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Monday, February 21, 2011

Stories Made Me


What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. They baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. --- G.K. Chesterton


Stories make us who we are. I spent hours and hours of my childhood on two occupations: making up stories to act out outdoors, and reading stories indoors. What I read, besides chapter books, were treasuries of folktales, legends, myths and fables. Aladdin, Odysseus, Till Eulenspiegel, Robin Hood, the pantheons and heroes of Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, India, Persia, Egypt, Japan, China – these hero stories were all very much alive to me. I was never bothered by sexism – the hero’s journey is archetypal – and it never occurred to me that being a girl limited my participation in the journey. Sometimes physical prowess was key, but not always. Odysseus triumphed by his wits, after all, and Scheherezade saved her own life by being a good story-teller.

          What counts, I believe, is that I spent hour upon hour with undaunted characters who persevered, who vanquished evil, who faced natural and supernatural challenges, who made sacrifices to a greater good. They were my models for every kind of courage.  Some were more domesticated victories which featured female characters, whose courage was more often emotional or spiritual. If they revealed the face of moral courage more often than physical courage it was no less courageous because of it.  And anyway, there were plenty of active heroines with no shortage of physical courage.  The passive Sleeping Beauties and Snow Whites were like Barbies to me -- mildly interesting to play with for a bit, but soon set aside for more dynamic characters.
          These traditional stories were powerful for a reason. They were traditional for a reason. They had been preserved for centuries for a reason. There is real meat on those bones, and they nourished my developing self to a very significant degree. For centuries, people told these stories -- not just to their children but to everyone. In this way they transmitted their culture and their customs and their values from generation to generation, teaching them to children, reinforcing them for themselves. Those cultures, customs and values varied from country to country, continent to continent. But what did not vary was the role the stories played. The stories taught children and reminded adults how to be an adult:  how to do hard things, how to face challenges – not without fear, but in spite of it. The stories taught all six types of courage.
        I believe we need to reconnect with these powerful stories from the past. They are a potent, perhaps the most potent, method for communicating courage directly to the heart, the “cour” in courage. Generations before us faced very great challenges, but I suspect no generation before us has been less well-equipped to meet the challenges in our path. Somewhere along the way we stopped taking these stories seriously; we dismissed them as mere entertainment, and let other forms of entertainment step in as pale substitutes in the spare hours between school, sports practice, and piano lessons. Since what they teach is not quantifiable and can’t be tested with a number 2 pencil, traditional stories can be considered nostalgic and outdated, like cursive writing or learning long poems by heart. Worse still, contemporary forms of entertainment often lack narrative coherence or consequence, and our technology promotes a style of fractured consumption that separates cause from effect. On top of that, the storyteller (i.e. t.v. and internet) does not elicit love and respect from the audience, and so the stories carry little weight.
             Listening to a story is not a passive experience. Narrative requires sustained attention: it requires us to remember past events and it requires that we project ourselves forward, anticipating possible outcomes for the choices the hero is making; it requires us to observe cause and effect. Narrative invites us to identify with the hero and become invested in the journey. It asks us to care what happens.
Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. -- Hannah Arendt


For more than twenty years I have been telling children stories through the books I have written. I don’t presume to decide up front what “lesson” they will learn from my stories, because a good book should be subtle enough to serve each reader in a unique way. I have written articles for magazines and journals about the role of narrative for children, how it can guide children safely through challenging experiences on the page and in their lives. When I became a mother at 46 to an 8-year-old girl from far away, I filled our dinner hours with all the stories that were stored inside me – Pandora’s Box, William Tell, The Death of Baldur, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, The Brave Little Tailor, Rapunzel, Androcles and the Lion, the Good Samaritan, The Fox and the Grapes, and so many more. They had followed me all through childhood and were with me still, helping me every day to be the adult I had become. It is my hope that they will help my daughter become a strong adult with courage to face whatever lies before her.

6 comments:

  1. My kids, now 6 and 9, have been writing their own stories on the computer. I've never asked them to do it. I just happened, much to my delight. I know they're watching me, their mom, spend all day (and night) writing stories on the computer. My son watches me edit my books and asks me all sorts of questions about what I'm doing. It's so wonderful to see how uncensored and free and creative they are at this age in imagining and creating their own stories. I also encourage them to write their emotions in their journal. Sometimes, I find their journal open and read what they've written - "I hate my brother," or "My mom is so mean." And I have to smile. Thanks for the great post, Lisa!

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  2. Thanks Cori, for taking the time to share with us, as a fellow writer, how you've impacted your own children's creativity. I love it! Kudos go to Jennifer, though, for this particular post. I love that you are so okay in yourself that your children enjoy true freedom of self-expression!

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  3. I read obsessively growing up, and still read to this day, stories of valor and courage both women and men. Like Jennifer I played with dolls briefly, turned to books more so. I could disappear into a story and become a part of the act, scene, voyage, journey, the realm of fantasy. I love it still, and read to my children every night at bedtime. For many years, they did not want to read for themselves, now in their mid-20's, they are finally reading for enjoyment, and I am proud of that. In a world where electronic gadgets rule the lives of so many kids which then leads to forgetting the basic morays, values and etiquette's I was raised on ~ I am thrilled to read that parents STILL read and encourage writing in younger generations. Kudos !!!

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  4. When I was in 3rd grade, my mother had an operation that kept her in the hospital for a few weeks of convalescence (back in the 60's, they gave you more time for these sorts of things). My father worked the irregular hours of a truck driver so I was packed up and moved to Albany for a month with my grandmother.

    Going to a different school, leaving my own much-loved Mrs. Pratt, and learning a new rhythm in this much-bigger school was pretty stressful. Thank goodness my grandmother was a reader... and I was a reader too.

    I found an entire bookshelf of old hardcovers, discovering Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, Lord Fauntleroy, Little Women and Little Men over the course of that visit and throughout the years whenever I visited Grandma.

    I believe the stories of those plucky problem-solving children saved me. I was a fish out of water in that new school, running afoul of rules that I barely knew. Each night the story of their adventures helped me, "bucked me up," in some undefinable way.

    Thank God for plucky heroines and heroes. Long may they live!

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  5. Thanks for your comment, Eleanor -- isn't amazing how these characters become friends and guides for us?

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  6. Oh yes! Perhaps the most wonderful thing is the way they show so many examples of what it means to be a "good child" or even a "good girl." Thinking of Jo March and Anne Shirley... they even have things to teach us grown-ups about being true and brave.

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