All Trees Are NOT The Same ~ Truth in Storytelling


I’m a Storyteller, sometimes through acting and sometimes through writing.  It’s both my vocation and my occupation, so I take it very seriously in a not so serious way.  After all, I’m not a brain surgeon.  No one will live or die by my words, but sometimes those words, either through my pen or through my body, will bring the beginning of a healing.

I’m also a voracious reader.  I think it’s a requirement of my vocation and occupation.  If the only thing around to read is a cereal box, I’ll read that…often while pretending to film a commercial at the same time (that’s where the line between acting/reading/writing often blurs)

Another word for my vocation might be Truth Teller.  This is where the ‘serious’ part of being a Storyteller comes into play.  “Play.”  I don’t use serious to mean ‘severe’ or ‘humourless’; I use it to mean ‘with conscious intent.’  We build a world with our words, and our trust and believability is built on a foundation of truth.

I’ve written before about a ritual I have as I wait in the darkened wings to go onstage when I’m acting.  “I close my eyes and go within.  I ask to be used as an agent of healing and to honour the words of the playwright.  May I dwell in the breath of the Truth.  May my healed wounds touch one within you and so begin your own healing.”

Before my fingers touch the keyboard of my laptop I sit quietly with my intention.  May I dwell in the breath of Truth and write without shame, blame or guilt.

State of WonderI’ve just finished A State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, one of my favourite authors.  The vast majority of the book takes place in Manaus and then the jungle along the banks of the Rio Negro in Brazil.  The setting is one of the major characters of the book and the only non-fictional element.

I’ve recently returned from a pilgrimage in Brazil, where I spent magical days on a small boat cruising the Rio Negro and I was excited to be immersing myself once more in the sublime peace that washed over me there.

But the Rio Negro that I experienced is not Patchett’s Rio Negro.  In fact, it is so far from my experience that I wondered which one of us had gotten it so wrong.

Before I left on my journey I did a bit of research, reading the requisite guide-books and getting advice and inoculations from the travel clinic.  “Take lots of mosquito repellant, with the highest concentration of DEET possible!”  And so my suitcase was weighed down with numerous bottles of DEET packed neatly beside an equal amount of sunscreen, just waiting to ward off the hoards of mosquitoes and other winged annoyances that promised to surround my every moment in the Amazon.

I used the sunscreen liberally and often but squirted myself with DEET just once, a precautionary covering my first evening on the river in advance of the swarms of mosquitoes and bugs that never did materialize.  I asked our guide, Luiz, “Where are all the mosquitoes?”

Sunset boat on Rio Negro

Sunset boat on Rio Negro

It turns out that the Rio Negro (the largest left tributary of the Amazon), unlike her more famous sister, the Amazon River, rarely has a problem with mosquitoes.  The river gets her rusty black appearance and name from the biodegradation of the surrounding jungle, and that biodegradation of the dead organic matter also makes the river very acidic, something the mosquitoes and other pesky insects don’t like.

The meeting of the Rio Negro and the Amazon

The meeting of the Rio Negro and the Amazon

This is where Truth comes to play in the fiction sandbox.  If an author, such as Ann Patchett, chooses to set her story in a location that actually exists, then she is beholden to use that location truthfully, most especially if that location is so central to the story that it becomes a leading character.  You can’t insert constant swarms of mosquitoes and insects into a story just because you want to if doing so means lying.  Either change the location or change the elements of the story to maintain integrity and truth.  Believability and trust.

It turns out that Ann has never been to Brazil and certainly has never set foot in the jungle along the banks of the Rio Negro.  She decided to do her research along the Peruvian Amazon.

When asked if she visited the jungle about which she writes so extensively, she replies in part, “I wound up going to Peru instead of Brazil because I wanted to go on a boat trip and I wanted a certain type of boat. I didn’t want to go on a cruise ship or on some nasty little raft with cockroaches.  In Peru, I found a boat which was so perfect. I thought the Amazon in Peru is the same as the Amazon in Brazil. A tree is a tree, a snake is a snake.

(read the entire interview here.)

She thought wrong.  She lost my respect when she said, “A tree is a tree, a snake is a snake.”

One tree....

One tree….

One tree is as different from…

High water mark from record flood in 2012

High water mark from record flood in 2012

…another tree….

A buttress rooted canopy tree

A buttress rooted canopy tree

….as another tree.

She also gets her snakes wrong in State of Wonder, giving the anaconda the characteristics of a python in one crucial scene.  How could Ann Patchett, who writes with such beauty and such power, get it so wrong?  I sit in sadness when I think how cavalier she seems.

The job of a storyteller is not simply to tell stories and entertain. We are Truth Tellers.  It is our responsibility to weave our tapestry of tales using the strong threads of truth.  To do otherwise does us all a disservice.

What do you think?

my hand outstretched over a background of summer grass, the word truth written in red inside a red heart


Filed under Brazil, Writing

5 responses to “All Trees Are NOT The Same ~ Truth in Storytelling

  1. Hi Terri,
    I read State of Wonder a couple of months ago, and I am also a storyteller, so I found your post particularly compelling.
    I went to Britain to do research three times before Keeper of the Crystal Spring came out. I did my best to maintain historical accuracy, down to hiking the hills and mapping the barrows near Shaftesbury, where the story is set. In spite of that, I made a mistake. I named a church after a saint who wasn’t canonized until after shortly after the story was to have taken place.
    I do think a storyteller should be as accurate as possible. Mistakes will likely happen, but it’s what the reader sees and feels and takes away from the story that matters most. It’s what you had in your heart before you realized the book was set on a different river. Obviously she had invented much, in the way of science and the local people, even if it was based on what is known of those things. Ann Patchett should probably have had an afterword, as my sister and I did, telling readers what exactly we had taken from history, and what was fiction, and how she had fudged with the setting. But I hope that you can focus on the spirit of the story, rather than the concrete details, so you don’t lost that state of wonder that took you to Brazil.
    Sometimes, after I tell a story, a kid will come up to me and ask, “Is that story true?” I say, “Maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way, but there is truth in the story.”
    Thank you for a really thoughtful and thought-provoking post! I look forward to hearing more.

    • Hi Naomi,
      Thank you for taking the time to send such a well thought out and considered reply – I so appreciate it. I think I might even write more about the subject – it obviously struck a nerve with me!

      And I still really enjoyed the novel….and it sparked quite a discussion in my book club on many fronts. So many interesting viewpoints…


  2. Hi Terri- a very interesting post and perspective on truth and storytelling!! I fancy myself a story teller too- and also with images! I am not sure if I get it right all the time – or even get it right lol!! But I enjoy weaving words into images and producing the image I imagine though sometimes the opposite inspires me too. I also hope there is a spiritual overtone as well. A few of my tales have been well received on wordpress but I can never imagine writing a novel!! The scope is much to expansive and focused for someone with my crazy attention span!! 😀 I am enjoying your blog and meandering through it inviting meaningful chance and finding it!!

    • Thank you so much for your words and your time spent perusing my writing! I am thoroughly enjoying my time spent visiting yours…I feel like I’m entering a wonderful mystical world when I’m in your blog (which seems like a clunky word to use) and your images definitely exist in the spiritual realm for me…as do your words.
      Until you take over the imagining…I’m have no problem imagining you writing a novel!

      • I’m honoured by your comment Terri!! Thanks so much! I enjoy writing little tales and illustrating them with my (art) photos!! Who knows what the future might bring!! I invite you to read another tale- Tales of the Caravanserai whenever you might have time!! I’m glad I found your lovely blog!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s