One might ask oneself. Is the rise of Donald Trump and fake news, an anomaly in the history of the USA or the natural progression of an American fascination with the tall tale? In preparing our future generations to evaluate and understand fake news. To test the plethora of information that they consume. Can we learn valuable lessons from our shared heritage of the tall tale?
Whilst things were; ‘huge in Texas’ they were ‘awesome in California’. They were ‘sweet as in New Zealand’, ‘magical in Ireland’ and ‘fair dinkum in Australia”. If we are honest, most of us have a tendency towards exaggeration and myth-building. It is therefore not surprising that in many cultures we will find a collection of tall tales, or characters and heroes that fulfil a similar purpose.
In the USA we have figures such as; Jim Bowie, Daniel Boone, and Jigger Johnson. In Australia we find; Rodney Ansell, Crocodile Dundee, and Crooked Mick. The Canadians gave us; Big Joe Mufferaw and Ti-Jean, from Estonia we have Toell the Great. The Europeans gave us one of my favourite characters the German nobleman Baron Münchhausen, or how could we forget Finn MacCool from Ireland. Of course not to be outdone the English claim that Will Ritson was ‘the biggest liar in the world’. All these characters and many other stories from around the world prove the age-old adage that we should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The fundamental principle of the modern tall tale is that we take a kernel of truth. Exaggerate and twist this kernel until we end up with a story that is extravagant, entertaining, comical and yet still plausible.
It could be said that the common elements between fake news and tall tales are the exaggeration and sensationalism involved. Where they differ is that tall tales are an attempt to entertain and we are often aware that the teller is ‘yanking our chain’ or ‘pulling our leg’. Whereas in fake news the intent is to mislead the intended audience.
In preparing our students to evaluate modern media, it is a good time to look back to our history of the tall tale. Tell your students these stories of men and women, and let them evaluate the truth from the exaggeration. Tell them stories from your own childhood with elements of the tall tale and see if they can distinguish fact from fiction. Have a tall tale telling competition where students take a true event from their lives and turn it into a tall tale.
The photo at the head of this article was from a sceptics conference that I spoke at many years ago. It was a fabulous time telling supernatural stories and tall tales to a group of people who pride themselves on their scepticism. There is no better way to provide a healthy scepticism in our future generations than by introducing them to the power of stories and the tall tale.
I leave you with this video snippet about my childhood haircuts told in the style of an American tall tale. See if you can spot the fact from the fiction.
Haircut (a snippet of a personal narrative)
My mother is blind, she raised her children knowing that they may also end up blind. In my family, there is a hereditary disease: Retinitis Pigmentosa. I do not write this to garner sympathy, simply to state a fact that had an enormous impact on my childhood.
My mother raised us to always be aware of all 5 of our senses, and not to be reliant on the single sense of sight. As a child, I remember being encouraged to close our eyes and breathe in the aromas that surrounded us. To listen carefully to the symphony of natural and supernatural sounds that surrounded us. To caress the bark of a tree, or squelch our toes through the mud on the riverbank. To savour the flavour of my grandmother's freshly baked shortbread.
Today my relative fame as an international storyteller has been built on this very simple observation; ‘that we experience the world with all 5 of our senses’. Nowhere is this more evident than in the telling of scary stories. By using all 5 of our senses in the telling of scary stories we build tension, accelerate emotion; creating connectivity and resonance.
Although this may sound obvious, it is not surprising that those who have grown up in a media-rich environment tend to describe their world largely in terms of what they see. In our writing and our storytelling, it can take a conscious effort to refer to all 5 of our senses.
For an example of how this can work here is a short video snippet of a horror story that I tell, watch for the use of the 5 senses to build tension and excitement.
If you are writing or telling stories this Halloween, try adding some extra senses to what you tell. Talk about the sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of your environment, and see your story improve.
Of course, the connection between pilgrimage and story is long established. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales around 1390 and linked stories with pilgrimage. A story about a storytelling competition within a pilgrimage.
“This is the point. I’ll make it short and plain. Each one of you shall help to make things slip By telling two stories on the outward trip To Canterbury, that’s what I intend, And, on the homeward way to journey’s end Another two, tales from the days of old; And then the man whose story is best told, That is to say who gives the fullest measure Of good morality and general pleasure, He shall be given a supper, paid by all” The Canterbury Tales Poem by Geoffrey Chaucer Translated by Nevill Coghill
One might say that for each of us life is a pilgrimage, a journey towards understanding. That in an absurd world it is our human experience that helps brings meaning and understanding. If we consider our human experience as a journey made up of memories. As we recall the people, places, and events in our life we create stories, narratives that illuminate our experience.
If storytelling is the narration of our human experience. Then storytelling enables us to share our journey with other humans so that we can all share the same pilgrimage and the same understanding.
Sometimes our life experience is difficult to understand, it becomes abstract, conceptual and systematic; we separate thought and life, emotion and action. In our day to day life, a gap opens between reality and perception, a gap that can be closed by stories. Our lives are stories and, in a sense, any good story is about us. We are drawn to the story because with a little effort we can place ourselves in the midst of the drama. Stories about the shared experiences of life resonate with all of us.
As a type of language, stories help us see, help us understand even when we are resistant to acknowledging our own truths. It is through parable, proverbs, and stories that many great mystics and teachers revealed the misconceptions of others, and taught the truth of our actions.
Today many people choose to walk a labyrinth as a symbolic or imaginary pilgrimage. Some even claim that this is part of the historical role of large church labyrinth, such as Chartres Cathedral in France. A symbolic walking meditation, a succinct journey, focussed on the inner self.
