Story-teller Yang-May Ooi has a thoughtful piece on her blog this week, explaining how she moved from writing novels to telling stories to an audience, based on her true life experiences.
She writes about the problem of including ‘innocent bystanders’ in her stories and her concern that people might be embarrassed or upset by being identified. She goes on to muse about whether changing stories to avoid identifying other people makes them less ‘true’.
Changing names to protect the innocent is an established journalistic tradition. But what about changing the setting, conflating time-lines, swapping around who said what and when? At what point does a story stop being a faithful representation of events, and become a creative art?
Pretty much as soon as you start thinking of it as a story, I would say. As soon as you select the salient points, the details that add atmosphere, leaving out the irrelevant or banal, perhaps the inconvenient facts that undermine the drama. As soon as you imagine yourself telling the experience to someone else, or even re-telling it to yourself.
I’ve been reading Artemis Coopers’ absorbing biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the wonderful adventurer and travel writer. I was startled to read about his elastic approach to telling the story of his epic walk across Europe in the mid-1930s, published decades later in the books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. People were re-named, separate visits merged into one, a whole section on horse-back was added because he liked the romance of riding, and thought the reader might get bored with his pedestrian progress. Does it mean his books are worth less as a result?
I’m planning a long walk of my own this summer, with Yang-May and her partner Angie, and my husband Phil. We aim to walk Saint Cuthbert’s Way, from Melrose Abbey in Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindesfarne, on the Northumbrian coast. Phil is interested in the legends that arose around Saint Cuthbert, such as the story he was greeted by otters who warmed his feet with their breath after he crossed to Holy Island at low tide, and that his body was found to be uncorrupted when his coffin was opened, many years after his death.
‘Did people really think it happened, or were they just lying?’ he asked, rather starkly, as we discussed the legends this morning. I suppose there’s a gradient between telling it like it is, making up stories, and lying. But the satisfaction of telling and hearing stories means its easy to see how a little embroidery here, a few re-tellings by different people, can create a whole new legend.
Photo: From Keith Riley-Whittingham’s photostream on Flickr, with CCL.