Just not always.

There is at least one reason that I will, from now on, correct my misconception about that story. My grandfather was sent (by my grandmother) with an urgent message to prevent my father from becoming a paratrooper: If he jumped out of a plane with a parachute, she told him, she would jump off her roof with an umbrella. It is even more amazing that my grandfather took a train from Trenton to North Carolina in 1942 to deliver this message than that he drove the few miles to the base in New Jersey.

In other words, it’s a better story. That means that people will have an easier time remembering it, and the values inherent in it (family love, humor, etc.) will have a greater impact. To my mind, that’s the best reason to correct it.

P.S. This family story might have taken place in 1943 or 1944. Does it matter? If more paratroopers were dying in a certain year, I would say it makes for a better story!

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Hearing Is Believing

earI’ve been doing quite a bit of introductory storytelling lecturing lately, given that it’s the beginning of the semester. One of the concepts I typically bring out in these early discussions is the fact that audiences, at least in the Western tradition, remember infinitely more that they see in a presentation (the visual) than tone of voice or content. Some researchers have even put the ratio at 78, 15 and 7 percent. So, I argue, storytelling is especially effective because the vast majority of us (as many as 97 percent) get visual images in our minds when we hear a story. Thus, the argument goes, storytelling, albeit an oral art form, contributes to discourse on a visual, and thus particularly potent, level.

At least that’s the point I’ve been making for years. Then yesterday it occurred to me that the argument privileges the visual. In other words, it takes as a given that we are visual beings and equates “visual” with “potent.” So the more “visual” storytelling becomes, even if those pictures are only in our heads, the better, or at least more effective, it is.

It isn’t like that everywhere, of course, and it hasn’t always been that way here. I have read that there are indigenous tribes for which smelling, rather than seeing, is believing, and certainly pre-literate peoples and the blind are going to believe, at least partly, in hearing.  As time goes on, however, our communal sense of sight becomes more and more important (it’s not easy using a computer, or experiencing (I first wrote “watching,” but corrected it, because we also listen to) a film or TV show, if our sense of sight is not strong–not to mention driving a car or walking down a city street. We rely less on our hearing, smell, taste and touch, not to mention instinct, the proverbial “sixth” sense, because sight is predominant.

But how many times have our eyes fooled us? I will never forget meeting a former colleague in his office on the first day of his new job. He looked—and sounded—fine. No shaky hands, no quavering voice, and his words were confident and smooth. But—I hope you’re not eating while you read this—I could smell his fear from across the room. And last night, experiencing television in the living room, I could smell my husband’s bread burning in the toaster oven in the kitchen. We hadn’t heard the toaster alarm go off, a sure sign that the food was done, because he had accidentally set it on BAKE.

Then there are all the other buzzers and alarms in our lives, the cellphones going off, the babies’ cries, the “you’ve got mail” chimes. When I taste the soy milk to find out (I accidentally wrote “see”–“see” how vision-centric I am?) if it’s gone bad, my sight doesn’t help me at all. When I squeeze the tomato to find out if it’s ready to eat, my sight isn’t worth anything, either.

So where am I going with this? I have come to understand—NOT to see—that I am denigrating storytelling, aka the oral narrative tradition, by suggesting that it’s powerful because it’s got a visual component. Far better for me, or at least more interesting, to say: Let’s listen to the world around us. It speaks volumes.