Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Joy of Story: an Introduction

If you’re familiar with this blog of mine, you’ll notice that it has a new name. Originally calling it “John’s Litserve,” I thought I’d focus on editing and publishing as well as writing fiction; and I still mention editing and publishing in the subtitle. But I find that the subject that interests me most is the great pleasure of writing stories and writing them well. What do I mean by “story”? Well, I’ll cover that in a later post, perhaps next week. This week’s post is a fantasy about how the art form of story originated in human culture.

A few other announcements before I start:

1. A few people have mentioned that they’re having trouble leaving comments on my blog, although some succeed. If you find you’re having trouble leaving a comment, feel free to send it to me off-line, by email.

2. I have decided to include a guest blogger once a month, if volunteers step forward. Interested? Let me know and I’ll send you a few interview questions to choose among.

3. I will continue, at the end of each of my posts, to give you a snippet of my forthcoming novel, Behind the Redwood Door, which will be published in November. Consider it a gift, or consider it a message from our sponsor.

On with the show.…

Arguably the oldest art form in human culture is the story. I say “arguably,” because I’m the veteran of several arguments on this topic with would-be anthropologists who claim the title for dance, music, cave paintings, and double-entry bookkeeping. But I stick to my guns: story got there first.

I say this because I date the beginning of human culture by the beginning of human spoken communication. I’m talking about speech that transcends snarls of anger, grunts of lust, and screams of fear. I say human culture began with sentences at least as complex as “You going to eat the rest of that leg of ibex, or what?” Conversation.

Knowing human beings as I do, I’m willing to bet my wallet that as soon as our ancestors learned to communicate with each other by speech, they started developing skills to entertain, impress, and hoodwink each other. Since truth wasn’t always up to the task (it isn’t today, so why should it have been for cave folk?), the act of embellishment was discovered, and fiction was born.

Of course story doesn’t have to be fiction. But isn’t it, usually? Ask most memoirists today, and they’ll agree that a certain amount of “editing” is involved.

So return with me now to the Primal Circle, a bunch of human beings (with some Neanderthal DNA in the mix, although polite cave folk don’t talk about how it got there) gathered together around a campfire after a hard day of hunting.

They talk:

“Good gnus, Murray,” says the Boss, an ancient woman in her fortieth year. “How’d you manage to kill two in the same day?”

Murray swallowed his bite of barbecued gnu, wiped his beard, took a swig of banana beer, belched, and began to spin his yarn. “Well, see, I was walking down by the Muchmuck River, talking to my friend Cedric, the African Grey parrot who knows stuff, and he told me that on the other side of the Muchmuck was a plain called the Banana Savanna, where I would find good gnus. I guess I was busy listening to Cedric, and not watching where I was going, and I tripped over a log and fell right into what passes for water in the Muchmuck river. I stood up, sputtering and listening to my parrot so-called friend laughing at me, when the log sprouted stubby arms and legs, swished a mighty tail, opened a grin full of razor-sharp stalactites and stalagmites, and slithered into the water. Well I took off with the current, going like gangbusters, but I could hear the splash of that croc getting closer and closer to my feet. If it hadn’t have been for Cedric dive-bombing the river-lizard, why—”

“Aw baloney,” said Hugo, a burley fellow who looked like a cross between Burt Reynolds and a Rottweiler. “Not how it happened at all.”

“Shut up, Hugo,” said several cave folk, using different combinations of words, some of which we don’t have anymore, and others I don’t dare repeat.

“But we all crossed Muchmuck River on that log,” Hugo insisted. “There wasn’t any crocodile. And what’s more—”

The Boss spoke. “Let Murray tell it.”

“Why?” Hugo demanded. “I was the one who brought back the gnus, not Murray.”

“Murray tells it better,” the Boss said. “I have spoken.”

Ever since Murray recounted the hunts each evening to his fellow cave folk, the subtleties of storytelling have been honed and practiced and have entertained and enlightened listeners and readers. Many of the rules and tools of fiction were invented by the earliest of storytellers. And one aspect of the art form remains to this day: whoever tells the best story gets the most attention.

