Wednesday, October 5, 2011

On storytelling and why the community funds the arts

I was debriefing my computer when I came across this. I was asked to give a talk to a community group a few years back on the value of art in society. This is what I said. I still believe it.

“ I must say I was a little surprised when I was asked to speak to you. I’m a writer. This means that primarily, I’m a storyteller and while I certainly have fixed and strong ideas about how story telling fits into society and helps to build community, I know that most people today don’t. Today, storytelling has been reduced, for the main part, to entertainment and news.

It wasn’t always so. Tribal cultures throughout history have had a tradition of passing vital information down from generation to generation by storytelling around the cooking fires at night. Australia’s indigenous culture, the Aborigines have an incredibly rich tradition of story telling, some of which has crossed cultural boundaries and entered into general understanding. We all know for example that Aboriginal culture talks about a beautiful concept of eternity called the Dreaming, another world which exists invisibly but eternally alongside this one. We have all heard of the Rainbow Snake and many of us are spooked by the curlews call at night because of stories we've heard from Indigenous neighbours.

These stories traditionally have three main purposes:
1) to educate.
2) to ventilate
3) to entertain.

The educational aspect is clear. The kids of the tribe learn not to go outside the fire’s circle of safety because they are frightened by the stories that are told there. Apart from being scary, these stories are often also deeply moral – the characters are almost always given some sort of natural justice. Heroes are rewarded and villains are punished. The Bible and other holy books are the best example of this, although most of the fairy tales that have been handed down to us serve the same purpose – to teach us how to live safely and productively in society. Don’t trust the wolf, Red Riding Hood. Work hard, Cinderella, and you’ll get the prize.

These stories were a way of shaping the next generation into good citizens…

...which makes me very afraid for today’s society sometimes! Where are our stories?
At the movies, of course. And on the television. And in the video game boxes. The stories told today serve the same purpose as stories have ever served – to educate the next generation about how to behave as a citizen of our society.

Have you seen some of the films they are watching before they're old enough to make informed decisions on right and wrong?

Mind you, with further thought, I have to admit that most of the kid’s stories on our screens today do have a strong moral base. The vast majority of films show that he who follows his conscience prospers while the villain gets his comeuppance. I may not always agree with the language they use but the stories they tell are most often sound. Personally, the thing I find most offensive, language wise, about what screen culture teaches our kids is the accent! Australian kids have been so drenched by American TV, film and popular music that they don’t even notice they speak with a U.S. accent!*

The second purpose of story was to ventilate. Story has always provided a safe way for individuals and the greater community to express strong emotions. Our greatest fears result in our best most popular stories. From Little Red Riding Hood to Psycho through to Silence of the Lambs, we have an enduring fear of the psychotic potential of strangers. Same with our greatest hopes. Look at the never ending popularity of a great love story - from Cinderella to Gone with the Wind through to Forrest Gump. The reality of life is that the majority of us will never have to endure the things that terrify us most and most of us will never have a love story quite as dramatic as Scarlett and Rhett. But these stories tell us what it’s like for those who do go through such extreme experiences and give us clues as to what to expect if these things should ever happen to us.

As I said earlier, the third purpose of storytelling is sheer entertainment and escape. It doesn’t matter how worthy the first two purposes are; if you don’t have the third, if your story is not entertainingly told, nobody is going to read, listen or watch it in order to get the message it contains.

Even in the best of times, life can be pretty dull, colourless and boring. Now try for a moment to really imagine what it would be like without stories. That is – no magazines. No novels. No TV. No DVDs. No jokes even.

Now try to really imagine what life would be like without any form of art at all. No paintings on any walls anywhere. No music. No songs. No dancing. No fountains or statues in the parks. It’s pretty grey, isn’t it?

Yes, we can live without art – but would we really want to?

The idea of the starving artist is as real today as it ever was. Most artists cannot make a living from their art. And yet we can’t imagine a life without their product. It’s something to think about next time you hear someone worrying about the arts being subsidised by government.

Everybody wants to be constantly surrounded by art. But nobody wants to pay the artist a living wage for the work that makes everyday life worth living!

So, how does the art of storytelling fit into everyday community life?

We are all storytellers. Take the three things I’ve already mentioned – education, ventilation and entertainment. It’s all in a day’s work for all of us!

For instance, when you get sick of nagging your child to put the garbage out, chances are you get creative and tell her a story about how some little kid whose house gets overrun with rubbish contracts some terrible disease which causes her limbs to fall off.

When your husband (pardon my sexism) continues to drop socks wherever he takes them off after 20 years of reasoned argument, you would probably feel justified in telling him that story about the woman who Just Gets Fed Up With It one day and her man comes home one day to find an empty house. Some might call it black mail… But it’s actually education: “If you do such and such, then so and so will happen as a consequence.”

Then there’s ventilation. The boss gives you a hard time. You get to the pub and you tell anyone who’ll listen the story of what he’s done to you and what a mongrel he is.
Teenagers spend most of their time phone, text or IMing each other stories of what’s happening to them at the moment and what they hope or fear will happen next.
And as for entertainment… You just have to think of the last time you said to someone, “You’ll never guess what happened to me today?” and had them breathless as you gave them the next exciting episode in your life.

Or the next exciting episode in someone else’s life…

That's called gossip.

Everything has both a positive and a negative side. The negative side of story telling is alive and well – as I’m sure it has been down through the ages. Today, they have entire magazines devoted to telling us things about other people that we have no right to know. It’s common knowledge that many of these stories are made up – and yet still these magazines flourish.

Personally, I believe it’s a perversion of the age old art of storytelling and I hope to see a swing back to people minding their own business and taking an interest in the stories that are all around them in their personal world. Our world here at the moment is made up of you, the people in this room.

There are as many important stories in this room as there are people. Some of those stories we can learn from, some can inspire us to do better in our own lives, some might just give us a good laugh or a good cry. Whatever! Every single one of them is more important to our lives than who Posh Spice’s husband is diddling in the broom closet. Besides which – that’s none of our business!

I encourage all of you to go home and write down your favourite story from your own life. You don’t have to write a whole book – just your favourite. Put it somewhere safe, preferably in plastic to preserve it as best you can. I guarantee someday it will mean something to someone.”

* To any of my American friends who read this - Hey! I LOVE your accent - just not coming out of the mouths of our babes.

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