Shattering Myths about Myths

Posted on 27 February 2012

I am a great lover of stories and storytelling. I’m happy whether the stories are told in books, on screen, or live by oral storytellers and comedians. My PhD is in storytelling for digital media. At the time I did this the field was virgin territory, so I had the job of digging through story theory for many different media and pulling out what seemed relevant to the computing domain. I was in heaven.

Theories of storytelling are beginning to converge, not so much because we are finding commonalities across media, but because everyone is slowly being sold on the Hollywood idea of storytelling. I find that disappointing because we are losing a richness of shared experience and worse, we are losing empathy and understanding for the breadth of human experience.

What Writers Say

Writers can say many wise and insightful things about their art, but you must remember that this is anecdotal evidence. When you read what John Gardner, Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, or Syd Field have to say about story, one person is speaking about their experience and you will find that other people may have different experiences.

To overcome relying on a narrow viewpoint, some writers will do a comparative survey of what many respected authors have said about their work. This certainly has the potential to provide a more universal viewpoint. But don’t be fooled.

The person doing the survey may have a theoretical barrow to push. They will then selectively include in their research those people who agree with their writing theory. In proper academic research you need to demonstrate you are at least aware of the people who disagree with you. However, once a book is meant for popular consumption, intellectual integrity can be thrown out the door in favour of saleability.

The person doing the survey may be doing their honest best. However, we are all of our time and writers, as much as anyone, can be influenced by fads. Much storytelling advice is still based on the ideas of EM Forster in Aspects of the Novel. Most people are unaware of this and use his words as if they came from God. Aspects of the Novel was published in 1927 and was already an outdated work when it was released, because avant garde works by people such as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and William Faulkner changed people’s expectations. Some tricks of the trade these authors developed became part of mainstream storytelling.

If you are not of a literary bent, just take a look at the diffences between old film comedies and new comedies. Watching some of Charlie Chaplin’s films, it’s hard to grasp why people found certain things funny. Further, the pacing is much slower than we expect today. What’s Up Doc with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal was a hit in 1972, but if you were to release it this year, people might also find it tedious and slow.

What Jungian Campbellites Say

Joseph Campbell’s ideas about mythology and archetypes have achieved cult status amongst Hollywood scriptwriters, and since these people are highly visible in our culture, writers in other media are also taking on Campbell’s ideas.

Now Campbell never earned a PhD. His work is based on textual analysis and comparison. He does this from a largely Jungian and mystic perspective. His theory concerning The Hero’s Journey has little to no basis in sociology or cognitive science. These have already disproved parts of his theory, but this goes largely unnoticed by the storytelling community. It’s much easier to stick with what you think you know, and what you may fetishistically believe will sell.

We are told by some purveyors of writing knowledge that stories such as Cinderella are archetypical, and by archetypical they mean either it has an absolute and mystical presence in a group consciousness we all share or that it is hardwired into our brains.

Cinderella is the story of a young woman, who because of her submissive goodness, earns being magically brought together with a young man of high and unearned status to become his consort. Obedience is portrayed as more important than asserting your right to humane treatment. Rescue for women must come from others. Marriage is portrayed as the ultimate reward for good behaviour. Monarchy, as opposed to democracy, is portrayed as an idyllic state.

Do people really want to enshrine the values in these old stories?

What Katherine Says

Comedy often subverts these stories because the surprise from going against expectations creates laughter. However, the laughter is also created from the recognition, at last, that these stories are just fairytales.

Comedian Carol Burnett in the 1970s played Snow White in a sketch. Only this is the Snow White fifteen years into her marriage to Prince Charming. Stories frequently end with two people marrying and living “happily ever after”. But as every adult married person knows, it’s not that simple. Every relationship will have its ups, downs, and disagreements. So Burnett portrays a dissatisfied Snow White who is facing the very real disappointments that come with age and sexism. Her problems are resolved when one of the dwarves returns and tells her how much he and all the creatures of the forest love and miss her. He is not concerned with what she looks like, but the memory of friendship and good times.

This would not be the first time that a send-up presents a more balanced and sensible approach to life.

Now this sketch isn’t perfect, a bit of homophobia is thrown into the blend. It does demonstrate that we have many more story possibilities available to us than a cliched and conservative monomyth. No one misunderstood the sketch’s message, it wasn’t inaccessibly avant garde, and people enjoyed themselves.

Imitation is a good way to learn and gain skills as an artisan in any medium. The trick is to not let yourself get imprisoned by unfortunate cultural expectations. Shake your mind loose from the dominant stories and start seeing life for what it is…then show us something new, exciting, and funny.

Peace and kindness,


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