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Story-making and “The Crack”

Elise Niemeyer's picture

In the realm of “Loopy Science” the summary of observations used to make stories constitutes a fundamental aspect of the scientific process.  However, what may be even more important is the “crack” of personal bias and culture through which this process operates.  The same can be said about literature, which is influenced perhaps even more heavily by the “crack.”  Many of the same factors are at work in both fields, influencing their generativity and the theories, discoveries, and stories that are produced.  Nothing can be created in a vacuum, and analysis of the personal and cultural influences on both scientific and literary stories can lead to a creating understanding of the story-making process itself.

Darwinian evolution may seem to rest on a solid basis of observations, but the nature of the theory, the story that brings it together, is perhaps more the result of Darwin's filtering through the cultural “crack.”  Influences from the Enlightenment, his medical background, and even the work of his grandfather Erasmus shaped Darwin's ability to synthesize a new story to explain his observations (Mayr 9).  This filtering may be considered detrimental to a supposedly objective field of study, but it is also precisely what drives the imagination and creativity that continues to move scientists forward into the realm of discovery.

Literary stories are significantly influenced by the cultural “crack” and in many ways have become part of the “crack” themselves.  This influence is most apparent in stories that have become a part of the public conciousness, stories that are continually being renewed and retold for their nostalgic, moral, or educational value.  The story of the “Three Little Pigs” is a prime example.  The original eighteenth century version ended violently with the wolf falling down the chimney and into a pot of boiling water to be eaten by the pigs (“Three Little Pigs”).  The harshness of the morality reflects the sterner attitudes of the time and culture within which it was created.

The Disney version of the story, which has become the standard for generations of children, softens the ending by having the wolf scalded in the pot and then running away defeated (“The Three Little Pigs” 1933).  The decision to tone down the ending is the result of a reassessment of the moral observations underpinning the original tale and filtering through the “crack” of Disney's personal affinity for happy endings in his cartoons.  Made in during the Great Depression, the film responded to and was shaped by the needs of a nation.  The practical tenacity of the third pig to literally “keep the wolf from the door” reflected the country's need to believe in perseverance in the face of suffering.  The death of the wolf would also have been out of place in children's tale for a world still marred by the specter of the First World War and witnessing starvation on a daily basis.  Disney's cheerful paradise, where patience and perseverance were rewarded with quintessential happy endings, was an escape from reality.

Modern versions of classic fairytales take a different tactic.  Instead of offering an idyllic escape from reality, many draw on the increasingly sarcastic turn to contemporary humor and parody the originals.  The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka is the tour de force in this vein of children's literature.  By taking the traditional morals of stories and twisting them to odd, humorous, and decidedly modern ends, Scieszka reinvents the tale once more, filtering them through a new cultural “crack.”  As On Beauty was an homage to Howards End, my group's E! True Hollywood Story version of the “Three Little Pigs” was an homage to The Stinky Cheese Man.  By each creating our own story based on individual characters' perspectives we hoped to illustrate the generativity of stories and their ability to evolve.  What we were also doing, somewhat unconsciously, was filtering our scripts through the “cracks” of our personal and cultural biases.  As we were trying to create funny and interesting characters, topical issues, stereotypes, and personal preferences crept in alongside.

As can be seen in the Straw Pig's script, issues of environmental responsibility and disconnection with reality are prevalent modern concerns.  While portrayed in a sarcastic way, these issues still permeate current events, and have a similar impact on this version of the story as the escapism of the depression:

“Straw House Piggie: Well, frankly, I thought the whole house-building phase was a waste of my time and my mind. I so prefer a fine plot of rich, fertile compost soil.

Interviewer: You mean mud?

SHP: Er, yes. Anyhow, when my sister informed us that we needed to preempt the wolf's hostility, I attempted to define what sort of structure might provide the best means of defense. 

I: And you thought straw could do the job?

SHP: Actually, no. In the end, building a house seemed to me to be a fairly useless motion. After all, it's not as if the wolf was somehow barred from attacking us outside of our home, and the wolf is much stronger physically than I am.

If it was me the wolf desired to eat, she probably has other means of getting me when I am less secure.

No, no. Building a house is simply a societal gesture that we have defined to mean we intend to protect our property.

I: So why build the house at all?

SHP: Ah, that's where the sheer genius of it lay. 

I removed the societal reasons for building a house, and thought of what one's own, self-defined environment should reflect.

As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy fertile soil rich in minerals and nutrients. Now, I had read an article about soil needing diversity of crops in order to replenish its nutrients. Otherwise, monocrop systems exhaust the soil. Now, did you know that there are 26 different varieties of straw and hay?

I: Um, no, actually.

SHP: Well, there are. I realized I could satisfy both my sister's neurotic demands, and create a sustainable environment that, rather than constraining me indoors, could actually grow with me!

