The truth is hard to hear (or read)

Wide Open Pages


Recently, I picked up a Farmer’s Almanac and flipped through it because I had heard that it predicted more snow than normal in the area. In fact, the Farmer’s Almanac said that relatively normal temperature and precipitation are to be expected in Saratoga this year.

I’ve noticed this every year in Pittsburgh, and it maintains in Wyoming; something got twisted along the way and then we all end up believing it. I have entered nearly every winter of my life fully believing that this will the coldest, snowiest, darkest winter I have ever experienced. It’s nice to know that these rumors happen in Wyoming too (at least I hear that “they” say that every year here too), though it’s a reminder of the depth of lore and continuity of oral tradition that appears to be constant in humanity.

Folklore was often used to teach people lessons and provide wisdom about the world around them, which I have read about and listened to in classes, basing these theories off the interpretations of my professors. I found it particularly interesting that depending on your culture, area, or social class your understanding of a common story would be drastically different because of the person that taught you the songs, the myths and the stories.

Sometimes it seems odd to consider that humans used to gain so much knowledge from processes and traditions like this, but then I think about all the different mediums that we have to learn by–books, lectures, videos and so on. The oral tradition carries on in more ways than are immediately obvious. We recount movies, tell stories, read books, gossip and try our hardest to understand and relate things that are sometimes out of our realm of knowledge.

Of course, the Farmer’s Almanac faces its own problems of reliability when it comes to predicting the weather, but it’s different than the confusing prospects of storytelling and lore. When I think of ancient mythology, I wonder about how the now-famous poems were told by the time John Doe out in the country heard them, away from the handful of people that could read. Maybe Hercules had turned into a woman by the time it made it to him, as someone who heard the poet recall the tale tried to recall all the details himself.

The closest you can get to the truth of the story is the primary source, but even listening to a recording of a meeting where those involved are discussing what happened, the listener may not get the full story because things are left out. When I’m writing stories, sometimes I leave out important facts at first, ones that have turned into common knowledge to me after hearing them so much. Dealing with getting things factually correct for reporting has improved my fiction writing, oddly enough, because it’s a practice in giving the whole story.

Sometimes I think my storytelling has improved too, but it’s hard to say what an “improved” story is. We all like to hear the truth, but we certainly all like to laugh. They say the truth is stranger than fiction, but most of my friends’ stories that I consider the funniest are believable, but told in such specific detail that they couldn’t be true. But when I poorly recount those stories to others, I say that it’s the “best story.” Sometimes it’s not the point to get all the facts, but rather to laugh, or have an idea of what happened.

I’ve had the pleasure of having small moments of “The Martian” read aloud to me in the past month or so, and I’m very slowly getting to understand the story without any details: a guy is stuck on Mars. In the movie adaptation, this guy is Matt Damon. In the book, this guy played by Matt Damon has bad luck and is really sassy towards NASA. I have no idea if that will be the case in the movie.

So, I guess I have no idea what’s actually going on in “The Martian” but I hear that it’s good. That’s a little different than oral or written communication. It’s exasperated laziness on my part to try to understand a story to which I’m adding no labor. Though I’m hearing this, I definitely can’t say I’m taking any part in oral storytelling, and I definitely can’t tell any kind of truth about this fictional story without more details.

I’ve been re-reading my David Sedaris books (instead of “The Martian”) because they’re some of my favorites, specifically “Naked” and “When You Are Engulfed In Flames.” I don’t feel any better about myself as a person after reading them (an exception to a rule of mine) but few people are funnier to read than him.

While his essays are basically based in fact and his personal history, I don’t know that I would call them reliable. It doesn’t really matter though. The truth of stories is usually in the details, but the point of the story tends to remain through all the little details, and that was the case in ancient mythology as well, basically, as the similarities across different cultures will show us.

One of my favorite books for this time of year is a Sedaris book called “Holidays on Ice,” where he tells stories about his time as a Christmas elf in a department store. It’s not likely that the stories are false completely, but I think they’re massaged a little for the very fact that it would be impossible to write all of those stories without succumbing to “the point,” which is usually living somewhere in your head. It’s the part of the story that makes you laugh the most, and if you’re lucky enough people will spend money listening to you tell those parts of the stories, whether they’re true or not.

It could be that now, no one knows what actually happened when Sedaris worked as a department store elf anymore–many of us have heard his story and now it has a life of its own. This has happened since ancient mythology, and without the systems of proof we have in place today, the stories of most common knowledge were subject to charisma, humor and a compelling storytelling. I can recount more from Sedaris than I can from snippets from “The Martian,” but I don’t know which is a worse representation: an obviously manipulated “truth,” or pieces of fiction that I hear secondhand? One expects to deviate from fact, the other leaves you in the dark about its factual status. Neither, however, tells me anything about the winter this year.

While news stories are obviously a different case and need to be taken seriously, I can’t find any problem with stories peppered with different details or perspectives as long as the point remains the same. But you’d have to be there to know the difference.


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