Manipulation, Story and the Truth – When do we go too far?

by Mary K. Clark

A mystery unfolded for me just the other day. I found I was between stories and storytellers, between two fine people who shared very different truths with me about the same event. If only each could hear the other. But they haven’t and it isn’t my place to share.

Before I pass judgment on my two fine friends, an article entitled, Why Storytellers Lie by Maura Kelly of The Atlantic came to my attention. In the article, Kelly refers to Jonathan Gottschall who wrote the book, The Storytelling Animal:  How Stories Make Us Human.

And we all concoct stories, Gotschall notes—even those of us who have never commanded the attention of a room full of people while telling a wild tale…

Every day of our lives—sometimes with help working things out via tweets or Facebook status updates—we fine-tune the grand narratives of our lives; the stories of who we are, and how we came to be. Those identity tales are usually significantly fabricated, according to Gottschall, no matter how much we might think of ourselves as people who always tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. “Scientists have discovered that the memories we use to form our own life stories are boldly fictionalized,” he notes.

This is disturbing and at the same time not surprising at all. Recently, I listened to a person share a story and when they finished, they told me that the events they had just relayed had happened, but not all in one day as the story suggested.  I felt disappointed – even lied to.  However, I recently shared a story where an event was out of place. I told it this way as it added understanding and context. Would my listeners have felt I had stretched the truth too far?

Ken Burns says that “all story is manipulation” and that he hopes, as a storyteller, to share a “positive version of manipulation.” He believes that “emotional truth is something that you have to build.” But what is “emotional truth”? When do we go too far? Ken Burns: On Story is a short 5 minute video  included in an article entitled, Ken Burns on Why His Formula for a Great Story Is 1 + 1 = 3, written by Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg of The Atlantic. She writes:

In their beautiful short documentary, Ken Burns: On Story, premiering here today, the filmmaker shares insights into the craft of storytelling and reveals his highly personal quest to “wake the dead.”

When do storytellers go too far? Are we completely conscious of what we are doing? As I read Gottschall’s book in coming days, I will be keeping these and other questions in my back pocket, ready to take out and explore as I have many times before.

In the meantime, I would enjoy reading your thoughts and comments. Do you have any other resources to share on this topic?

– Mary



©Copyright 2/10/2013  by Mary K. Clark.  All Rights Reserved.

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