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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Truth & Art: Storytelling & The Value of Repetition

I recently shared a story on my blog with someone who had been there when the actual event transpired. He expressed surprise that some of the details of the story appeared have been invented.

I expressed surprise that I had got as many details correct as I had. Between my faltering memory and a bit of poetic license some have found my stories entertaining. If you are in one of my stories and don’t recognize certain elements of the story, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised. As Mark Twain said, "When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but my faculties are decaying, now, & soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the latter. It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it."

As I grow older, I live with rosy memories of things as I wish they had been. I used to could tell which memories were fact and which were, in fact, fiction, but if you tell a story incorrectly enough times, in an effort to be funny, witty or erudite, you soon forget what originally happened in the story. All really good literature and powerful biography is based on this principle. If you tell a story well and repeat it frequently, people who actually witnessed the event soon come to doubt but what the story was as you originally told it.

The story of "George Washington and the Cherry Tree" is an excellent example. It was repeated so many times over the years that soon practically everyone believed the story to be true though it might well have been made up - an early American myth. Then, historians, in a bid to excite public interest in their latest books, all began to tell everyone incessantly that the cherry tree story was, in fact, not true at all. With repeated repetition, soon everyone believed that the cherry tree story was made up and not true at all, even though it may very well have been a true story despite what the historians say. There were cherry trees at Mt. Vernon and George actually did chop some down as a kid.

So take your pick. Unless you can communicate with the late president, you'll never know.

Just enjoy the story. A good story is a powerful thing!

Just one man's opinion...

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