Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Thousand and One Nights

A friend of mine recently asked me to write a short story about an experience. Another friend suggested to me that telling a story was no different than doing the thing.

So is a telling a story no different than doing? In other words, can the telling of a story of experience be the experience itself?

For me the telling of a story is other than experience. Experience belongs to the world and to the people who share in the experience. It is seldom – I would think never – clean and/or clear as it should be. Experience is rich with irrelevancies and incongruities that can – and should – be cast out of a story. Experience has no narrative; no moral; no point – it just is what it is.

Story on the other hand reflects nothing but the choice of the storyteller. The story of a person's first intimate moment can be fundamentally changed if the storyteller decides to mention the fact that their partner did not take their white gym socks off or that they were dumped the next week for the good looking fellow from the other school. These facts may be true or fictional -- it matters not -- the choice to include them colours and flavours the story.

A story is nothing but narrative; moral and the point. A good story is experience extracted to paint a picture for the intended audience. We choose in telling a story what we want our audience to know. We choose what we want them to know about us. We choose what we want them to know about the others in the experience. We choose what we want them to think is important or funny. We choose what to hide. We choose the tone. When we tell a story – even when it is not of our own experience -- we paint a picture of ourselves and the relationship we want to have with the person to whom we tell the story. We also define the relationship we want to claim we have with the subject of the story.

No story though can be as complete, unbiased or as uncaring as experience. As we have an experience we feel the good, the bad and the ugly. As we eat a delicious meal we try to convince ourselves that the tastes and textures are all we experience but in truth we see the sauce on the white tablecloth; we hear the couple at the next table; we feel irritation (or happiness) at what the others around us do or say. Beyond even those things that we notice (and later elide from the story) there are all the things that we do sense but are as much a part of the experience: the struggle in the kitchen to make the meal; the stains on the carpet disguised by the dark lighting; the waitress eager for the guests to leave. To relate all of this would make a poor story – we crave narrative, tone, moral – not just overwhelming description.

The telling of a story is in itself an experience – and a different one than the experience that provides the fodder for the story. Scheherazade and Shahryar are changed by Scheherazade’s stories -- not by the experiences related in the stories. It is in the way that Scheherazade refuses to finish a story when the sun rises; the way that she makes each story more engaging; the way in which she takes Shahryar way from himself that stays his hand and, in time, leads him to love her. It says much that she knew the stories that would entrance him.

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