I’ve had Pagan media folks comment on my ability to get folks to tell stories without my actually recording the stories. I’m a bad journalist. I become too interested in the story to grab my audio recorder. That fault was apparent yesterday.
One of the elders of my tradition invited me to join her at a Pagan event she was hosting an info table at in Atlanta. It was a lot of fun, but the best part was hearing all these stories from her. Stories of shady folks from the distant past, of funny mistakes and misunderstandings, of interfaith work, of romantic entanglements, of how folks from different backgrounds found a home in Witchcraft. Great stories. Human stories. Our history, in all its grime and glory. Perhaps a few of the stories were of the kind that need to mellow in a diary for a decade or two before being published, but most were stories that people should hear about. And I wasn’t recording them.
We have this idea in the Pagan community that our stories aren’t important. Or that they should be kept secret. Or that they will survive via oral history alone. That’s not true. At PSG last summer there were a few folks I interviewed who didn’t think they had stories when I first sat down with them, yet once they started speaking the stories began flowing out. Stories of joyous triumph in the face of adversity, of the founding of traditions, of the writing of songs, of watching children grow up in a Pagan environment. Magical stories. Important stories. Our history.
Our history isn’t X did X at X time, although the Gods know in our fluid and tangled traditions that alone is hard enough to keep straight. Our history is Lady X came into Witchcraft through her husband and we watched their courtship blossom into marriage. Our history is we once had a problem with a sexual offender and this is how we dealt with it. Our history is we never knew when we started this ritual/event/shrine it would still be going strong decades later. Our history is we once did this amazing thing, but we got burned out and couldn’t continue and here is what others can learn from our experience. Our history is how we once pulled this epic practical joke that people are still chuckling over years later.
So here are my guidelines for preserving our history, which I should follow more often:
- Record it. Don’t assume folks will remember or the next generation will gain the stories by osmosis. Recording the stories on paper, audio or video increases the chance the story will survive and be remembered tremendously.
- Publishing is optional. Just because you are recording it doesn’t mean you need to publish it. Maybe you want to record stories of a difficult time your community faced but don’t want to pick at the scabs of healing wounds. Record the story and put it aside. A few years, or a generation or two, down the road may prove that those stories have teaching value and merit, and prove valuable reminders for the folks who experienced the difficulty. Preserving the story for posterity isn’t the same as promoting it.
- Your stories aren’t boring. Maybe you think no one cares about the time Bob caught his robe on fire. Maybe you think no one outside your tradition or region would be interested. That’s simply not true. Everyone has great stories. We gather together to celebrate and eat and tell stories all the time. People want to hear your stories, however boring or trivial they seem to you.
- One person is a storyteller, two are a saga. It’s hard sometimes to tell a story on your own. Sometimes it’s easier for two or three people to sit down and tell stories together, reminding each other of details and inspiring each other to remember.
- Ask for help. There are a lot of Pagan media folks running around who are great at interviewing, who understand good stories and how to draw them out of people, and how to preserve it in text, audio and video in a way that will be a good resource for years to come. Even if you can’t find a media person to help, you probably have students and neophytes who write or play with video as a hobby. Use the resources available to you.
- Storytelling isn’t PR. While discretion should always be kept in mind, telling a story isn’t about making you or your tradition look good. It’s about revealing our very human history, with all the faults and virtues intact. I personally find more inspiration from elders who tell me all the mistakes, the bad judgments, the strife and conflict they faced “back in the day” because generally they have overcome those difficulties. They have learned from the past and as a consequence have done a lot of good for the community. Pagans generally aren’t transcendent: we revel in and learn from our humanity.
None of us will live forever. The stories and perspectives we carry in our hearts are unique to us. If we don’t record them we will be as lost and confusing to future generations as the Pagans of the 20′s, 30′s and 40′s are to us. We’ve lit the torch. Let’s remember to pass it on!