I’m thinking about meta-stories. Stories about stories. This starts off being about Christmas stories — but that’s only where it starts. It goes somewhere else. I’m not sure where it ends.

Stephanie Zvan has an interesting piece about Christmas stories, and how many there are other than the obvious one. She wrote this paragraph, which struck a nerve and got my brain wheels spinning:

Christmas accretes stories the way Thanksgiving accretes recipes for disguising vegetables. Charlie Brown and his lonely tree. Scrooge and his ghosts. The little girl with the matchsticks. Jo’s Christmas “without presents”. Reindeer on the house-top. A Grinch with an undersized heart. A snowman willing to sacrifice himself for a little girl. A desperate man on a bridge. A ski resort in need of saving for the old man. A couple with nothing but the ability to sacrifice for each other. A consuming desire for an unsafe “toy”. A hostage situation, of all things.

the-little-match-girl-(a-living-story-book)-cover 200
I read that paragraph — and had an immediate, vivid flash of memory. Stephanie wrote “The little girl with the matchsticks,” and what jumped into my head wasn’t so much that story itself, or even the memory of the picture book with the heavy, glossy cardboard pages. It was the meta-story. What I remembered was the time I was talking with my mother about “The Little Match Girl,” a story I loved and was somewhat obsessed with — and she said she hated the story, because it was a justification for why it was okay for children to freeze to death in the streets. I realized that Mom was right, and suddenly saw through the gloppy sentiment, and had a small moment of growing up. I had a small moment of realizing that the world wasn’t always okay — and I had a small flash of understanding about critiquing art.

Christmas doesn’t just accrete stories. It accretes meta-stories. I’m sure everyone who celebrates Christmas has these: the first time they watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” after their parent’s divorce; the time when they’d just moved into their new home and watched “It’s A Wonderful Life” sitting on lawn chairs in a house full of boxes; the time they put on the Christmas play and accidentally set fire to the manger. The stories aren’t just stories: they become part of our own.

But of course, that’s true of all stories. The story of The Phantom Tollbooth is also the story of listening to my father read it aloud to me and my brother, and reveling in his pleasure in the story as much as my own. The story of The Godfather is also the story of my seventh-grade class passing it around to each other, whispering the page numbers of the dirty parts. The story of Star Wars is also the story of my younger cousins haunting the suburban mall where they watched the movie over thirty times. The story of Alice in Wonderland is also the story of the first year Ingrid and I were involved, when she was in New York and I was in San Francisco so we talked on the phone constantly, and she had a sore throat one time and couldn’t talk, so I read Alice in Wonderland to her over the phone.

So now I want to know: What are your meta-stories?

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16 thoughts on “Meta-Stories

  1. 1

    Background: I am an engineer from a long line of English professors and Presbyterian clergy. Imagine an English professor cut from the same cloth as Fred Rogers, and that was basically my granddad. I have one sister, two years younger.

    So when we were teenagers, I guess my parents were concerned that we might abandon high culture for pop culture, and instituted post-dinner family reading: every evening, one Biblical selection, one literary. (I think my dad felt a familial responsibility to at least expose us to the Bible, but once it was clear that it wasn’t going to take root, they just gave up.) We worked our way through _Dracula_, _The Odyssey_… _The Great Gatsby_, I think? and I don’t know what else I may have forgotten. Even 30 years later, a well-placed mention of “rosy-fingered dawn” is good for a chuckle and an eyeroll.

    I moved away for university and eventually adopted a kitten whose mother, Miss Tux, was served by a two-legs who also doted on her Mehitabel, which introduced me to _archy and mehitabel_. I raced back to my dad: “This has everything! Liberal politics! Whimsy! Cat! Why didn’t you pick this for us when we were reading after dinner?!?” He said, “You’re right, it would have been perfect. I just didn’t think of it.”

    I was long past the age of being surprised that my dad was fallible, but I had always sort of subconsciously regarded his knowledge of American literature and intentions for introducing us to it as being… I guess a little too comprehensive to have missed an opportunity like that.

