The Real Story

Though every work of literature tells some kind of story, (even if it’s only a chronicle of what’s happening in a writer’s head), story itself is a stream far older, wider, and deeper than literature. Literary journals in which stories–short stories–can be found are more numerous than the sands of the seashore, but publications that look at the oral tradition and other non-literary streams of storytelling are rarer. After ruling out the various dry academic folklore journals, I’ve found two notable publications that explore the roots of story with style.

The first is the always-admirable Parabola, a quarterly compendium of spiritual and other kinds of traditional knowledge whose every issue is organized around a single theme: The Soul, Peace, Play and Work, or (the most recent issue) Ways of Knowing. These are big themes, and Parabola treats them in the grand manner–not with service-oriented articles on how to bring Zen or Sufism directly to bear upon your life but calm, gracefully highbrow discussions of spiritual principles from many cultures, in their own terms. Parabola is never academic (its articles are short, and illustrations are frequent), but its editors obviously believe that the great spiritual traditions should be presented with a dignified deliberateness that doesn’t so much reach out to a reader as invite him or her to an intellectual feast.

Interspersed between essays like “The Heart of Man and the Heart of Christianity” and “The Awakening of Primal Knowledge” are traditional tales from various cultures. The “Ways of Knowing” issue, for instance, offers a Turkish story about a wise child, an Iranian tale about a trickster, a pan-Islamic story of a prophet who tried to learn what only God knows (the hour of his death), and a Mongolian folktale about a hunter who saved the life of the Dragon King’s daughter and was rewarded with special knowledge. These stories, always gracefully translated, are offered without comment. They transform each issue’s theme into timeless lessons that dispense wisdom the way teachers in traditional cultures always do: by suggestion. The stories, and all of Parabola, appeal primarily to spiritual seekers who do not need to be led by the hand.

The businesslike Storytelling magazine is in many ways the polar opposite of Parabola. Published by the National Storytelling Association in Jonesborough, Tennessee, it’s essentially a trade magazine for the thousands of professional storytellers who perform in schools, in libraries, and on the storytelling-festival circuit across America. The Storymatters section in the front of the magazine is full of trade news and trends: Nashville storyteller teams up with a string quartet; a narrative artist in Wyoming gets her own radio show. There are how-to pieces in the main part of the magazine, from which talespinners in the trenches can learn how to integrate music into their routines, how schoolteachers can use the oral tradition to help kids learn to read, and other nuts-and-bolts matters. What I didn’t see, at least in the issues I examined, were articles that took on controversial questions. There’s nothing here about whether storytellers are primarily entertainers or wisdom-keepers, about the rights and wrongs of whites retelling Native or African-American tales, or about other ethical dilemmas. Storytelling’s main purpose appears to be to help build, and cheerlead for, an emerging profession, rather than act as its conscience.

Where Storytelling shines, though, is in the way it presents stories. There are three or four complete ones in each issue, and they’re resonant and lively. Sidebars profile the teller who supplied the tale, explaining the tale’s origins and offering Tips for Telling the Story. These stories are working versions used by professionals, not folkloric artifacts, and the fact that they’ve been tested on living audiences (and, in some cases, created by the tellers) gives them a compelling immediacy.

The storytelling profession is still trying to define itself–is it an entertainment medium, multicultural arena, arm of education, timeless craft, genuine art?–and so I can’t help feeling that these stories’ final meanings are still to be determined, by the tellers themselves, through the choices that they make as a profession. For now, Storytelling offers an intriguing window into an oral tradition in the making. Taking a few more editorial risks would make the magazine a livelier forum for working out the contradictions and controversies under the cheerful surface of the story world.

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