What a fish story …!?


Two fishermen and two historians often disagree widely as to what happened, omitting altogether the even more difficult problem of ‘why’.”

.  – Rudy Wiebe. Canadian author and teacher. Intro to: “The Story-Makers” (1987 reprint of 1970 collection of short stories)

fishermen and historians?

I came across this quote recently in an introduction to a book of short stories. It was one of those random finds… or maybe it was not random…

I commonly utilize a saying: “I don’t believe in coincidence, I believe in synchronicity…”  And the experience of coming across this quote, fits well with many of my life experiences, including recent ones…

Of all the places I chose to wander in a large university library today to take a break… to stretch my legs… i wander down this book’s particular aisle, look up and pull it off the top shelf…

The story-makers… now that sounds curious…”, I say to myself.

I begin to read the introduction…

The impulse to make story needs no defence. Where it arises, who knows. It simply is, like the impulse to sing, to dance, to play games. It would seem, however, that story-making is the uniquely human of these impulses for, though many animals sing, play games, perform intricate and beautiful dances, it still remains to be discovered whether any make stories…

… For us, to make story is to entertain: we entertain ourselves as we entertain our listeners. In other words, the emotional impulse to make story drives toward the principle of pleasure…

_ _ _ _ _ _

And, so I’m running along with this intro, thinking, ‘this is kind of cool’ then I scratch off the side like an old record player getting jostled.

See, recently, I attended a former colleague’s Masters’ project defence. I was struck in the presentation by an explanation, following a direct examiner question, of the ‘concept’ behind the project being described. The ‘concept’  was described as essentially something that came to him out of the ether… (that was his story).

My internal thinking resembled the scratching of the record needle blaring through the speakers…

“No, it didn’t… that’s bullshit”, my internal voice says about the ‘birth’ of the ‘concept’…

My reasoning for this thinking fueled by working on similar projects, in a non-academic sense, for several years and a recognition that the ‘concept’ being discussed has essentially been around as long as the Internet has been around — and probably even more before that.

I continue listening to the presentation, with a distinctly sour taste in my mouth watching an academic committee essentially lap it up. “Oh this is wonderful stuff… so progressive…” (I paraphrase).

And, my internal storyline is shouting, “you’re going to let that go by… this is academic rigor…”

I leave the presentation… well…feeling jaded.

As in the sufficient dictionary definition suggesting: “1. satiated by overindulgence: e.g. a jaded appetite. 2. worn out or wearied, as by overwork or overuse.”

How many times has this happened to others? Sitting and listening to someone sell something as if it’s their idea, and yet knowing they might be bullshitting, or the simple fact that the ‘concept’ being sold is part of a much larger thought process that was pondered well before this particular individual claims it came out of the ether, or ‘just came to them…’

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Now this is where things are a little complicated or complex or convoluted…

Subjective… one might suggest.

The individual making the claim of concept, may very well truthfully feel that the concept is only unique to them. Cutting edge to their mind; unique; an epiphany. A ‘story’ they created.

So then is it a lie?

(or maybe just shoddy research…? or, flawed pondering…?  or, flawed academic review? … hard to say really… like much of the law, it comes down to gray areas, both the messy, slimy, bulbous gray areas near and just above the area between our shoulder blades and the interpretations that gray area garners…).

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

Now similarly, these sames sorts of questions can be asked of the current fuss in Canadian politics around the F-35 fighter jets and the recent Auditor General’s report suggesting that the Conservatives/Reformers were lying about what they knew about the true cost, or didn’t know…

But then of course, the definition of lying is a rather subjective, gray area… ebbing and flowing in politics like a Bay of Fundy tide.

Even more so when we start to broach the subject of ‘marketing’… (and lying).

As I repeatedly state: ‘everything is marketing and marketing is everything’.

What is a thesis defence, but an exercise in personal marketing…

One person’s story, can be another person’s spin. One’s spin, anothers’ story and so on and so on and so on until we vomit off the side of the merry-go-round.

_ _ _ _ _ _

Gregory Cajete a Native American educator and writer suggests: “Through story we explain and come to understand ourselves.

Similarly, Wiebe suggests:

… it easy to imagine that the impulse to make story and submit to it is rooted in our necessity to label. Wherever we live we invent symbols (a picture, a sound, an act) for things, apparently in order to relate in an essentially human way to the things themselves.

Another story theorist and psychologist in the academic world Jerome Bruner suggests:

A story must construct two landscapes simultaneously – the outer landscape of action and the inner one of thought and intention.

True, quite true.

Wiebe continues in his introduction to a book on short stories, putting the opening quote in context:

Story recounting what happened

…and the broken dream that may occur when the “primitive encounters the modern world”…:

The earliest development of this form [story] is no doubt autobiography (it happened to me) followed closely by biography (it happened to them) and, after perhaps generations by history (it happened to our tribe, that group of nations, etc.). It moves from one extreme — say, the fisherman telling once more about the fish that got away — through an incredible spectrum to the other extreme — say, Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples.

Besides, it can include every conceivable combination of information from generally accepted fact through informed surmise to the sheerest tall tale.

Two fishermen and two historians often disagree widely as to what happened, omitting altogether the even more difficult problem of ‘why’.

_ _ _ _ _ _

Now stick with me here, for a moment more (if you’re still here…)

Wiebe weaves a decent mat here:

Such circumstances need hardly surprise us. We all are to an extent limited in what we can take in… This is a verity every good story-maker knows, the quality of story depends rather less on what happens than on how the story is made, and if you can begin your story with “I was there; this really happened” you already have long hold on your audience.

Then, if you can with skill, shape facts and events to show the human meanings behind them… you have a truly memorable story. How much you mix actual fact and fancy is not so important as that the story whole moves us to understand ‘what happened’ in a profounder human way.

And there we have a certain crux of the matter…

How much we weave actual fact with some fiction is not so important, as long as we tell a good story.

Now, this isn’t meant as a criticism of Wiebe — as he’s referring to good short stories, which are often a good weave of fact and fiction — however, this ability of story-telling is as old as the wind, or at least as long as humans have broke wind…

But then one might argue that places have story, and story is about places… a storied-landscape albeit…

The point being that inherent in story-telling — whether it be a politician, or political party, trying to story-tell their way out of lies (or into them…), or into government for that fact, or…

…an interviewee pulling and pushing the truth around a little in an interview or a resume, or…

…stretching things around a little in the academic world, such as ‘defending’ a thesis or otherwise, or…

…an Us vs. Them argument fronted by governments or enviro groups, or special interest groups…

the stories are going to vary.

… in their ability to entertain, capture attention, and how much is “F”act and how much is “F”iction and how much is ‘f’ancy and ‘d’ancy.

Or, maybe just like mountains on Bruner’s  landscapes… was it a mountain of a lie, or a molehill of stretched fact…?

Or, was it simply all in the interpretation of features on the landscape in the first place?

For a person in a wheelchair, a set of stairs might as well be a mountain… for the able, maybe one of those stairways to heaven…

Yet, at the end of the story the more important question is: ‘Why’?

And to that, i have nothing even closely resembling an answer…


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