  2. 2

    I certainly have a lot of meta-stories about reading stories, but I think the winner is probably the one about writing them – it was my first real online work that got me talking to the dude who is now my best friend and got us plotting together on another, much bigger work that led to our close friendship of today.

    Stories! They bring people together, whether they’re doing the listening or the telling!

  3. 3

    In response to Stephanie Zvan’s article I’d really like to say this :


    Christmas was stolen and syncretised* from so many pagan and other traditions anyhow.

    Yule logs and Sol Invictus, solstice rebirths and winter feasts. Twas never really Xns to claim in the first place – and of course, historically, some puritanical (literally!) Xns even tried to ban it.

    They may give it their name and their overlay. But really Xmas is not about them and it is whatever one chooses to make of it.

    * Hey, wordchecker, I’m going with the ole ‘s’ spellin’ here becoz I like it damnit!

  4. 4

    I’d also like to apologise to Stephanie Zvan and also to PZ Myers and humbly beg that they allow me to comment on their blogs again (with whatever conditions they may care to set) but that’s up to them.

    Please Greta Christina could you let them know that?

  5. 5

    As for meta-stories, so many memories and where do I start and stop?

    The past year or so I discovered that my favourite childhood cartoon ‘The Mysterious Cities of Gold’ which would be the highlight of my day as a bullied, unhappy schoolkid – kept kinda vaguely sane~ish by a purring tortoise-shell cat named Katrina which would be exercised by being placed at the bottom of our backyard so she could run inside as quickly as possible and would run around to watch the cricket as soon as the theme music for it came on – was based not merely on a novel set on a different continent again about what gold fever does to good (& bad) people – Scott O’Dell’s ‘The King’s Fifth’ – but on a Moorish probably dark skinned slave Estevanico (“Stephen the Moor”) who was probably the first “westerner” (?) into the Zuni city of Hawikuh. So of the one character there were really at least three very different stories and that’s ignoring the one’s that we create from what we see then re-imagine and re-remember in our minds.

    Also wonder what I – and others – would’ve made then if the then-white-skinned Spanish raised rescued orphan cartoon “Child of the Sun” had also like his inspiration been dark-skinned and Muslim and enslaved and how that would’ve changed the story and the understanding, and sadly, probably the chance that back then (1980s’) we’d have ever seen it at all?

    In some ways; I think every story is a collaboration between the author and the reader and remains in flux at every reading and rereading – as do the shifting identities of both reader and author with time and thought and reflection and experience and knowledge and more.

  6. 6

    Since I started listening to audiobooks the meta-stories I’ve accumulated tend to be of journeys and adventures… the mountain I climbed while listening to Roxane Gay, the blizzard I crawled through while listening to Fritz Leiber, the moonlit forest I skied while listening to Adrienne Mayor, the windswept Utah desert I crossed while listening
    to your last book.

  7. 7

    ^ Arrgh. Probably talked and commented here too much here already, sorry, but just in case folks are interested & want to know / see more – hope that’s the case, apologies if not – this historical character :

    Inspired this novel :

    and very different fictional version of the Esteban I very fondly recall from this :

    1980’s TV kids cartoon which actually still stands up pretty well on modern replaying. (NITV 5.30 pm for Aussies right now halfway through again. Major nostalgia binge.)

    My equal fave TV show growing up along with ‘StarBlazers’ a.k.a. ‘SpaceBattleship Yamato’ which again has been recently (certain value of recently) revived as a Japanese (non-anime) movie which is both different to (much grittier and grimmer) the original and also powerful, effective and thought-provoking. What can I say? Early imprinting I guess.

    (Also grew up (?) reading Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Anne McCaffrey and so many other SF books often hidden inside the ones’ I was meant to be reading.)

  8. 8

    For a bunch of reasons, I didn’t read a lot of the children’s classics as a kid myself. I actually insisted upon reading on my own really early as a kid, which I honestly sort of regret now, as one often does being in a rush to grow up as quickly as possible.

    My partner likes to read to me, though. So my exposure to The Phantom Tollbooth was actually early on in our living together, two broke students, him sharing his favourite childhood book with me curled up in tiny twin-sized bed. That was the first of many such books shared, from The Wump World to Thurber’s splendid children’s works.

