A few days ago, while I was telling my children a story to convey a lesson, Maggie, my oldest child, asked me if the story was real, or a tall tale. She explained to me that she was learning about tall tales in school, and that tall tales had an element of truth, but were made-up.
This is an excellent question, even for people past the third grade.
Stories create the narratives that take otherwise uninteresting facts and figures and link them to people, making those same facts and figures interesting and relevant. Facts and figures in a vacuum are often unmoving.
There are numerous ways stories are communicated. Stories may be spoken (as they were before the creation of writing), written, sung, or conveyed through images. All of these methods can be combined to create movies.
Stories have always held a special place in my life. When my sister and I were very young, our dad would tell us PeeWee PeteTM stories. He told these stories while driving long distances. PeeWee PeteTM was a small person (2 – 3 inches) who was constantly getting into and out of trouble. Possibly our dad was trying to warn us of challenges we would be encountering throughout our lives against larger forces. More than likely, he was simply trying to find a distraction for his two children who were rarely quiet.
As we grew older, we moved from oral stories to written stories. Reading was an escape, transporting me to another time and place, allowing me to become someone else for a while and to leave behind the daily challenges of growing up. Many nights and weekends passed with all four of our family members glued to our books. My sister and I would lie on the floor. Dad would pace back and forth across the room as he read and my mom would sit in a chair.
My love for books and stories grew as I did. By junior high, I had begun placing a paperback inside my math book, enabling me to read during math class. This was a low risk activity as my mom was a math teacher and could review the material with me at home prior to a test.
Movies were also one of our family staples. One of my earliest memories is waking up in the theatre during a western film, peering over the seat in front of me, and seeing a cowboy jump off a cliff onto an Indian, knocking him off of his horse. As they began wrestling, I put my head in my mother’s lap and went back to sleep easily, as I knew the movie was fiction.
As I grew older, my family would often travel an hour from the small town of Carrollton in west Georgia to midtown Atlanta to attend movies at the Rhodes Theatre and eat at Zesto’s. We would often remain inside the complex and move from one theater to another, frequently seeing two or three movies on a Saturday afternoon. I remember a Bruce Lee double feature action movie where good triumphed over evil.
When I was still a teenager, we watched the 1979 Academy award-winning movie Kramer vs. Kramer at the Rhodes Theatre, which was so crowded that my sister Kathy and I had to sit in the aisle, away from our parents and each other. This movie fictionalized the real and heart-wrenching impact of divorce.
Many people try to affect us through stories that are not true, which is fine if the stories are identified as fiction.
Just yesterday, I received a fax of what appeared to be a newspaper article. A handwritten note on the top of the page said, “I thought you’d find this interesting. F.” At first glance, the article appeared to be true, but on further examination, (the fax didn’t identify the sender, nor did it identify where or when it was published and it ended with this giveaway: “The preceding story is a dramatization of every day frustrations experience by many customers.”) I determined it was an advertisement rather than a real article. So into the trash it went.
The purpose of a story can be to enlighten, inform, entertain, and most importantly inspire. So what makes some stories resonate with us, while other stories are not able to keep our attention for more than a few moments? Possibly it’s the connection of the elements within the story to important elements within our own lives.
Before we allow ourselves to be swept up in the emotional impact of a good story, we should be thoughtful enough to determine where the story comes from, whether it is true, why it was told and what its planned and real impact might be.
It could be that compelling stories, even if fiction, contain an element of truth that speaks to our human existence. But let’s be careful that we can determine which ones are based on truth and which ones are simply fabricated with a possibly not-so-noble goal in mind.