If walking a labyrinth can be a pilgrimage, then telling a story can also be a pilgrimage. A journey, a meditation, a growing awareness of our true self. Telling our own stories to each other is much more than entertainment, it is an act of community and self-awareness. It is pilgrimage shared and enhanced. Our stories do not need to be complex, simply a retelling or our experience, even mundane events can have cosmic significance. Some of these stories will be involuntary and others will be voluntary. They may include such things as, getting married, the loss of a loved one, winning a raffle, having a baby, getting divorced, immigrating, buying a house, being diagnosed with a terminal illness, learning to ride a bike, scoring the winning goal, losing an argument, being bullied, cooking your first festival dinner.
In our daily lives, in our workplaces, we are all pilgrims on a journey. What better way to learn from each other than to share our pilgrimage through the medium of story.
In New Zealand - Aotearoa we have a wonderful Maori proverb; “Ka Mua, Ka Muri” – roughly translated as walking backwards into the future. Or a more complete understanding might be that we move forward facing backwards, influenced by all that has gone before. It is indeed the tension and wordplay between ‘mua’ and ‘muri’ where ‘mua’ refers to what is in front, and also means the past, while ‘muri’ refers to what is behind, and also means the future.
In reflecting on my last few years telling stories, I noticed a seismic shift in the types of audiences I have been working with. Whereas younger students once made up the bulk of my audiences, I now find myself working more often with teenagers. It has been a joy to work with so many young adults and to see the joy that they can find in storytelling and listening. This picture from recent performances in South America perhaps captures the fun that teenagers can have with story.
There is often a perception that students of a certain age are to old for stories, and yet I have found my teenage audiences respond well to stories that are chosen specifically for them and told in a style that does not patronise or belittle their burgeoning adulthood. These include re-tellings of medieval stories, through to stories of historical figures such as Te Rauparaha. In recent years I have also added a number of personal narratives, about my childhood growing up in rural New Zealand, including stories of my parents and grandparents.
These personal narratives have become a cornerstone of my workshops helping students to reflect on their own stories and their own identities. In an age when we talk more and more about identity, it surprises me that we consistently fail to make the link between story and identity.
As a young man one of the best jobs I ever had was working for a large corporate entity that existed to “help wealthy people gain more wealth”. I was well remunerated and had great working conditions. After a few months of work I was deeply unhappy, despite the fact that to all worldly standards I had arrived at the pinnacle of success. What I had failed to realise was that I had grown up on the stories of Robin Hood, that my entire family life and circumstance had taught me that the correct world-view was to take from the rich to help the poor, and now I was taking from the poor to give to the rich. Now for the sake of brevity this is a simplification of the whole story. I left the perfect job to go and work in a more community focussed role with less money, but greater personal reward. Proving that ultimately my identity is strongly tied to my childhood, and the stories and values of my parents, grand-parents and ancestors.
“Ka Mua, Ka Muri”. This proverb probably explains more succinctly than anything I write the importance of our teenagers telling stories and listening to stories. To understand who we are, we have to understand where we come from. Encourage your teenagers to tell stories about their childhood, their ancestors, and their culture. Through the telling of their stories, and the illumination of their history, help your teenager to understand their future.
Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend a fabulous Celebration of Tourism at the outstanding Monteiths Brewery in my hometown of Greymouth.
It was an exciting day for all those who are involved in tourism on the WestCoast of New Zealand, a time to celebrate what we have achieved and to demonstrate how much further we can go.
One of the highlights was the authenticity of the new tourism catchphrase for our region: "Untamed Natural Wilderness".
Anyone who has heard me telling my New Zealand stories around the world, will realise how passionately I love my country and how particularly I love the WestCoast. When we say it is an "Untamed Natural Wilderness" we are only making a statement of fact. From the beautiful sunny clear crisp winter days, to the frigid katabatic wind affectionately known as the "barber" because it cuts to the bone. From the towering majesty of glacial walls of ice, to summer swimming in pristine lakes and rivers. What is there not to love about the west coast?
If you need any reminder of the spectacular nature of where I live and love here is a recent photo of my family and I visiting the glaciers.
I have spent the last 4 weeks having a fabulous time in Colombia. The Colombian audiences have been so much fun. I hope that I have been more successful at explaining Haka than I have been at learning Salsa. As a fellow New Zealander explained to me; "we think we can dance in New Zealand until we come to Colombia, and then we learn that we have not really been able to dance at all" The first thing the Colombianś will tell us, "is listen to the music". When we explain that we are listening to the music, they will simply reply "well you are listening to it wrong".
Hopefully these photos capture some of the fun I have had in Colombia.(special thanks to Pablo and Dream On Productions for the photos)
Some of you will remember Zola Budd a great barefoot runner. As I recently spent a day working with the Nike Design team in Busan Korea, I was reminded of Zola and the wonderful joy of running barefoot as a child growing up in New Zealand. Watching the miles being eaten up as your feet flew across the green green grass, the feel of the steady rhythm where the percussion of your feet meet the beat of your heart. Such a wonderful feeling running barefoot, and so many wonderful stories shared by the Nike Design Team. Now I am on Jeju Island working with the International Schools, such a great group of staff and students. Here are some photos of us all having a great time. There is something infectious about really laughing out loud.
I recently had the pleasure of running a series of workshops at Tranby school in Perth. It was a delightful time and some wonderful stories grew out of the experience. I especially loved the story of building a castle out of bricks on the neighbours trampoline, you dont need much imagination to work out what happened next.
Here is a photo from the workshops
You can read more here http://www.tranby.wa.edu.au/view/library/visiting-author