I recently attended a gathering where I happened upon another storyteller whom I have know for twenty years. He lives not far from me, but our paths seldom cross. We had a brief exchanges of pleasantries before he reminded that he told one of my stories. The dialog went something like this:
“You know I am still telling your story?”
I responded, “oh, that is fine”.
“You did give me permission to tell it. And I always give you credit.”
I responded, “yes, I remember”.
“Of course I have made changes. I didn’t like your title. It gives away the punch line.”
I responded, “oh, maybe, but I never mind a title that points the direction the story is headed.”
“Do you realize that I have told that story more times than you have told it?”
I responded, “do you think so? I’ve been telling it longer.”
“But you don’t tell to young children as often as I do. I think I have told the story more times than you.”
It was at this point in our conversation that I started to remember why I don’t seek out the company of this particular storyteller. His communication focuses too much on himself, and his story does not interest me. This introduces two subjects that I want to explore in this essay. Do we have a right to tell another person’s story? And if we tell another person’s story, what right do we have to make changes in the story?
My answer to the first question is “yes”. If we are talking about created and orally performed stories, none of us creates in a vacuum. In the case of the above story, I did not find it in another form. It grew out of telling bedtime stories to my children when they were young. Over a period of time we created the character of a donkey that was always getting into trouble because of his human-like weaknesses. For anyone who is interested, here is an oral version of the story:
ICE CREAM MUD:Mud
In truth, I do not remember any other source for this story, other than the creative interaction between a father and his children. I suppose unconsciously I was moralizing in the best sense of the word. Nevertheless, I have written and told many stories that I claim as my own, and they are another person’s story. A good example is the Izdubar story that was shared in an earlier essay on this blog. That story comes from Carl Jung’s, Red Book. I recreated the story in my own language, but the bones of the story are wholly Jung’s. I try to remember to give credit, but I can imagine if I live long enough to tell that story for twenty years; then maybe I will begin to think my version is better than Jung’s version!
The tradition of recreating a another person’s story is as old as the history of the human race. Oral storytelling is by definition the tradition of passing down from generation to generation the stories we have heard told by others. Each generation hears the story and retells it in language that fits their time and place in history. I earned a living for thirty-five years telling English and Irish folktales that have been told for at least a thousand years! So to affirm my “yes” to the first question, I did give permission for another person to tell, Ice Cream Mud, and I hope that I started this story on a long road of oral telling. I hope that it is picked up and told by storytellers for the next thousand years. And I do not care if my name is not attached to it.
So what about our rights to make changes in the story that we learned from another person? I saw a good movie last week that deals with this subject. Sarah Polly has created a documentary film about her family called, Stories We Tell. This film explores the history of her family, in particular the relationships of family members with her mother, who died when Sarah was eleven. I will not give away the film’s plot, but simply say that she listened to every family story of a mother that she did not know as an adult. Every story was colored by the person’s experience of the woman, and each story was different. The point is that we all experience life differently and no two stories of the same event will ever be exactly the same.
I am an oral storyteller, not an historian, a journalist, or even a folklorist. I guess there are ways to establish the facts related to an event in time, and fit that event into a time line of history. For my part I am less interested in events and history, and more fascinated with the moralizing that goes on about it. Finding a good story, whether it comes from my imagination or the imagination of another, and sharing it with others is the my main purpose. I had a dream two nights ago in which this koan-like phrase appeared: have an idea, create it in story and share it with others.
So to answer my second question, I have no problem with people who will feel the need to change my stories. Stories are like kids –you create them, you nurture them, but eventually you have to send them out into wide world to make their own way.
So why did I get so stirred up by the storyteller who has changed my story? I think, I am not sure, it has to do with his need to tell me about his changes to my story. Go ahead, make of my story what you will, just do not come and tell me about it. It seems something like the present husband of my former wife, telling me about making love to her. I do not need to hear about it. Yea, maybe that is the a good parallel. If as I get older, I stop telling stories, I do not want to hear about their lives without me. I prefer to remember my stories of the past without knowing how ex-wives and ex-stories are getting along in this world without me!