The Joy of a Tale is in the Telling Part I: Meta Commentary and Shared Story Space

Here at Adventures in Storytelling, we live by a simple idea: how a story is told can be as interesting as the story itself. In more concrete terms, meta commentary on storytelling is itself a space for some really interesting revelation. If it wasn’t, I’m fairly certain the central pillar would collapse.

I do think there is a good reason why most works of literature don’t have a DVD extras-sytle commentary or an author’s website pulling apart the entire outline of a plot, though. Stories should be able to stand for themselves, and as I’ve said before, what an audience brings to a work is just as important as what the authors pour in. The space where author and audience meet is where meaning is generated. The existence of Adventures in Storytelling notwithstanding, giving the audience too much meta commentary can undercut that spontaneous generation of meaning. Our project is looking at the process of creation for other creators, and the dilution of emergent meaning is accepted in order to show how the work itself is created.

As creators, I think we all understand the interaction between our work and the audience, and that meaning will be generated when the two meet. The danger in meta commentary is that audience members too often decide that there is one true meaning in a text, an intent that the author poured in that is meant to be extracted. Sure, we consciously decide on themes and ideas to put in our work, but that doesn’t mean other themes and ideas are absent. Freud would probably have said something about the unconscious expression of the superego in creative works – our deep-seeded brain-thinks (a little Rickyism for you there) are going to express themselves whether we want them to or not. A meta commentary can suggest to a reader that the only important thing in a text is the theme the author selected before even starting to write.

If you’re struggling with this concept, I want to step away from books for a minute and talk about music. You’ll run in to click-bait articles and askreddit threads about song lyrics. You’ll never believe what this song is actually about – number five will shock you!

When we listen to a song, we are often inclined to construct a narrative. We want to know what a song means. Sometimes, we can’t come up with a solution because the band is using some sort of conlang that uses a morass of Spanish and English words with no regards given to established semiological conventions  – “Midnight nooses from boxcar cadavers / Exoskeletal junction at the railroad delayed” (Thanks, The Mars Volta) – and sometimes we mishear or choose to ignore the story being told in favour of our own interpretation. Excuse me while I kiss this guy.

Somewhere between those two extremes lies the space for open interpretation. Let’s use Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” as an example. Listen to the song and focus on the narrative. I’ve got five minutes if you’ve got five minutes. I want you to decide what this song is about.

I’ve purposely embedded a version that does not show the music video (which was co-created by Terry Gilliam and stars Donald Sutherland!) because the visual medium is something we’re all very good at decoding. “Cloudbusting” has a very specific narrative, and I’ll guarantee you it doesn’t entirely match with what you’ve come up with – though, importantly, I’m sure you’ll see some common ideas.

“Cloudbusting” is the story of Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian-born psychoanalyst, and his pseudo-scientific rain making machine (the eponymous cloudbuster) as told from his son Peter’s perspective. Reich believed that one of the many applications of an omnipresent yet undetectable cosmic energy he called Orgone was weather manipulation.1The FDA was largely unimpressed with Reich, and he was arrest by the FBI for ‘communist ties’ in the 1950s. Peter, a boy too young to fully understand why the government found his father’s radical ideas dangerous, watches as some anonymous men in dark suits arrest his father and take him away. The song explores the love between father and son is an admittedly unusual context.

Now you know what Kate Bush was referencing when she wrote “Cloudbusting.” Does that knowledge invalidate what you thought the song was about? Of course not! Your interpretation is the generated meaning that happens when an artist and an audience meet in a work. But, because there is a real-life story Bush was using to write her song, it is easy to privilege that narrative – especially given the actual music video. The point I’m trying to make here is that although there seems to be an authoritative narrative based on the Bush’s ideas when creating “Cloudbusting,” the narrative that you constructed by applying your experience and personality to the what you were presented with is just as valid as Bush’s original idea.2 The more exciting story, for me, is the one that is created by Kate Bush and her audience when they meet in the song.

I’ll be honest with you in a meta-commentary kind of way: this entire article was written because I wrote a 1000-word long tangent about the phrase “the joy of a tale is in the telling” for a different article. It was necessary groundwork, though. I believe thoroughly and heartily that storytelling is a collaborative act regardless of the medium, and I felt it necessary to give an example before diving in to my next topic, where I’ll take a look at some stories that did change as they were told, and how they are all the more joyful because of it.

In the meantime, if you have any thoughts on how a creator and their audience can interact in the created work, sound off in the comments!

 


  1. If you google the Maine Blueberry Experiment, you’ll find an unsubstantiated account of Reich’s cloudbuster working to end a drought on a blueberry farm. The anonymous eye-witness who saw this success was probably Reich’s son, Peter. Also, as an aside to an aside, I personally know a man who built a Cloudbuster (out of copper rather than aluminum) and claims to have shut down the city of Guelph with a bank of fog created with the machine. I want to believe weather machines are a thing, but I’m skeptical of both accounts.

  2. It may also be worth mentioning that I am not Kate Bush, and although I’m presenting the narrative of Reich and the Cloudbuster as authoritative, I don’t actually know for a certainty what Kate Bush had in mind when writing the song. That’s post-structuralism for you! Thanks Derrida!

3 thoughts on “The Joy of a Tale is in the Telling Part I: Meta Commentary and Shared Story Space”

  1. I started picturing Zeus, or some other weather god, looming over the story in that song. I was getting definite supernatural vibes from the lyrics. Something weather like, for sure, but I would not have gotten to a “weather machine”.

    I, too, really like that place where author’s idea meets audience’s ideas and something new is born. Perhaps an important question we should ask: is a story complete before an audience interprets it? If there truly were one interpretation to a story (I don’t believe there is), and the point was to learn and understand only that point—then I would say, “Why yes, a story is complete when an author finishes it.” But since I don’t believe that, I will argue that a story is not done until the audience is brought in.

    Brandon Sanderson, a fantasy author, spoke at a conference I attended and at one point was talking about his beta readers. In theory, I knew this was a thing authors do, but in practice, I was more familiar with “beta-testers” for video games. But it makes a lot of sense you would let a few trusted individuals read your book and tell you about their experience before you “finished it” and sent it out into the world. The role of the audience is not to be under valued (of course, by that same thread neither should the role of the creator…)

    An excellent article, James. I look forward to part 2!

    1. I find it interesting that you bring up beta readers. In their case, the story is literally not finished until after they’ve read it. And the story, as they read it and as the author wrote it, ceases to be — they’re creating a new story with the author, one that isn’t identical to what either reader or author had in mind when they started. The story that makes its way to the finished product is not the same as what the beta reader read.

      Whereas with something finished, what the audience brings to the story is interpretation. While their interpretation might change the story for them, it doesn’t necessarily change it for me. Does that mean the book I hold, unread in my hand, is as unfinished as the story Brandon Sanderson emailed me and asked for feedback on (she says, with a dreamy look on her face)? Even if you’ve already read and interpreted it for yourself?

      I too am looking forward to part 2!

      1. This is the perfect question to ask. It’s an excellent set-up for part II. The exciting thing about Sanderson’s beta readers is that they generate meaning (which, yeah, you could call interpretation, but that’d mean you’d have to be good at using concise and clear language) by interacting with the story just like a reader would with a finished product, *but they get to report back to the original creator.* The meaning generated by author and audience in the beta read comes back and influences the final work itself (presumably. I suppose Sanderson has every right to reject anything beta readers say, but I feel like that’d probably defeat the purpose)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *