A story, once told, has as much reality as a piece of embroidery or a painting. Myths, bearing within them the very essence of eternal truths, make up the core of our existence. The fabric of legend surrounds us every day like coats of many colors that we can no longer see or feel for their very familiarity. We move through landscapes of myth with the heedless nonchalance of treasure-house guards accustomed to treading upon a rainbow of precious stones in the course of their daily work. And yet the beauty and the color are there to be seen by any who are willing to look and see. A good storyteller is one who can somehow touch these myths and bring them to renewed life in his tale. (from the afterword to The City of Refuge)
I remember a Career Day at my high school years ago, when a writer was engaged to speak to a classroom full of kids. She told of what it was like to be a writer, specifically a novelist. I sat there and listened to her, and I was too shy to say that I was writing stories (I was, too; I had written two in longhand, one of them rather thick). She fussed over a more forward student who admitted to being a writer.
She started out by asking whether any of us had the old Irish name ‘Shaughnessy’. None of us did. She then told how it arose from the Gaelic ‘Seannachie’, or ‘storyteller’. I thought it was interesting, and there and then made up a pen name for myself. I may yet use it.
A seannachie was somewhat more than a ‘storyteller’. According to Webster, the definition is:
A bard among the Highlanders of Scotland, who preserved and repeated the traditions of the tribes; also, a genealogist
Most cultures had them. The story of the siege of Troy was passed down verbally from generation to generation before it was written down. To a degree, those of us who listen to the stories our parents and grandparents tell and either write them down ourselves or bully them into doing it, are fulfilling the same function.
I remember reading a woman’s account of her mother teaching her some songs and saying ‘You’ll need this some day’, as though the songs would help her to cope with whatever life deals out. She said that it had.
I can attest to that. I was listening to The Mary Ellen Carter, a song written by Stan Rogers about the wreck of a ship. It had been recorded by an Irish group of pub singers (and darned good they were, too!), and I was enjoying the tale of the ship, how she was wrecked, and how the remnants of her crew determined to bring her back (‘make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again’).
And then I heard the last verse:
…And the laughing, drunken rats who left her to a sorry grave
They won’t be laughing in another day. . .
And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go
Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
Rise again, rise again – though your heart it be broken
And life about to end
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend.
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
I sat up, breathless. I’d dealt with those ‘smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go’. I had! It was like remembering a time when I had thought myself alone and abandoned and discovering that I’d had friends and sympathizers beside me, that I hadn’t known of. And this from a song I heard on a CD.
How many of us read a novel and get something from it aside from a moment’s entertainment? I know I do. (Heck, I’ve taken away some pretty profound lessons from Disney’s cartoon The Emperor’s New Groove – watch it and you may see what I mean!)
We write our books (most of us) to entertain people. I am still blown away when I see that someone shelled out cash to read something I ‘made up out of my own head’, but maybe that’s just my oddness. Our creativity is fueled by everything around us – whether stories our grandparents told us or myths we have heard or things we have read. When I talk to people about what they have read, that I have written, and what they have gained from reading it, I am left feeling a little breathless.
Perhaps I, too, am a seannachie.