Preview of a coming attraction Behind the Redwood Door:

            The scream was so loud I bobbled the salad plate and dropped oily lettuce all over my lap.
            “My God, he’s been murdered!”
            The room stopped chattering. Suddenly you could hear the basketball game on the television competing with “Shrimp Boats” on the jukebox. Gloria picked up a couple of remote controls and silenced them both. The Redwood Door was filled with a very loud hush. From where I was sitting, all I could see was the backs of people’s heads. Everyone was staring, watching the woman at the back of the tavern. Waiting.
            River Webster appeared frightened, furious, wild and very sober. She opened her trembling mouth and shouted, “Gloria, call nine-one-one. Now!”
            Then she turned and disappeared into the dark corridor that led to the back door of the tavern.
            The chatter returned to the room, sounding like a garbage disposal going full blast. I put my hand on Carol’s arm, to ask her: Was that for real? Who was murdered? And most of all…
            Carol turned her face to me and answered with a nod: You’d better get on back there.
            I nodded and got down off my stool.

            I shoved open the back door and walked out into the mist. The tiny three-car parking lot and the alley behind it were lit by a dim yellow floodlight. River rushed into my arms and hugged me around the neck, sobbing and snuffling. I held her gently, stroked her hair, hummed to calm her down, and finally she let me breathe. She backed away enough for me to see her anguished face hiccupping and gasping in the mist, then pointed at the body slumped against the brick back wall of the Redwood Door.
            Pete Thayer sat on the wet asphalt, his back against the bricks, his head and shoulders propped up by the side of a Dumpster. The expression frozen on his face was one of shock and disbelief. His throat was gashed wide open, with the bloody handle of a large kitchen knife still protruding from the wound. His sequoia-green sweater was soaked with black blood.…

For more previews of this Guy Mallon mystery, set on Northern California’s redwood coast, stay tuned to this station…


  1. What a fun read! I could imagine myself sitting at the fire nudging Cookie, my BFF, thinking of ways to get Murry's attention or BBQ gnu, because this was going to be a long night. I love how you accepted what you love about writing and are choosing to go with that in your blogging.

  2. John, your version of how fiction was born is more interesting and makes as much sense as any other version I've heard. As far as I'm concerned, that's your story and you should stick to it.

  3. Hey, thanks, Theresa and Earl. Yes, I think it had to happen this way. Ever see the movie "Stand by Me"? Kids sitting around a campfire and one of them has the rest in stitches with his tall tale about the Barforama. He was born to be a writer.

  4. On a more serious note:
    I created a scrolling screen saver when I had an office job. It read "A Writer Reinvents the Truth." I probably didn't say it first (maybe Murray did), but I said it best. There's the "truth" and then there's how we tell it.
    Good post, John.

  5. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says a story initially was a historical account and use of the term dates to the 14th century.
    I prefer your version, John--it's a better story.

  6. John, you are indeed a storyteller of the highest order! You got my attention .

  7. John,
    Fascinating rendition on the origins of story telling!

  8. Thanks to all you fine people for your kind remarks! My story may sound like a stretcher, but it's all true. I was there.

  9. Well, John, I don't think things have changed much with story telling. Your description sounds like what happens with my family at Sunday dinner. Your book excerpt is a winner.

  10. I'll be you a bit of ego DID play a part in the first story telling. To embolden the teller, to make the scene more exciting. Thanks for the post.

    Stephen L. Brayton

  11. Thanks John, that was great. Love reading your work, as always.

    --John Brantingham

  12. John -

    As one of those anthropologists who claim cave art as the oldest human art form, I love your story line. Maybe it's my remnant neanderthal DNA talking, but I like to think of the paintings as part of a multi-media story-telling program. If you're dining on gnu, it makes sense to paint a few on the wall as well. Minimally it's good for business.

    - William Doonan

  13. Thanks, William. Maybe those painted caves were restaurants, and the pictures on the walls were the first menus.

  14. Well, you gave me my laugh for the day. And I also enjoyed the excerpt from your novel, The Redwood Door. My Dad was the storyteller in our family, but I guess I've taken up the pen, or keyboard, whatever. Don't we all wish some of our clever words would last as long as those petroglyphs? Oops, must've spelled it wrong.

  15. Many thanks, Velda. Words last forever.