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November 5, 2014
Richard Handler

It was a short interview in the midst of this episode of Context. Lorna was interviewing John Colarusso, a McMaster University professor and “storytelling expert.” To get the conversation going, she prompted him with the shortest possible definition of what makes a story, its main ingredient: “Someone falls in a hole and either they get out or they don’t.” 

That resembles what one Hollywood scriptwriter teacher calls “the gap.”  Someone wants something, or is in a jam, and a tension is created. The story tries to close that gap.  

But not according to Colarusso. A story is a way for people to model a life. It’s an exercise in vicarious living. It’s a way to experience another’s world. Stories help you find out what’s good and what’s bad. In that way, stories are a teaching tool.

But that’s not all.

For Colarusso, these elements aren’t the main underlying, emotional principle in a story-making.  What lies behind all the action and drama of the story is the search for love -- for the love and acceptance from other people, and ultimately from God.

It sounds so  simple. Yet, I wondered: does that mean that Tony Soprano’s Mafia saga is basically the search for the love his mother denied him?  Is that why he was telling his story to Dr Melfi, his dogged and long suffering therapist? Not much God in there...

And what about all the executions, the mighty plot machinations, the violence, the vicious killings, were they simply icing on the story cake? 

 Colarusso’s emphasis on love was said so softly, so unsentimentally, in such that matter of fact manner, it just lay in on the Context stage, unruffled.

If humans are storytelling animals, designed for stories (as we’re constantly told), is it all just a way to earn, gather, capture, discover -- yes, and even steal love? 

I like simple guiding principles: but was this pure reductionism?  Are stories just extended pop songs? In a sophisticated drama like the Sopranos, with all the gangster clubbiness, the worship of family, Tony’s raging sexual appetites, were they all flawed and corrupt means to gain acceptance and “appreciation?”— another Colarusso word he used, which was a stand-in for “love.” 

And by extension, as Lorna asked Colarusso, when we search the web, are we just trying to find something that “fits” our basic needs? We click, click away, hungry for the love of meaning. We seek, seek, and seek…

Colarusso’s definition of story certainly fits perfectly with the Christian message, where the life of Christ, his passion, trial, execution, his crucifixion and resurrection, all end, for a Christian, in a love that surpasses all understanding.

Now, story, the noun, has always been a beguiling and plastic term -- a word or a concept that is sufficiently elastic to meet a variety of needs.  For a novelist, a story is a journey, a what-if tale with many adventures.  Let me tell you a story gives you sequence, surprise, and thrills while it places you in the mind and the experience of another. 

For the journalist, story means something else entirely -- it isn’t necessarily a narrative at all. It’s a way to make sense of an event happening right now. I always loved CBC radio producers’ handbook  definition of a story: Somebody does something for a reason. That’s a story.

There’s always a because. Tony Soprano goes to a therapist because he’s conflicted. Christ dies on the Cross because God wants to redeem humankind. Stories can mean different things to different storytellers.  Colarusso is talking about a love that is the most profound need that goes to the heart of the storytelling impulse.

The question becomes then, if love is so central, so basic, so rudimentary, why is love of a person or God so difficult to give, accept, keep or discover? That’s a quest story worth pursuing for both the agnostic and believer.

Richard Handler - the Stubborn Agnostic - is a former CBC Radio Producer and former producer for CBC's Ideas. He lives in Toronto.



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