Story and Identity


by Michael Olin-Hitt—

Delivered as the Wolf Lecture at The University of Mount Union: February 11, 2013.

I’d like to begin talking about “story” by telling a story from the Seneca people about the origins of stories:

The Grandmothers tell us, that long ago there was a boy named Crow.  He was an orphan, and his uncles did not take care for him, so he lived in a hut outside of the village.  The people of the village called him a name that means “Filth-Covered-One,” and they held their noses and pointed at Crow when they walked by.

 One day, as Crow was hunting for small game, he came upon a canoe at the bank of a river,
and when he sat in the canoe, it took him into the sky and came down in a river far away.  He camped on top of a cliff, which resembled a face, and the mouth of the face was a deep cave.  At night, a voice came from the cave of the cliff, asking Crow for tobacco, and when Crow threw a pinch of tobacco over the side of the cliff, the voice from the cave told Crow a story.  This happened night after night, and Crow began to learn many wonderful stories.

In this strange land, Crow came upon a village and met and married a young woman, whom it turned out sent the canoe for Crow in the first place.   All winter long, Crow and his wife listened to stories from the cave in the cliff, and they carved a small figure for each story and kept it in a deer-hide bag.  In the Spring, Crow returned to his people with his wife and a bag full of stories—all the stories of the long ago times, of creation, of ceremonies, and of the 4 directions.

When the people learned that Crow’s beautiful bag was full of the stories of the long-ago people and the animals and Gitchi Manitou, he became very popular.  The people gave him tobacco and gifts and asked him to go on hunting parties, to teach the children, and to guide the council, and that is how the stories came to the Seneca.

There are two things in that story that fascinate me.  First, of course, is the character of Crow.  He reveals a common human pattern.  For some reason, the social misfits: the nerds, the geeks, the pigpens, the orphans, the marginalized, the bullied make the best storytellers.  It’s not that we don’t try to conform to the status quo,  but we’re just different: we don’t look right, dress right, think right, play the right sports, say the right things.  We may even read books.  The result of this is that the social misfits have a unique perspective of the social order and the individual, and this perspective creates the eye of the artist and the sensitivity of the storyteller.

That’s not the main point I want to make about the Seneca story. I just mention this to make every person in the room feel better about yourselves.

No, what truly fascinates me about the story are the cliff and the cave.  You see, the origins of stories is a mysterious thing.  We don’t know when or how human beings started telling stories.  Even the ancients didn’t know.  Even for the Seneca, the stories seemed to pre-exist.  So the Seneca tale makes me realize that stories come from the cliffs of human awareness.  And they also come from the deep, mysterious caves of our consciousness.  And what are those ancient stories from the caves and cliffs of human awareness? They are the stories with no known authors; the stories of how we came to be, of the old-time people, of the struggles with the monsters of human desire, of the journeys through the shadows of human imbalance.  Those are the big stories.

Because we cannot prove anything about mysteries, the  mysteries of life allow us to make bold statements, and I’m going to make one right now:  Stories make us human.  I don’t think any other creature on the Earth weaves narratives like we do to create identity and meaning.  Human beings are narrative creatures.  And I believe that stories create our identity.  Who are we if we don’t have a story?  We are born into stories, we are shaped by stories, and we live our stories.  Stories of family, of faith, of friendship, of culture, of nation all provide us with identity.  In fact, I may argue that we cannot have identity without narrative. Who are we if we DON’T have a story?

So, we may not know the origins of stories, but we can study the function of stories. Narrative provides meaning and structure to the mysteries of experience. They organize the chaos.  They order our world.  History is narrative, but one could argue that scientific theories are also narratives.  Human beings are narrative creatures.

The students in English 250: “True Lies; Introduction to the Literary Imagination” read a book called “The World is Made of Stories.”  And the writer, Loy, establishes this basic point: that stories create identity.  However, Loy is a Buddhist, and he leads the reader to the possibility that the Buddhist goal of expanded consciousness, of enlightenment or Nirvana is a state without story.  Loy posits that we may not have idenitity without story, but perhaps we can have consciousness without story.  Now, that will blow your mind if you think about it too long.

Of course, the story of the Buddha is not just a story of identity, but a story of the transformation of identity.  The story of Jesus is a story of transformation.  The story of Krishna and Arjuna is a story of transformation.  The Shawnee story of Piqua—the one who is burned to ashes and the Creator raises him up to be the first storyteller and keeper of the sacred ways—is a story of transformation.  The story of Moses is a story of transformation.  The story of Jona is a story of transformation.  The story of Paul on the Road to Demascus is a story of  transformation.  The story of Theseus in the Labyrinth is a story of transformation.  The story of Percival and the grail is a story of  transformation.

I’m going on and on to make this very simple point:  Stories create identity, but the BEST stories transform identity.

