Friday, May 4, 2012

My Dad and the Three Little Pigs

“Once upon a time there were three little pigs: the Engineer Pig, the Lawyer Pig, and the Pig Who Never Went to University…”

Once upon a time. Those were loud words, silencing words. More effective than any shout, growl, or threat, those four words could control me and my siblings. Fights dissolved, bed were settled, and we would sit with all our attention on my father. He would speak those words from the doorway of the bedroom I shared with my sisters before he would step inside and continue the story.
"Once upon a time,” he said, and everything froze. Those words suspend reality, stop time, and place us in Story. A writer lives in Story, and the first story I remember is “The Three Little Pigs.”

I remember reading “The Three Little Pigs” in print. I was shocked at how bare it was, how the pigs were not much more than words on a page, empty of personality, ambition, and life. My three little pigs were different. They had substance. It’s something I have kept in the back of my mind: what makes a character more than words, what makes a character live. I learnt about character consistency from my dad’s version of “The Three Little Pigs.”

My dad told us the story orally, as is, perhaps, apparent from the pigs’ occupations (or lack of). Those occupations helped shape the story. The Engineer Pig would always build his house with only the best materials and furnished it with only the best things (some of which my sisters and I would shout out from the top bunk.) The Lawyer Pig would always be too busy negotiating contracts and making sure everything was perfectly legal to get more than the foundation built. The Pig Who Never Went to University never managed to do much of anything because he never went to university and wasn’t the brightest pig.

By far our favourite bedtime story, we heard it a thousand times. Each time we heard it, though, the story was a little different. Given half a chance, we were the “Why?” children—wanting explanations almost to an extreme where the original point was lost. The older we got, the more complex the story became. The pigs became less like flat characters, rounded out by mannerisms, habits, likes, dislikes, and personal histories. The wolf became increasingly complex; given motives and reasoning, the wolf was no longer simply a bad guy. Instead, the wolf sat somewhere between good and bad, right and wrong. Each character had something to lose, and every telling had tension, even when we knew the eventual outcome.

We listened to the story to be entertained and to learn and to know. My dad told us the story to entertain and to teach and to share. “The Three Little Pigs” taught me the power of Story.

Story can carry within it values, morals, and lessons. Story can manipulate and influence people. Not until I was much older did I look back on “The Three Little Pigs” and question their roles and titles. The Pig Who Never Went to University was presented to me as lazy, a slacker lacking ambition and direction. The pig was a symbol of my dad’s hopes or fears for his children—a character who carried with him a warning and lesson.

My dad also gave life to the setting—into the houses each of the pigs built or attempted to build. The best tellings of “The Three Little Pigs” left a lot of the details to our imaginations. My dad needed only to say, “The Engineer Pig filled his house with only the best of everything imaginable” for me to know that there was a fridge with a built-in ice-cream dispenser and swimming pools in each of the bedrooms. He balanced detail with subtler hints, leaving us to fill in the blank space with things of our choosing. He trusted us to imagine those things; it’s a lesson I think I need to keep in mind when I write my own stories now. A reader will fill in the empty spaces, and likely with things better than I could have imagined for them, because they’re imagining it for themselves. Too much detail kills a story, too little doesn’t give the reader a foothold from which they can begin to imagine things.

Many works of fiction that have influenced me as a writer and as a reader -- those stories have been the ones that have made me question how the author or creator did what they did. How they managed to pull all elements of an intricate plot together. How they created characters so real I forget I’m reading a story. How they built a world from nothing. How they made a story I loved. They make me question my own writing. Give me new standards to try to reach (and beat). They pull me into Story and make me fall in love with it all over again. They bring me back to “Once upon a time…” and my dad telling us stories.


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