What I would like to offer in today’s Paideia post is twofold: 1) a reflection on storytelling (part I); and 2) an announcement in light of that reflection about a new way for CSA students to remain actively creative during this period of remote learning (part II below).
As with so many things, we will look to the past for inspiration in this. History is full of pandemics that required prolonged quarantining. Because of this, the act of trying to find some respite, relief, and even recreation during a time of uncertainty in matters of public health is not new.
Do we know how people in past ages have made a virtue out of necessity during periods of quarantine? Do we have evidence about how they put their time apart from the normal affairs of the world to good purpose? Yes, we do. They did lots of things. They cooked, cleaned, prayed, tilled the soil. They fixed broken parts of their homes, played music, slept, played games, and wrote letters to friends. In some form or another, we do all of these things, some more and some less. (Remember to write letters to your friends and classmates during these times!)
But there’s one other thing that people throughout history did for which we no longer do, at least with the same stamina and frequency. They told stories.
It should be relatively obvious why we ourselves don’t do much story-telling in the home anymore. It’s not because we’ve learned to do without stories. Far from it! In fact, people today are arguably more smitten with stories than at any earlier point in history. What’s different is the way we receive stories. For each of us likely owns one or more rectangular, electronic objects in our home that give us access to literally thousands if not millions of audio-visual stories, at the push of a button.
And these objects – TVs, tablets, computers, etc. – can give us access to many really good stories, stories that are moving, profound, imaginative, engaging. These stories are so good, and in such abundance, that we may have forgotten how to tell stories ourselves. Or at least we’ve not had much practice doing so. As with so many other modern advancements, we tend to stop making or doing what those advancements now make or do for us. Instead of playing music in the home, we listen to it. Instead of participating in sports, we watch them. And so forth. The same goes with stories: instead of making them, we listen or watch them on TV, or read them in books.
And this is actually just fine. We couldn’t live without stories – life would be almost unbearable in their absence. Humans are inherently narrative beings in their language, thought, and sense of self. Stories are the most natural way that human beings access and understand truth. Fiction and non-fiction narratives both teach us about truth. They show us what is true, and sometimes what is also historically factual. We couldn’t do without stories if we tried. The TV and also the books in every home are a reflection of this fundamental connection between narrative and the human experience of truth.
Yet for most of the history of the world, TVs did not exist, and books were very expensive. Not many people owned books; if you owned a Bible, it was a big deal. It was the most treasured possession of a household, because it contained the historical stories that show us who we are, who God is, and what our lives should (and shouldn’t) look like. Beyond this, however, most people really didn’t have much access to written stories. To compensate, they told stories amongst themselves.
Sometimes, a professional story-teller would come and share new stories that no one had heard before. Because people didn’t have devices with “memory,” they used their own memories to try to retain what that visiting storyteller shared, and they’d go on telling a probably somewhat different version of what they heard to others, and those others would do the same, and the basic structure of a story would travel, spreading some combination of entertainment and edification to each new audience. In each household, there was likely to be one person who told stories well – sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, or grandmother, or uncle. Sometimes a story would get written down. Sometimes it wouldn’t, and then it would disappear – unless someone who remembered it told it again, and it began to grow once more, hopefully into the ears of someone literate who would then write it down.
When different people in different places who had heard the same or a similar story wrote it down, different versions of a basic narrative would circulate. Entire clouds of stories would hover over towns and kingdoms, invisible except in the minds of the teller and listeners. These clouds would shrink or grow, and sometimes mix, depending on all sorts of things. Stories were a living part of the fabric of social life, as they are today, but they were accessed and experienced in a different way. They were not so much watched as listened to; not seen, but heard – but in being heard, they were seen in the minds of each listener. Listening to or reading stories keeps the imagination active and strong. (This is why we often say “the movie was good, but the book was better” – because our imagination can actually do much more than any film can.)
The storytelling characters in Boccaccio’s 14th-century collection of tales, the Decameron understood this well. In orally sharing stories or writing them down, they were giving the imaginations of their listeners and readers rich fodder. Who was this Boccaccio, and what is his Decameron?
Living in medieval fourteenth-century Italy, Giovanni Boccaccio was a scholar, writer, and one of the leading figures in Florence, a later associate and protege of Dante and Petrarch. Boccaccio composed his massive masterpiece, The Decameron, as a collection of 100 tales told by young nobles who leave plague-stricken Florence for a villeggiatura, a self-quarantine/retreat to a country villa. They decide to pass the time by telling a story each, every day. The hundred or so stories they tell are what constitute The Decameron.
We at CSA are going to follow their example. In this time of remote learning and soft quarantine, we are going to have our own Story-Writing contest. Here’s how it will work.
1st Annual CSA Story-Writing Contest
In the spirit of Boccaccio’s Decameron (a collection of stories written during a time of quarantine in medieval Italy), CSA will be holding a story-writing contest for the month of April. See below for details.
- Each student in every grade who wants to, can write and send in a story about a character who faces one or more problems or obstacles of some sort, and acts virtuously in order to resolve or overcome the obstacle(s) or problem(s).
- Each story can be accompanied a maximum of three (3) drawings.
- Once a student is finished with his or her story, parents are asked to type it up and email it to the Headmaster, and to scan and email the drawings as well. (Perhaps in younger grades, parents will need to act as scribes from the beginning).
- The deadline for sending in a story is noon (12pm) on Thursday, April 30.
Stories will be evaluated according to several criteria:
- imaginative plot
- well-written (adjusted appropriately for each grade)
- the main character demonstrates growth in virtue through an adventure or a struggle (for JK-K: they become better by doing something difficult or making the right choice)
- satisfies the two functions of verbal art enunciated by the Roman poet Horace: the story should both delight/entertain, and instruct/edify the reader.
Once they are submitted, I will read all the stories, and pick a few of the best to publish on CSA’s website, at least one for every grade. Students whose stories are published will also receive a $15 gift card to Eighth Day Books.
If you have any questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org