Here’s the thing:  The best and lasting stories transform us, the audience or readers.  They guide us through the major transitions in our psychological and spiritual development.  When you find yourself in the mines of kingdoms, facing, Smaug, the dragon of greed and consumption, you’d better have a good story, or at least a few good riddles.  But the Hobbit movies havn’t gotten us that far.  So, if you find yourself carrying the ring of power, the unchecked desire to control, and you are in the caverns of passion where the ring originates…. If you find yourself feeling invisible to your friends….If you find yourself far from the innocence of childhood, and the womb of hearth and home seems on the other side of the world….When the demon of desire has been on your back, whispering precious things, and you are struggling on the cliff of restraint…When the flames of passion are hot  on your face….When you hear yourself say, “It’s MINE.”…….  Then you’d better have a good story. And if you’ve lost touch with the story, when the stories seem like a lie or deception and there is no meaning or guidance through the shadowlands, you’d better at least have a good friend to pull you from the edge and say, “Don’t you let go.”  Then remind who you of your true identity.   “Mr. Frodo.  It’s me.  It’s your Sam.”

Fill your bag with stories, my friends.  And choose the stories well.

Storytellers today are still in the business of identity transformation.  In fact, it is character transformation that distinguishes literary novels from popular novels, or fine art from copy-cat art.  Character transformation distinguishes the literary and the popular. While there are a lot of literary technique and craft that separates Joyce Carol Oates from Stephen King, the basic difference has to do with transformation.  You see, the popular novel usually focuses on plot, while the literary novel presents transformation, or character change.

In the popular novel, the writer begins with plot and drops a character into it.  This presentation makes for a quick, enjoyable reading.  You can even skim without missing too much. We read these stories to see what happens next.  However, the character of this type of novel does not change.  Take the mystery novel for example.  Most popular mystery novels begin with the discovery of the body.  Then the investigator steps in, follows the clues, sorts through the “mystery” and provides a solution.  However, this investigator is not changed by this process.  The investigator, though interesting, though idiosyncratic, and quirky, remains unchanged.

In the literary novel, the character is not dropped into the plot, the plot arises from the character.  In the literary novel, story and identity are woven together, and the story leads the character to transformation.  And as I’ve said: we as readers are changed WITH the character.  We read, and we are never the same.  Our view of the world has shifted slightly, and the characters live in our minds, sometimes haunting us.  These stories are far from transient.  They remain inside of us, and they remain on the shelves of the bookstore for generations.

Story established identity. The best stories transform identity.

The best stories stick with us.  Sol Stein calls popular novels transient literature.  IT does not remain on the bookshelves long, and it does not remain in our minds long.  Popular literature comes and goes. Who is reading the Left Behind books anymore?  And once people are over the thrill of Erotica, who will be reading Fifty Shades of Gray in a few years?    People who say they read Fifty Shades of Gray for the literary craft are like people who say they buy Playboy for the articles.  Both appeal to our base desires, and the base desires can trap identity, but they do not transform identity.

Well, all of this brings me to my novel, THE HOMEGOING, because I wrote it to be about story and identity.  I did something a little tricky.  I used the mystery genre to create a plot, but I used literary standards to reveal transformation.

Here is the summary I wrote to entice agents and publishers in my book proposal.  This was my pitch, and the publisher used it as a teaser.

In Laurelville, Ohio—a small town in the foothills of the Appalachians—nobody knows why Hannah Marshal drowned in Laurel Creek in 1937, but twenty years later, her niece, Ruth Sherman, takes it upon herself to find out.  With only a few rumors, old newspapers clipping and even some ghost stories about her aunt, Ruth begins to uncover the events surrounding Hannah’s death.  Ruth dismisses the ghost stories, but she knows all about a haunting by Hannah Marshal.  Born fourteen months after Hannah’s death, Ruth grows up feeling she is Hannah’s replacement.  Every major event of her life is heavy with her aunt’s memory.  Ruth hears that she looks like Hannah, acts like Hannah, and many people even call her Hannah.  Ruth is a walking reminder of her aunt, a living ghost of a person dead more than a year before her own birth. During the summer of 1958, when Ruth is 21 years old, she is pressed by her grandmother to learn the folk cures and healing rituals of Appalachian Christianity. Certain that she is finally being compelled to replace her Aunt Hannah, Ruth decides to discover once and for all the truth around Hannah Marshal’s death. Ruth finds herself on a journey into the past, the traditions of a Southern-Ohio Pentecostal church, and the shadow side of the Holy Spirit among serpent handlers.  On the journey Ruth discovers her own spiritual gifts and uncovers the unspoken shame in her family.

You see, in this novel Ruth’s story is incomplete.  Her life seems to be determined by a mystery, a secret, a hidden story.  And it is only in finding this hidden story about the death of her Aunt Hannah that she comes to truly know herself.  The search for the story both provides and transforms her identity, and because of the search for the hidden story, Ruth will never be the same.

It is the story of all of us. We seek the story of our lives, and we are transformed by what we find.  This is the purpose and power of story.


Michael Olin-Hitt is a Professor of English at the University of Mount Union.  He is also the executive editor of Braided Way Magazine.




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