See, not only were the walls of my home built with straw, I also planted some grain plants to grow alongside the walls and intertwined it with the strands of hay. Eventually, the straw would disintegrate and become compost, replenishing the soil underneath. The grain shoots, on the other hand, would continue growing, perhaps even becoming some type of tree through genetic mutations. 

It would have been a completely generative, sustainable, and evolving structure!

I: Wow.

SHP: Wow, indeed. This is actually an indigenous practice in many primitive societies. I find we in more developed civilizations still have so much learn from them.

I: Yes, that is true, but what about protecting yourself from the wolf?

SHP: Well, how was I to know the truly Neanderthal nature of the wolf? I gave her too much credit and assumed that once she saw how significant my contribution to changing our societal structures was, she would never want to harm it. Hmmph. Goes to show.

I: What do you mean?

SHP: Well, I suppose I shouldn't talk like that. After all, the wolves have not had access to the same mental stimulation as the rest of us have in society, so it's not really their fault that they can't think at the same level as us. They can't really be trusted to appreciate more high-minded and purposed pursuits. They still live in a Hobbsian “Law of Nature,” I suppose. But really, this is why we need to teach them more about societal contracts and why it's important to participate in society in a more, well, civilized fashion.

I: So have you forgiven the Wolf?

SHP: Oh, can you really punish someone who doesn't know better than to respond to her base animal instincts? I only hope that someday, the wolf can come to understand the significance of what she destroyed.

I: Well, Ms. Straw Piggie, thank you for speaking with us.

SHP: Thank you, it was my pleasure. One is always happy to contribute to the dialogue. 

I: (Signing off, “This is ____ reporting for _______” type of thing.)” (Vijaya Thikur)

The Stick Pig's story is much more reflective of current stereotypes and the sarcasm they inspire.  While the original hippies are settling down to retire, a new wave of dreadlocked, incense-burning vegans has emerged, or at least that is what the stereotype implies.  In fact, the exploration of alternative spirituality, music, and vegetarianism has been growing for some time, again reflecting increased concern about the environment and philosophical questioning of reality:

“Hi, I am little piggie number 2, at least that's what they call me.  Who knows what anyone's real name is, I change mine every other day.  So one day last week, I can't remember which day, I think the day before the full harvest moon, my sister called me up, she was all upset about something.  She is always upset about something, I tell her all the time just to chill and be cool, but she doesn't listen!  Anyway, so I was lying in my grass making a daisy chain, contemplating reality and burning incense when she called and said that I needed to build a house because some trippy wolf was moving in.  What is reality anyways?!?!  But, oh so yeah, I was supposed to build a new home.  A house, what really makes a house a home…hmm…how can I just build one?  

So anyways, back to the house.  So yeah, I decided to build my house out of twigs.  Yes, twigs I did not kill any trees, noooo way.  I picked my way through the forest and picked up twigs that had already died of natural causes, no trees were hurt here, no way!!  I was really impatient to get back to my pondering about reality and truth.  Wait, did I say truth, hmmm that reminds me can we ever be right…?  Anyways, so I was lying in my new house staring at a psychedelic poster I had hung on the ceiling, listening to Albert Costello, when my sister barged in to my house, or was it a home yet…anyway she burst in screaming about a wolf who was coming to try to eat her. I don't see why a wolf would want to eat her, but anyways…  Apparently this wolf had blown down her house. I couldn't image such a thing, what happened to peace and love?  Anyways, it wasn't long before this wolf came banging on my door.  I looked out the window through the incense haze and it looked like she had some cookies.  They looked good but I bet that they weren't vegan.  

But before I could say anything, the wolf blew my house apart, everything, it was all gone!  I was so scared, my sister and I ran as fast as we could to my other sister's house.  We ran down the street as fast as my Birkenstocks would carry me until we were at her house.  We let ourselves in and told her about the crazy wolf, who, must have had some bad mushrooms.  So we were in my sisters house, and I was so scared I though I must have had some bad mushrooms, when suddenly the wolf was in the window licking her chops!!  She was imagining eating us, how inhumane!!  Who still eats meat!!  Thank goodness for my neurotic over wound sister.  She was the only one in touch with reality enough to pick up the phone and call the pigs, well you know the police.  But wait…. If there is no reality, this really didn't happen, did it?” (Laura Spearot)

The Brick Pig's character is representative of yet another modern stereotype, the Type-A, neurotic, "germophobe" who is obsessed with material gain.  There is also an element of class tension, which seems to be an eternally simmering issue in American culture that somehow remains just under the radar, unlike its counterpart, racial tension:

“Well, it all started when I heard that there were some dangerous neighbors moving into the forest.  I thought well, there go the property values, but it's about time I built myself a house any way, to protect myself from harm.  So I drew up these lovely blue prints of my dream home.  See, vaulted ceilings and everything!  I was trying to decide what to build my house out of that would be least wrong in terms of durability.  So I went through the forest to search for materials, but the straw I found was too flimsy and the sticks could easily break.  Based on my summery of observations a decided that my dream material would need to be hard and solid, but easy to stack together.  As I wandered into town I came across an abandoned building site, and lo and behold, there they were: a pile of bricks simply perfect to build my house out of!

