Telling Tall Tales
As a general thought I assumed I’ve a good grasp of words having made my fortune starting a writing company and having authored a half dozen best-selling books. In an effort of full disclosure my grasp of words is in English only for in Spanish I’m moving at a snail’s pace (at least to me). So I was surprised on a recent tour a man referred to me a hagiographer. I assumed it was an odd word play on Hagrid from the Harry Potter books, but I soon learned a hagiographer is one who writes about the lives of saints.
I wasn’t as surprised to learn a new word since watching an old Gypsy Rose Lee comedic stripping routine where she called herself an ecdysiast, which is a fancy pants word for a gal that takes off her pants in the vicinity of a pole and on a stage.
A hagiography has taken on a negative spin since many saint biographies were cloyingly pro-Church and/or pro-Spanish that they were impossible to take seriously. I’ve read biographies written as recently as the 1960’s that present the subject as unbelievably pure and holy in a way Fox News could only hope to present today’s Republicans.
However, in the non-negative sense of the word, I am, as I now know, a hagiographer albeit with a bit of twist. My goal is not on par with the Church’s desire to present saints and Virgins as pure as the driven snow from birth. I prefer characters and stories a bit more pure as the driven slush that continue to impact our lives.
To me every biography has three parts – beginning, middle and end – that needs told in less than five minutes or a page and half of text. Beyond those constrictions boredom is eager to jump into the mix.
In the beginning (that sounds oddly familiar) a story’s main character must have a hook that is relatable to today’s audience. Otherwise a saint is often merely a two thousand year old legend as relatable to contemporary folks as a dial phone or typewriter. For example, one saint had a mother who was a nag or this particular Virgin was obsessed by real estate. Who doesn’t watch HGTV and know how annoying a mother can be? Right from the start the reader/listener can relate.
The middle part of the biography is the conflict. How does a dark skinned man become a priest when only Caucasians were in the clergy club? How does the nun get a pesky suitor off her back and simply leave her alone to be a nun? What can a gal do when surrounded by hungry lions in the Coliseum? By now the reader/listener has related to the protagonist and has, if only for moment, an interest in their future well-being, or lack thereof.
The ending is what ties the story to modern life and can be experienced today. Those ads in airport for St. Jude’s Children Hospitals, or the deadlocked traffic in Mexico City on your way from the airport, all tie to the image of St. Jude seen daily. That circle with a plus sign and letters tied to a plant where you bought a soda shows how to keep the devil out of your business. The candle burning in your Spanish school with a gladiator cutting his cape provides help to those who rely on the kindness of strangers like your teachers waiting for new students. Mother Goose is actually Jesus’ Nana and that her third marriage in middle age was her most romantic.
Suddenly what you pass by daily has a direct link to some long ago saint or Virgin that in their own way is a lot like you. Who needs a laundry list of pious attributes and holier than thou attitude when just being a mother with troublesome children or a bride who doesn’t want rain on her wedding day ties you to a life led long, long ago.
I am not near as cool as Hagrid, the giant with a giant heart. However I’ll settle for being a hagiographer instead and revel and making past lives matter as they leave a legacy we experience daily even if, in the moment, we were once unaware.