Good Arcs Make Good Stories

Thanks to Maria Popova for sharing Kurt Vonnegut’s brief lesson on the basics of story-telling, a reminder to all of us that shaping the lines of the telling is key to the story-listener’s hearing of it.  As Seth shapes the story of Iceland’s role, and travelers’ story-telling roles, in the early precursor to modern nature tourism, the rest of us contributors to this site likewise note our own task in telling our stories effectively. In a written version on the same topic, Vonnegut put it this way:

…Now, I don’t mean to intimidate you, but after being a chemist as an undergraduate at Cornell, after the war I went to the University of Chicago and studied anthropology, and eventually I took a masters degree in that field. Saul Bellow was in that same department, and neither one of us ever made a field trip. Although we certainly imagined some. I started going to the library in search of reports about ethnographers, preachers, and explorers—those imperialists—to find out what sorts of stories they’d collected from primitive people. It was a big mistake for me to take a degree in anthropology anyway, because I can’t stand primitive people—they’re so stupid. But anyway, I read these stories, one after another, collected from primitive people all over the world, and they were dead level, like the B-E axis here. So all right. Primitive people deserve to lose with their lousy stories. They really are backward. Look at the wonderful rise and fall of our stories…

…But there’s a reason we recognizeHamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.

And if I die—God forbid—I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, “Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?”

Read the whole essay here.

4 thoughts on “Good Arcs Make Good Stories

  1. Wow. I never knew Vonnegut was a colonialist jerk before:-/ unless ( I hope so!)
    I just somehow missed something that indicated sarcasm, satire or witty tongue in cheek-ness about those statements? Being aspie I tend to miss such things but if not, how disappointing!

      • Ah! Thank you! I often cannot tell irony when I see it. So glad you explained it as I’ve always liked him. It would be disappointing if he was truly clueless about the indigenous storytelling traditions.

  2. Pingback: Umberto Eco, Come To Kerala! | Raxa Collective

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