Several years ago I was in the audience at a story slam. The theme was "Beginnings." For those of you unfamiliar with slams, the rules usually state that the stories told must be original, somehow relate to the theme, short, and true. The events happened. Slams are judged events and the winner can get anything from a moment of glory to cash prizes.
The winning story was a poignant one, about the teller's birth. It was beautifully constructed, well-told and fit with the theme. We were all in tears. He won and rightly so; it was hands-down the best story of the night. A few days later it was revealed he had made the whole thing up. It was fiction. The local storytelling community was in an uproar, feeling betrayed and questioning the artform itself.
One could speculate endlessly on why he did this, he certainly knew the rules, but that isn't the point of this essay. I'm interested in the question of factual truth, emotional truth, and honesty in storytelling. I've written about some of the technical issues of truth and storytelling before, but this time let's think about philosophy. There is no way this essay can dive deeply into these topics (whole lives have been spent on them) but I'd love to start a conversation.
So what is truth? Honestly, that sentence always seems like it should be the punchline of some obscure joke. I don't know if objective truth exists, my personal philosophy tends towards not.
I do know that there are facts. Factual truths, for the purposes of this essay in the context of storytelling, are verifiable. I was born in a hospital in Philadelphia. I was premature and underweight. Evidence exists. Emotional truths (again for the purposes of this essay) are those metaphors, similes, fictions and sometimes verifiable events, that hold emotional power and meaning, revealing something about what it is to be human. I was born in a hospital in Philadelphia. I was premature and underweight. I was a small, scrawny, homely infant, yet when my father first saw me he cried, "She's beautiful!" To an objective viewer I was anything but beautiful (really, I've seen the pictures) but to my father I was exquisite. Both are true. One view contains emotional truth even if it might not be verifiably factual.
One of the wonderful things about storytelling is that we can express emotional truth through many means. Personal or factual stories, fiction, myths, fairy tales, and more. Because storytelling is neurologically powerful, we need to remember that the emotional truths we share can easily cause powerful reactions. Storytellers, whether intentionally or not, are truth-tellers if for no other reason than that we are wired for story. I would hope that we all use these different kinds of truth ethically, remembering that we are directly messing with our listeners' brains. It doesn't matter if you're telling a funny story, a fairy tale, a tall tale, a personal recollection, or something else, they all contain some form of emotional truth. We laugh at things that are absurd because we KNOW they are saying something about what is real. We need metaphor to help us understand the world and our lives. And those deep, personal stories help us all know we are not alone.
Which leads me to honesty. There is absolutely nothing wrong with telling a story that doesn't contain factual truth. The emotional truth makes it worthwhile and worth hearing. What we must do, as artists and craftspeople, is to remain honest with ourselves and with our audiences. Let the story serve the greater purpose of conveying emotional truth, but don't be afraid to own that you may have altered facts to serve truth. They are not "alternative facts." Fiction and metaphor are a vital part of what it is to be human and gives us safe ways to talk about the unspeakable. It may still be true and is no less powerful for not having actually happened. We have always needed fiction and metaphor, and we always will; the morally ambiguous moment is when fiction is presented as fact.
In performance storytelling practice, I'm certain many "true" personal stories have been polished a bit to be better stories, but if they retain most of their factual truth and it enhances their emotional truth, I'm okay with it. We violate trust only when we present something largely fictional as factual.
Storytelling gives us a way to craft the truths we hope are real. It gives us tools to speak of the things that might be too difficult to say otherwise. And we become responsible for the truths we offer, so we must remember our obligation to the audience to not deceive them as they strive towards their own truth.
All of this raises the question of how storytellers can present the story honestly to the audience with neither exposition nor apology, but still owning what kind of truth exists within. You don't want your audience to listen less deeply because they think the story isn't true, but you don't want to lie to them. This essay is long enough without tackling this issue and I don't have a magic solution, though there are several possibilities, three of which I'd like to touch on here, then build upon in another essay.
- You could, for example, weave in some kind of I wish that that was the way it had happened statement, perhaps at the end of the story. This tells the audience it isn't factual but emotional truth you're striving for, and may add to the poignancy of the whole thing. I do this in several stories, including Retellings and The Longest Day of My Life. In the first I tell the facts of the matter, then retell it the way I wish it had happened; while in the second I tell the facts and admit to the lack of resolution, then give myself the ending I wish had happened. Both are emotionally satisfying and give the audience honesty as well as meaning.
- You could create a fictional setting in which to set your stories. Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone stories are full of emotional truth and appear to be factual, yet everyone knows they are fiction. His audience is more than willing to suspend disbelief. I do something similar in my Crazy Jane stories.
- You could present yourself as an unreliable narrator, then tell it however you want. Something as simple as, "I think this is how it happened, but it might not all be true" will make your audience laugh and identify with you, since everyone exaggerates from time to time. It also allows your audience to listen on several levels at once, for both emotional truth and with a grain of salt around the facts.
So what do I think happened with the teller in that slam? He told a powerful, emotionally true story. I wish he had told it in a different setting or had given us a hint that it was what he had hoped for, and that he hadn't felt the need to deceive his audience. But I don't really condemn him for all that I think he was dishonest. We all yearn for emotional truth, recognition and that sense that we are not alone. We all yearn for the facts of our lives to be different. Maybe he was telling the truth as he wished it had been. We all do. We just need to remember to be honest in the process as we search for our own truths.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer