This is a post about storytelling, and about my reluctance to recognize the power of fiction over fact.

Susan told me that recently she saw a YouTube video of Garrison Keillor conducting a question and answer session.  In it, Keillor was asked how he got to be such a good storyteller, or perhaps he was simply asked about the source of inspiration for his stories.  In any event, it was an innocent question about stories and storytelling.

To Susan’s surprise, Keilor responded tartly.  He was not a storyteller, he said.  He was a writer.

Keillor’s answer suggested pretty strongly that he rated being a writer higher than being a storyteller, even though his reputation is more that of a storyteller and comedian than a writer, and it would be hard to deny the significance of storytelling in human evolution.  And yet, I sympathize with Keillor’s desire to “rise above” mere storytelling.  I, too, have always felt as if there is something inherently untrustworthy about storytelling.

I get this antipathy to storytelling from my father, who was a scientist.  Conversation at the Riley family dinner table was not about stories – about things that were made up – but about the facts as clearly as they could be apprehended.  Whether the subject was science, politics, or interpersonal relations, reality was teased out like a doctor examining a patient: what were symptoms, what might those symptoms be telling us about an underlying condition, and finally, based on the evidence, what’s the name of the disease.  Indefensible statements were discounted.  My father was not a storyteller.

I lived an embarrassingly large number of years – 55, I think – before I came across a factual piece of writing that finally persuaded me about the power of storytelling.  It was in a terrific book called Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home, by Ann Armbrecht, an anthropologist who lives in Montpelier.  The book is an extension of her graduate work in anthropology in northeast Nepal, where she was researching how the Yamphu Rai acquired, farmed, and hung onto their land.  It was her description about how ownership of land was determined among Yamphu Rai that finally broke through my  reticence to believe in the power of story.

“Because claims to kipat land were oral rather than written, the strength of one’s claim depended more on the persuasiveness of the parties involved and the cleverness with which they constructed their evidence than on what actually happened or whose evidence was more legally valid,” Armbrecht writes in Thin Places.  

“Because boundaries of landholdings were not marked physically or legally, manipulating the gap between what was claimed orally and what was documented legally was one of the primary ways for villagers to demarcate the land and increase their holdings.  The victor in a land dispute temporarily secured his or her (though usually his) claim to the land until the borders were redrawn as the result of another dispute.  The better the land, the more likely a dispute would arise and thus the greater the need for a plausible story to support a claim.  The better the story, the stronger the boundary.  The importance of disputes as a way to secure land – the role of stories in making boundaries – was in large part caused by the ambiguity and complexity inherent in the kipat system.”

There is no truth like fiction.

More on this tomorrow.