Today, The Reading Ape posted a provocative question about the potential dangers of storytelling. At what point does a story become harmful? Why do we read memoirs like Jayce Lee Dugard’s A Stolen Life: A Memoir? Are there stories that shouldn’t be told?
I’ve spent this week at a Boy Scout camp, and have thus been suspended between two kinds of stories for the last six days. I’ve been sitting by the lake, or on a flat rock with my feet in the cold mountain stream that empties into it, reading the modern literary short story – a form which is supposed to mimic in some artistic way the mess and even lack of resolution of Real Life. And when the boys return from their merit badge classes, I’m subjected to a seemingly endless barrage of what I think of as “campfire stories.”
Campfire stories seem to serve several primal purposes that are probably as old as the second campfire in human history (the first campfire was surely just for getting warm and making coffee).
Some campfire stories have a didactic purpose. My favorite didactic campfire story this year came from the Nature Lodge:
“Last year at camp there was a kid who crawled under a pine tree when they were playing hide and seek down at the Max Creek site one evening, and it was dark under there, and he put his head right down on top of a copperhead. It bit him on the ear, and his ear swelled up the size of a dinner plate. But he didn’t panic – he stayed real calm. They took him down to meet an ambulance at the bottom of the hill, and the local hospital sent him by helo to another hospital – but this happened on a Sunday night, and by Wednesday he was just fine and back at camp. We caught that copperhead and asked him what he wanted us to do with it. Most kids woulda said to kill it, but he said it wasn’t that snake’s fault and asked us to take it over the other side of Jersey Ridge and let it go. I was never more proud…”
Translation: Watch where you put your feet and head and hands; almost nobody ever dies from a copperhead bite; stay calm if you’re bitten; the snake lives here and was just defending itself. Respect Nature.
Another purpose of the campfire story is entertainment. Our closing campfire tonight will center around skits – little stories acted out to make us laugh, mostly at our own foibles.
Some campfire stories are told in an effort to create and shape experience into something more meaningful. My older son fooled around and failed to pack properly for his Wilderness Survival merit badge campout. He grabbed a groundcloth, but neglected to take either his sleeping bag or his bug spray. He spent a difficult moonlight night waking up every time the campsite bugs decided to have a late-night snack. To the Scout leaders the next morning, he complained of miserable conditions and demanded extra nap time. By evening, he was beginning to spin the story to anyone who would listen as an amusing adventure in which his face served as a racetrack for spiders and beetles. By the time he tells his cousin – a Bear Grylls wannabe who isn’t in Scouts – about the overnighter, he will be a hero who survived the spiders and mosquitoes of Camp Powhatan the hard way, wrapped in a pint-sized piece of plastic. He’ll probably show his bug-bite scars.
Then there’s the ghost/horror story. I’d place Jaycee Lee Dugard’s memoir in this category. On some level, we read these kinds of memoir (and engage in the time-honored practice of telling spooky campfire stories) in a kind of primal ritual of transforming the incomprehensible and terrifying mysteries of life into something that we can have control over. Stories can have resolution…epiphany…moments of grace…God forbid, even happy endings!
And if we don’t like the ending of a story, we can change it, twist it, shape it to our purposes; all we’ve done is cross the line between fact and fiction. Though, if one follows the debate over whether or not Greg Mortenson lied in Three Cups of Tea and to what extent he is legally responsible for “damage” as a result of altering the “facts,” our society is not yet sure exactly where that fact/fiction line must be drawn or the ethics of crossing it.
There are risks inherent in each kind of campfire story. Johnny Scout might go looking for his own copperhead pillow. He might hurt another scout’s feelings with a skit done in poor taste. He might deliberately leave his sleeping bag behind, and freeze to death (well, maybe not in the Blue Ridge in the summer, but still). He might scare Joey Scout into wetting the bed and crying for mommy all night.
But most campfire stories lack a certain…artistry. So if a campfire story isn’t sufficiently artistic to please our aesthetic sense — if teaching/learning, entertaining/being entertained, shaping our experience, and understanding/controlling our world leave us unsatisfied – then we have literary fiction.
Good literary fiction, it is said, takes risks. Life is risky. Art is risky. Telling a story is risky – the teller might, like Mortenson, find himself at the wrong end of a lawsuit. An exciting tale of illegal derring-do might spawn copycat crime among a certain warped segment of the population. Well, dammit, being human is risky. Few things in life are certain. Isn’t that what it’s really all about?
Perhaps the real risk inherent in storytelling, and in listening to stories, lies not in the tales themselves (no matter how good or how evil the subject may be), but in what we bring to the telling and the listening.
Caveat lector. Now throw another log on the fire and pass me another marshmallow.