Until recently all people told stories to make sense out of life. When Burt proposed to Jane, her mother told her stories of how Jane’s father proposed to her, of wedding day catastrophes and of their first fight. She hoped Jane would learn something from the telling: the right and wrong ways of going about things, and how to understanding the meaning of events. People informed one another, conveyed meaning and moral sense by telling stories. Most stories held lessons about mundane affairs: the grist of day-to-day life. These were the Little Stories.
When it came time to address the Big Questions, every society drew from its own stock of Big Stories. These usually took place long, long ago in places faraway, but they held great import for the present. Their characters loomed larger than life, their grand dramas heroic or tragic. They revealed wisdom to those who listened closely: where the world came from, why we are here and where we are going. Such meaning-filled stories populate the scriptures, myths and epic poems of every people. Everyone knew that telling one of these large stories sustained the world.
We fear the power of nuclear fusion to shape or destroy the world physically, but people of old knew the power of the Big Story to shape or destroy worlds spiritually.
The storyteller held great responsibility. In one society, the people would kill the teller of a creation myth who got a character’s name wrong or got the plot sequence out of order. Such a mistake disrupts the world, they said. It’s better to eliminate the storyteller than risk having him make that mistake again.
Storytellers of the past used only their bodies to get their messages across. They mastered vocal inflection and pacing, they used gestures of face and hand. Some sang and danced their tales.
Technical innovations through the ages changed the storyteller’s art. With print, storytelling became novel-writing. With radio, it became audio production. With film and video, it becomes film- and videomaking.
Where the traditional storyteller had to master voice and gesture, the electronic storyteller develops skill in lighting, shooting, sound recording, and editing. Where the storyteller of old stood before his audience, the videomaker figuratively stands behind it. They don’t see him, they see his story. They see it from his point of view.
The Little Stories television tells–the sitcoms, the soaps–don’t convey the wisdom once held in the Little Stories mother told daughter, father told son. That’s an important omission, because TV’s Little Stories have largely displaced the stories Mom once told.
What’s more, TV’s Big Stories–movies, documentaries–have displaced the telling of those old stories once thought to constitute the very world. No longer does the storyteller shape the world with “In the beginning….” Now Wild Palms blends us with virtual reality and molds techno-humanity: TV’s self-fulfilling prophecy.
Soon, no one living will remember the world before television. We could soon lose the stories that once held families, and the world, together.
Or we can wake up. We can recover the wisdom lost as we gained technical knowledge. We can re-discover the traditional stories, Small and Big, with their rich deposits of wisdom. We can either fight fire with water or fight it with fire.
Fighting fire with water means this: supplanting television with direct oral communication. Reclaim the fine art of conversation. Tell the old stories, tell your mom’s stories, tell your stories.
Pick up your camcorder. Cast the wise old stories, Big and Small, in light and sound. Clear the antiseptic broadcast vision of life from the TV screen. Replace it with stories drawn from wisdom–from accumulated human experience. That’s fighting fire with fire.
Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.