What is a Story?

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

What comes to mind when someone comes to you and says, "I have to tell you a story"? My first thought would be that they witnessed or were involved in a memorable event, whether it was funny, exciting, intense, emotional, or everything put together. In other words, they are excited to share an account. But does that still qualify as telling a story?

Dictionary.com has ten definitions of the noun 'story'. Number one is defined as "a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale." Which I would argue, does in fact match up with our situation of meeting a friend and telling them our little 'story'. But even so, I still feel that an issue is in play. Not a major issue, but one that I believe does indeed separate the idea of a 'story' from any other general account. For me, the distinction lies with idea and feeling of distance.

I am second generation Greek-Canadian, and naturally, I spent a lot of time with grandma and grandpa as a kid. Whenever it was time to quiet down the grandkids, the best strategy was having story-time. Now, the word used by my grandparents was the Greek word παραμυθι (pa-ra-mee-thee), which translates closer to that of a fairy-tale. Whether the story was "true or fictitious", it was time to hear a παραμυθι. Sometimes the παραμυθι was an ancient Greek myth - grandpa always told the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Other times, and the more I think it was probably most of the time, they would tell me, and/or my younger sister and cousins, stories about their childhood in Greece. These were true accounts and events, yet, grandma and grandpa continued to refer to them as παραμυθια (plural of παραμυθι). This may have been just because it was the word/term they had grown up with when they heard stories "true or fictitious", but somehow, I find the word to be quite fitting of the stories they told.

For us, stories about grandma and grandpa's childhoods were most definitely fairy-tales. Setting wise, we had to imagine rural Greece in the 1930/40s. Right there alone, we have three differing settings and contexts that we could not, and still cannot, comprehend. Firstly, as children born and raised in an urban setting (Vancouver, Canada), visualizing a rural setting was already a challenge. We seldom left the city for the countryside, only occasionally for family visits and a road-trip or two. Secondly, at the times of these first stories, I had only been to Greece once when I was just over a year old, and therefore, could not visualize living in Greece, never mind a rural setting in Greece. And lastly, picturing life in the 30s and 40s was a whole new experience on its own. Imagining our grandparents carrying water from wells, walking an hour to school in the mountains, running from German soldiers during the Nazi occupation, was a purely mythical experience. These are realities that only those who experienced them can imagine. Rural life you can experience by moving there, and the same applies to Greece, but nothing can recreate the life of a child during Depression-era, Nazi-occupied Greece.

The common theme here is distance. These stories presented realities that were distant to me. Distant in the sense that I could not imagine them as realities. I could not see myself living them, I could not see them playing out in my neighborhood, in my community, in my city. That added touch of distance creates a sense of myth, a tale of long ago that may or may not be true. Even if it is true, it doesn't feel so because of its context and presented realities and events. It contains a sense of fantasy, which forces you to use your imagination. That little something that transforms an account into a tale. Into a myth. That, in my opinion, is what makes a story.

If something is too realistic, too replicated, it can only go so far before losing its connective touch. I'm not saying that presenting realities in narrative form is a bad thing, but its important to maintain a certain level emotional connection and stimulus to the story itself. Otherwise, the presentation may take a more mechanical shape - the form of a lecture and the presentation of... 'things', rather than a story. Again, not a bad thing, but you have to be extremely interested in a topic to enjoy this form of story (documentaries, lectures, etc), which I see as presenting accounts. Whereas, a story presented in creative forms (novels, short stories, films, images) containing varying levels of the fantastical, I believe can attract us to a wider range of topics and themes.

Example: I have never had an interest in the topic of illusionists and magicians. Don't ask why, I just don't. If you asked me to watch a documentary on the topic, I would say no. If you recommended a book on its history, I wouldn't read it. Nothing against you, I just really don't care about this certain field. Yet, when I watched The Prestige, a film by Christopher Nolan about two magicians desperately trying to out illusion each other and create the best trick, I briefly fell in love with everything about it. Zero prior interest, but the presentation hooked me. The 19th century context, the characters and their relationships, and what was at stake as whole. established that imaginative hook. The realities and setting were distant to me. I was forced to use my imagination in attempt to understand everything in the present context. The story, the fantasy, the myth, and the emotional touch as a result of those elements hooked me to the topic, rather than the topic itself.

There is a lot more I would like to expand upon, but that will be post for a later date. This is a topic that I can go on about, but I would like to temporarily pause my thoughts here and see what you think! What is a story to you?

Until next time!

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