Blink, and you’d miss it; if I hadn’t checked Tweetdeck at that specific moment on Friday, I would never have seen someone (something called Antartica Journal) attributing the line “Stories happen to those who tell them” to Thucydides – a tweet which had then disappeared by the time I’d finished googling the phrase.
This is definitely a new one as far as I’m concerned – and at first it looked as if it was going to be pretty straightforward, as the first forty or so hits for that phrase associated it with the radio and television presenter Ira Glass, and his programme The American Life; in particular, he seems to have used the phrase in a podcast in early 2001, since when it’s been widely quoted. I haven’t managed to track down the podcast – but already it’s worth noting that his line is slightly different: “Great stories happen to those who can tell them” – equally arguable, but not at all the same. So perhaps this isn’t the point of origin…
The earliest online attribution to Thucydides that I’ve found so far is in 2004, in the blog of Kathleen, an English teacher in a Michigan high school, talking about her experience of trying to get students to develop their skills of critical thinking and interpretation:
I gave them a quotation to write on today (simply respond – what do you think this means, what does it mean to you, etc.), “Stories happen to those who tell them” from Thucydides, and while it was certainly not a simple quotation, I didn’t think I was asking too much. They did.
However, this certainly wasn’t Kathleen’s invention; in another teacher’s blog, in 2009, a reference is given to Lucy McCormick Calkins, The Art of Teaching Writing (Heinemann, 1994). This is not a book to be found in the Bristol library, so it will take me a while to check – and will be delighted to hear from any readers who can get hold of a copy – but an online search turns up at least two references in the opening pages:
“Stories happen to those who tell them,” Thucydides said. Just as photographers are always seeing potential pictures, so too, writers see potential stories and poems and essays everywhere and gather them in entries and jotted notes. (p.21)
Although Thucydides’ words, “Stories happen to those who tell them”, are true, the reverse is also true. Stories don’t happen to those who don’t perceive of themselves as story-makers, reporters, poets, or essayists. (p.27)
Where did Calkins get this? From the snippets I can see online, there don’t seem to be any references, so this may not be easy to establish. It’s also only a guess that this is the source of Glass’s line, adding his own embellishment and dropping any reference to Thucydides. That attribution remains rare, but not unknown; for example, it reappears in an anthology of photographs of literary tattoos (apparently this is an emerging subculture) called The Word Made Flesh, and was quoted on a related website (see http://flesh88.rssing.com/browser.php?indx=13932598&item=41) in early March 2013; later that month it seems to have been quoted by an astrology webpage for Cancer (https://www.facebook.com/b.esprit/posts/615935991754714).
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of trying different combinations of words in a search engine. And so we come upon Paul Auster, in The Locked Room, the third part of the New York Trilogy (which I loved back in 1987…):
Stories happen only to those who are able to tell them, someone once said. In the same way, perhaps, experiences present themselves only to those who are able to have them. (p.222)
Stories rather than great stories (let’s give Glass the credit for that addition); those who can tell them rather than those who do tell them. But who was this ‘someone’? Auster’s narrator speaks as if this is a familiar, or at least pre-existing, line – but since it’s rare to read any critical account of his writing without encountering phrases like “unreliable narration”, this may not be the most reliable guide. But if it was Auster, why didn’t Calkins credit him rather than bringing Thucydides into it? Google, unhelpfully, doesn’t produce any hits for the phrases “stories happen those” or “stories happen only to those” before 2000…
As for the title of this blog, which was coined before I disappeared down the rabbit hole of trying to trace the origins of the quote, that was intended as a reflection on the idea that the entire Peloponnesian War might not have happened if Thucydides hadn’t been intent on writing about it. Of course the various battles and debates would have taken place anyway, countless people would still have died, Athens would nevertheless have fallen and so forth; but we would not think of ‘The Peloponnesian War’ as a single conflict or coherent narrative, and quite possibly we would not spend any time thinking about it at all.
On the other hand, this does seem to buy into an old-fashioned view of the reporter (storyteller, historian) as a more or less transparent medium for conveying the story that exists ‘out there’ – compare Glass’s account of gathering people’s stories and then deciding which ones are actually great stories (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loxJ3FtCJJA and following) – and definitely avoiding any hint of editing or rearranging or composing the account to turn it into a decent story. The things happen, and the writer’s job is just to report them.
But with Thucydides, the things happen, and the writer’s job is not simply to report them – or at any rate not to report them simply – but to discern the story within the events, to draw out its shape and significance, to help his readers see what might otherwise be impossible to discern within the endless flood of data. Without the person capable of telling the story, the Peloponnesian War would never have been invented.