I enlisted the help of my two sisters to carry these bricks to my chosen sight and began to construct my house according to the plans.  Everything was measured within a millimeter of my original design!  I begged my sisters to build houses for themselves to protect them from the suspicious neighbors, but they never usually listen to me, even though I usually know what's best.  When I had finished my house, I threw the biggest housewarming party you've ever seen, everyone was there, and it was so much fun, even though I had to keep reminding the guests to keep their feet off the furniture and not to spill their drinks on my new white carpet.

The next morning I was going about my business, happily swiffering away the grime of the previous night when all of a sudden, my sisters came running in the door dragging mud all over my carpet. They were quite distressed and screaming about a terrible wolf who had just destroyed their houses and was chasing them around.  It was just what I had feared.  I looked out the window just in time to see this wolf coming up the walkway making terrible noises.  She approached the window and started threatening to eat us all, motioning to her stomach and licking her lips!  Needless to say we were terrified, and I immediately called the police on the speed dial of my new cordless telephone.  They arrived quickly and handcuffed the intruder.  If I had not been so meticulous in building my house we might not be sitting here today, and I can only say that I am relieved that this criminal is off the streets for good.”

The wolf's story is perhaps the most telling of all.  In an era when the “bad guys,” the terrorists, kidnappers, and murders are brought before the public daily in the news, there is a desire to imagine an antagonist who really is not so bad, just a victim of circumstances.  Modern escapism imagines that destruction could really only be the result of a well-meaning delivery of baked goods gone comically wrong:

“Hi, I am the wolf.  From my prospective, I was just completely misunderstood.  I was the newbie in the forest and wanted to connect with my neighbors.  I thought it would be a great idea to bake my three pig neighbors some sugar cookies.  That day, my allergies were terribly acting up.  I was sneezing all over the place and could barely see with my runny eyes.  I had walked through the wood up to my neighbor's houses, feeling miserable, but determined to make a good impression.  

I walked up to the first house, a straw house, and knocked on the door.  As I knocked, some of the seedlings on the straw blew into my nose.  I tried to keep in a monstrous sneeze and just couldn't.  I accidentally sneezed right into the house and it fell down.  The piglet froze in the middle of his newly demolished house, and before I could apologize, he ran off to his neighbor, who lived in a stick house.  I couldn't believe I had just destroyed my neighbor's house, I felt terrible!  

My extreme guilt brought me to my other neighbor's house.  I knocked softly.  I realized that my neighbors were talking inside the house about how terrible I was.  I tried to get in the house to explain my situation and that I was terrible sorry about the misunderstanding.  I guess the door was locked because when I tried to pull on the door to open it, the house just tumbled to the ground.  I was standing in the doorway holding a handle to a door that was no longer in existence.  My two neighbors were standing in a pile of sticks hold each other and shaking, then suddenly, ran off into a brick house.  I just couldn't stop sneezing for a moment to yell after them.  With my allergies, it was hard not to just give up on my pursuit for friends, but I knew that I would have hateful neighbors and I could not stand knowing that I had made two enemies, my first day in the forest.  

I walked up to the brick house, with confidence that the structure was secure and I would not be able to upset them anymore than I had.  I figured that if they saw through the window that I wanted to be nice and was a friendly wolf, they might let me explain myself and I could give them my newly made cookies.  I could barely see because my eyes were so itchy, but I would not give up.  I was making motions in the window to my neighbors, showing them the cookies and licking my lips to express their tastiness and to encourage them to let me in.  I turned around and the piglet police were standing behind me.  They forced me onto a log that they wrapped my feet and hands to and carried me away upside down to a cage in the forest.  I just wanted to come on today to tell everyone my side of this terribly misunderstood story and to apologize to my neighbors for my actions.” (Annie Zambetti)

The influence of the “crack” on the story-making process involved in both science and literature is essential.  It is through the lenses of personality and culture that imagination operates.  The storyteller and his or her cultural context shape the story to fit the needs of a particular time and place, while simultaneously the time and place inevitably affect the story itself.  Whether significant science, like Darwinian evolution, or popular literature, like “The Three Little Pigs,” stories reflect personal and social influences in the very nature of their creation.  They become a part of the culture that created them, affecting all of the stories yet to come.

Works Cited

Mayr, Ernst.  What Evolution Is.  New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Scieszka, Jon. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.  New York: Viking Press, 1992.

“The Three Little Pigs.” (Film) 1993. 

“Three Little Pigs.” ed. D. L. Ashliman. University of Pittsburgh, 2000. <>.