    One day, he started reading me a book, and I was completely, utterly shocked. When I was a kid, maybe 6-7, I got a book out from the library, started it, but didn’t have time to finish before it got returned, and I forgot the name of the book, so I spent a few years trying to track it down before sadly giving up. There was a twenty year gap between when I started The Princess and the Goblin on my own, and when I finished it with my partner, but it was worth the wait.

  9. 9

    When I was seven, my family took a trip around Europe as chaperones for my big brother’s high-school band. I was a bit behind in my reading, mostly reading really simple books, but they didn’t want to lug around big stacks of Dr. Seuss, so they bought a bunch of paperbacks in England that were much more advanced than what I currently liked and hoped they’d keep me busy. They did — I made a big jump immediately, and their new problem became trying to get my nose out of the books long enough to notice the sites we were visiting.

    The Land of Oz, E. Nesbit and her disciple Edward Eager, Alvin Fernald, Dr. Doolittle and Professor Branestawm — I read all of them in a bus traveling through the Alps and up and down the continent. When I’d finish the books, I’d pass them back and let the high schoolers read them.

    And yes, since we’re sharing Phantom Tollbooth stories, that was when I read that as well. The copy I brought home with me was well-loved and often-reread, until I finally left it out in the rain and the cover came off. Then I somehow got a hardback replacement — but immediately noticed that instead of going up the lift and going into his flat, Milo was going up an elevator and going into his apartment. It just never seemed right, somehow, and I kept rereading my rain-drenched copy with the Mathemagician on the back.

  10. 10

    When I was in second grade, my teacher read us a book about a girl who got in the elevator of her building and got off way in the past. She had some adventures going back and forth, happy ending, yadda yadda yadda. It was a good book and was probably the start of my love of time travel. But that’s not the real meta-story.

    Fast-forward to seventh grade and there I was, a brand new Junior High Schooler. I soon found my way to the library and got to know the librarian. One day, while looking for something to read, I mentioned remembering this book my teacher had read us and asked the librarian if she recognized the story. She didn’t but she then got on the phone to my old school and asked my former teacher who let me know it was Time at the Top by Edward Ormondroyd. ( I was able to check it out and re-read it. I enjoyed it just as much then as I had earlier. More importantly, perhaps, I appreciated the effort the librarian took and the willingness of both the librarian and my teacher to work to give a kid the name of a book he was looking for.

    But that’s not the end of it. Some years later, I was writing for a (now gone and scrubbed) website called Blogging Baby (then ParentDish) and wrote a short article about the reissue of Time at the Top. As it was on my mind, I sent off an e-mail to the publisher with the hope that they could pass it along to the author. They did and he took the time to write back. He even mentioned the little-known sequel that I hadn’t read. I bought a copy of the book (the reissue was a quality hardback) for my niece and one for myself, er, I mean for my kids. It has since been reprinted again as a paperback, this time with the sequel included. (See the link above.) So we have a copy of that too.

    And now that I’ve been reminded of it, and I’ve realized it’s significance regarding my interest in time travel, I’m going to send off another e-mail to the author to say thanks once again.

  11. 11

    One other story… In fifth grade (I think) I was perusing the books in the classroom looking for something to read. I came across a book called “Jaws” which had two of my favorite things on the cover — swimming and naked women. I figured it had to be great.

    Nope. I got through the first page and had to put it back. It was far too scary. (I am very susceptible to the emotional mood an author/director is trying to create.) So I never did read it nor watch the movies. (But I still like swimming and naked women.)

  12. 12

    Meta stories about Christmas, hmm….

