Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Storytelling vs. lying

(This was first written for the massmouth blog, butI like it enough that I wanted to share it here too.)

The theme of last night's massmouth slam was "Love and Lies," a juicy topic for any storyteller. Ten tellers gave it their best shot so the room was full of succulent love stories and juicy fictions. It got me thinking about the balance of truth and lie in storytelling. This is something I think about a lot, it's almost the meta-theme of my personal blog.

The word "storytelling" can sometimes have the taint of "lie" about it. Parents might ask children, Are you telling stories? When what they mean is Are you lying? Performance storytelling walks a very fine line between truth and lie. For a story to work it much be real, it has to have internal integrity, the teller has to believe it, even if it's entirely fiction. This doesn't mean it's a lie. Even a liars' contest has stories full of truth, even if they are encased in fanciful fiction. Sure, those stories might be made up, might be untruths, but if the stories are told convincingly they are told as if they are true. They are believable stories. The storytelling is well crafted, well performed and not done with the intent to harm. Lies can be harmful and cause separation - storytelling is not harmful and brings people together.

Part of what makes storytelling so powerful is that the audience can witness and participate in the creation of fictional truth. The teller weaves their tale and, no matter how fanciful, if they believe their story the audience is likely to come along for the ride. The implicit contract between teller and listener is that for the duration of the story we all agree on this reality, that what you're saying is true, even if it didn't really happen. The audience can imagine it however they like, the teller can revel in the momentary truth, and then it's done. Because storytelling is such a temporal art form outrageous fictions can become true, can be utterly believable for the span of the telling, and the dissipate into the realm of mermaids and giant blue oxen. Stories use fiction to convey truth.

This means, of course, that storytelling can be pretty dangerous and can be used for evil purposes, but that's different blog post. For now, I want to suggest that storytelling does not equal lying, because stories in the moment of telling are true. The mutually created, consensual reality that exists between listener and teller is more powerful than a lie. Besides, who's to say mermaids and giant blue oxen don't exist anyway?

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

1 comment:

  1. Ha, at least one other person! Talked about this in a very, very short blog post a few days back, how storytelling sometimes makes me feel like lying, over at


    ... (^v^)


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