Geoff Pevere: Storytellers: Our Sanity Clause?

When the time came for Randy Bachman to take questions from the packed house who came to the Toronto Reference Library to hear the host of CBC Radio’s Vinyl Tap talk about his experiences as guitarist for The Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive, no one raised a hand. The decision was unanimous. They wanted more stories.

No surprise, really. Bachman is a born storyteller, and he held his audience in thrall with his finely-honed, gregariously recounted anecdotes about growing up in Winnipeg, trading guitar-playing tips with a teenaged Neil Young, accidentally stumbling upon the opening riff for American Woman, and conquering the world with the meat-and-potatoes riff monster that was BTO. As his interviewer, I was blessed with one seriously easy gig.

It’s said that the need for stories before bedtime isn’t merely a childhood pleasure, it’s a necessity we cling to throughout our lives. This accounts for our timeless appetite for an evening’s entertainment. Whether it’s campfire accounts of the day’s hunting, the fireside reading of novels, going to a movie, watching TV or cracking Good Night Moon for the thousandth time for our eager offspring, stories bring an essential form of order and closure to our day. To put it simply, we sleep better.

When I was asking Bachman about his life, I listened closely for variations in the narrative he lays out in Vinyl Tap Stories, the recently published collection of first person tales and anecdotes drawn from the Saturday night show. Mostly, he stuck very closely to the published record, but only mostly. Like all good storytellers, he was editing, embellishing and refining as he went along, constantly reading his audience’s responses as cues to the form and tone his narratives would take. This too is natural. I’ve sometimes surprised myself at how stories I’ll relate to people morph according to both the present listener’s needs and past telling experiences – for instance emphasizing something that got a response before, or omitting something that didn’t — so that the story itself is always changing.

If storytelling is a universal requirement of human experience, then the refinement of the stories is a universal aspect of storytelling. They’re organic in their evolutionary process, and they change no matter how hard we attempt to lock them down. It’s as though they take on a life of their own, which they do, and why it so often feels like they’re telling us.

My own appetite for narrative is limitless. I was a voracious reader from an early age, and I glommed onto TV, movies and comic books like a shipwreck survivor does a floating deck chair. I needed what stories provided, and that wasn’t complicated. Since I lived in a family where change was constant – my father constantly being required to move for job opportunities – these were the things that provided both constancy and order in a life that seemed otherwise conspicuously short on both. While everything else around me changed – like schools, homes and friends – I could take solace from the fact that my stories always had form and structure. I still do. I have a hunger for narrative that’s as vital, real and powerful as any other of my natural drives, and my life is simply unimaginable – or only imaginable as madness – without multiple daily fixes of once-upon-a-time. To lose the plot: was there ever a better description of going nuts?

On a much larger and deeper level, this is how myth functions in cultures: it transforms the random chaos of experience, history and memory into something tidy, tight and absolute. It builds a kind of fence around our sensory wild frontiers, providing boundaries and signposts so we can navigate the randomness.

Maybe it’s because we’re the only species programmed with a sense of mortality – which is to say that we always know the ending – but our existence, not to mention our sanity, depends on creating some semblance of order out of the anarchy of organic matter. Brought into existence by a big bang, we devote ourselves to tidying up the mess as a defence against floating randomly through the infinite cosmic void.

This is why we make lists, write history, learn language, create religions and political orders, compose songs and stories, and package our experiences into neat, transactable narratives with beginnings, middles and ends. It’s why I read, and it’s why I write. It’s also why we love genre in any form: the play between the form and the content, the rules of the game and the skill of the players, is irresistibly pleasurable. And we need it. Great storytelling – and by now I’m including not only verbal and written accounts but music, sports and all artistic expression – teases us with the possibility of chaos and comforts us with closure. We vicariously dangle over the abyss only to be pulled back to solid ground. And so we breathe easier and maybe even fall asleep. Then the dreams come and remind us of the chaos again, and so we try to wrestle them into some kind of manageable narrative form.

Stories keep us sane. Any questions?

We now have an email address where all of us here at Don’t Believe a Word I Say can be contacted: Please use it to ask questions, tell us what you’d like to read about, links you’d like to share, and let us hear what you have to say.

Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and pop culture for over thirty years. He just can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

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