    My favorite Christmas movie is Auntie Mame, the non-musical one with Rosalyn Russell as Mame. In a brief Christmas scene set in the first winter of the Depression, Mame finds a job at Macy’s selling roller skates. She’s never really had to work, does terribly, and gets fired (and yells “Buy it at Gimbels!” as she’s being escorted out. Look it up, it’s funny.) It is dark and snowing, so she tries to hire a cab to go home, but has only a dime. She apologizes to the cabbie, and as she walks home, drops her last dime into a charity box. When she gets home, she calls on her household — nephew Patrick, houseboy Ito and housekeeper Nora — to hold Christmas early and cheer everyone up. I’m not sure I can explain it, but the whole scene just expresses everything that a secular Christmas should be: helping others and celebrating with family. And, of course, this is where Mame’s life turns around for the better.

  13. 13

    […] “Meta-Stories“–“But of course, that’s true of all stories. The story of The Phantom Tollbooth is also the story of listening to my father read it aloud to me and my brother, and reveling in his pleasure in the story as much as my own. The story of The Godfather is also the story of my seventh-grade class passing it around to each other, whispering the page numbers of the dirty parts.” […]

  14. 14

    For me, the story of the Little Prince is the story of making it through a really rough time in my life. This past summer I had a bad enough depressive episode that I had to check into the hospital. Thankfully I have really good insurance (and parents that can handle the copays), so I spent a week in residential treatment.

    A fairly large group of us came in within a couple days of each other and we bonded like the staff had never seen their patients bond before. Black humor abounded in the common room, we met each other’s family or friends, and we shared our various means of staying connected to the outside world.

    One of my fellow inmates was a preschool teacher, and when she heard that I’d never read The Little Prince she had a friend of hers bring her pop-up version in. I loved it, of course, and it was a really good thing for me at the point I was at, but it also helped me connect to her and, I think, to ground me in a way I’d had trouble doing for the last month.

  15. 15

    By the time I was 10, I’d read Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel at least 8 times. After that I stopped counting, but it was several more. There’s a long bit where Kip is renovating an old space suit. I’m pretty sure that that sequence forms a large part of the foundation for my career as a software developer. Kip’s later adventures on the moon and Pluto were cool and all, but I’m pretty sure, looking back, that it was the hardcore (to a 10-year-old) engineering that kept me coming back.

    Just a bit later, I encountered my dad’s copy of Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach. I couldn’t really get into it at first, but I read the dialogs, and those were neat. I opened the book every so often after that (maybe every year or so?) and eventually could grasp what it was saying, and loved it. That book is another cornerstone of my life.

    And eventually The Soul Of A New Machine, a non-fiction story about when Data General was creating the next version of their popular mini-computer. The story of West going on vacation and working on a sailboat in a storm, and one of the other folks going “this is what you do *for fun*?? What in God’s name do you do *at work*???” The idea of “signing up”. The “Hardy Boys” (the hardware guys) and the “micro-kids” (the firmware / microcode guys). All good memories.

    My parents got me Auel’s The Valley Of Horses for my 11th birthday. It was, ahem, eye opening. *They* hadn’t read it yet. I think even if they had, they still would’ve let me read it (I read some of my mom’s bodice rippers (her term), after all) … but they might not’ve actually given it to me *for my birthday*. One of my friends’ mom borrowed it after I was done with it, and (as my mom tells it) couldn’t look at me without blushing for quite some time after that. (I didn’t deface the book or anything (barring maybe some dog-earing), it was just knowing that I, an 11-year-old boy, had read the very explicit sex scenes, that did it for her.)

    I was quite the book-worm, as is perhaps obvious. I was also a competitive swimmer. It was not unknown for me to miss an event at a meet because I had my nose in a book. (A meta-meta-story? 🙂

  16. 16

    Terry Pratchett has novels that play with this idea.

    His entire Witch series of Discworld novels toy with the idea, but it is particularly prevalent in Witches Abroad.

    Also, he has a Christmas themed novel called Hogfather that deals in Christmas stories. I don’t want to spoil it, but the little match girl does come up. It’s one of my favorite Discworld novels, so I recommend that to anyone into this kind of idea.

    As for meta-stories… I don’t think I really have any that fit the kind of theme you’re going for. For the most part, I would indulge in stories as a form of escaping from the world into my own introverted little bubble of perception, so I could relax and recharge. So there’s not a lot of human-to-human interaction in most of my memories about stories.

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