Using Folklore In Writing, Learn With Me! (To Write and Have Written)

Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran joins me for this month’s Learn With Me, sharing an academic discussion of folklore, fiction, responsibility in using story, the universality of motif, and conspiracy theories!

The Longest Road In The Universe by C.S. MacCath
What Happens Next? Contemporary Urban Legends and Popular Culture by Gail de Vos

Video (from Twitch and YouTube):



Learn With Me! About Folklore and Fiction – powered by Happy Scribe

Happy Tuesday!Unless it’s not Tuesday when you’re

hearing this, in which case,welcome to today.

So we are here tonight for our very firstLearn with Me, the first one since I

announced our new themes,which I’m really excited about.

Right before we start that,I want to throw out a massive thank you.

I just got the word from YouTube today.

They sent me the official email

with confetti and everything thatwe’ve hit a hundred subscribers.

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That’s great, too.So.

Oh, hello.From Wednesday.


Grace is in New Zealandcheating a day ahead.

It’s good to know that the world will make

it another day, which is what I alwaysfeel when I get a heads up from Grace.

So that’s awesome.So I’m going to bring in our–

Oh, I’m sorry.

I wanted to mention oneother thing really quickly.

We are working our way slowlytoward November and NaNoWriMo.

So if you have any related NaNoWriMo

questions, send them my way and I’llbe happy to throw them into the queue.

So let’s do that.

OK, and then today it’s going to be ourLearn with Me, our first Learn With Me,

And I’m very excited because I have

a distinguished Learn With Meguest to educate me tonight.

So this is, lemme see,

Hold on, magical.

Where’s my button?There’s my button.

OK, Ceallaigh, hi, welcome.

Ceallaigh is now on screen with me.

All right.

So, Ceallaigh , Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran

is a Ph.D. candidateat the Memorial University of Newfoundland

and in the folklore department, and herparticular areas of academic interest —

hold on, I’m checking my notes because thisis like wordy, wordy academic language.

It makes me feel, like,my IQ is going up two points

just saying this.

Her particular areas of academic interestare narrative constructions of power

and performance theory of activismin the animal rights movement.

And the way I know Ceallaigh,the way how we first met is,

she is also a writer of fictionand then also of nonfiction and poetry.

And we were in some anthologies together,which is how we first met.

But in her fiction, nonfiction and poetrycareer, Ceallaigh has been a Washington

Science Fiction Associationsmall press award

short listee.Is that the right word?

She has been shortlisted for that

and she has also been nominated for theRhysling Award and the Pushcart Prize.

So, yay.

Thank you for joining me, Kelly.

I’m thrilled to have you asmy first Learn With Me guest

and the concept herebehind the Learn With Me.


So and we have a ton of helloscoming in in the chat.

So there’s lots of.

Yeah, lots of lots of hellos coming in.


guys, as we go feel free

feel free to throw any questions for Ceallaigh intothe chat and I will be happy to use those.

But we’re just going to have a great

time because we get to talk about folkloretonight and I am thrilled to do this.


let’s start with the reallykind of hanging in the air question.

Ceallaigh, what is a folklorist?

How do you do–

do you get paid for telling stories?You know, how does this work?

So tell us this.

We might study performance,we might study narrative.

Hang on.

Ceallaigh, I’m going to interruptyou for one second.

Sounds like we’re not getting your voice,your voice coming through.

Hey, guys, I am OK playing with some.Oh, OK.

Do we have Ceallaigh say something?

We’re going to double check.

OK, can you hear me now?

It looks like chat says fixed now.Hurray!

OK, great.Yeah.

So sorry I — took me a second to get thatorganized, but now we’ve got you back.

So I was hearing you,but no one else was appreciating.

So can I rewind you, please tell us again.

Well, I had a chance to practiceand I have it right.

It sounded really good and I liked it.

I was like, oh, I didn’t know that.

OK, so.

So folklore is the study of expressive

culture and folklore scholar Stan very famously offered the definition and

that folklore is artisticcommunication in small groups.

And so what we study isthe way people make culture.

And I’m going to start in a different

place than I did whennobody could hear me.

For instance, I’m on Cape Breton Islandin Nova Scotia, and a perfectly legitimate

study of folklore in Cape Breton might bethe steel mills in Sydney or coal mining

culture or processes around coalmining culture or the steel mills.

And we wouldn’t necessarily be looking at.

OK, from a technical perspective,how was this done?

We’re looking from a human perspective.

What is the work culturearound this process?

You know, how do people talk about it?

Is there any vernacularlanguage that people use?

If we have smelters?

Are there any colloquialisms?

Do smelters have names?

It has the equipment,the name, that kind of thing.

So we’re looking at the culturalcomponent of work life in that situation.

We can also study religious beliefs,whether they be major world religions or

vernacular religious movementor beliefs, that kind of thing.

Superstition,although the word superstition is fairly

loaded, you know,we might study vernacular architecture.

Why was this buildingbuilt the way it was?

What why was it important to put

these stations in this circlefor people to go and pray?

Why was this

this Buddhist temple put up?

You know, what is the function of thisand and how do people interact with it?

We might study music and be the particular

branch of folklore associated with thestudy of music is called ethnomusicology.

We might study performance as

in theatrical performance orperformances of everyday life.

And and that’s something that I’m very

interested in, the averageeveryday performances of.

You know, when you’re performing as

a person in an office, what’s that likewhen you’re performing as a mom?

What’s that?

What’s that likewhen you’re performing as a pastor?

What’s that like?These are all different kinds

of performances from aperformance perspective.

And of course, we study narrative,

which has really close connectionswith the writing community.

And it’s the reason I’ve been writing

a newsletter for the last coupleof years to connect folklore to fiction.

So that’s sort of in a in a very sort

of broad strokes,what folklore is and what we study just

think artistic communication in smallgroups and think expressive culture.

And that’s really cool.

I was listening to you talking about this.

And, you know, when you said,do they name the equipment,

the smelters, I’m thinking like,no, this is the kind of thing that we

think of is so minorand so inconsequential.

And, you know, I’m not even going to tellpeople if I name my car or my chair.

Right.But but from a cultural perspective

that says a lot about a societythat names their chairs.


Or the individual who does that

in a society that generallydoesn’t, or that kind of thing.

And so, yeah, it’s really and and so I’m

listening and I’m I’m just curious, likea lot of the things you mentioned,

I intrinsically associate with the wordfolklore, some of them I don’t.

So when you’re talking about, you know,folklore versus I’m going to pull out

anthropology, you know, is therea dotted line somewhere in the middle?

Like what

is it more that,you know, is it do we consider it more

an artistic thing or what?What’s where’s the line there?


Well, when whenwhen we’re looking at anthropology,

like I’ve heard folklore describedas sort of a subset of anthropology.

So and I had a minorin anthropology many moons ago.

So there’s cultural anthropology,which studies culture.

There’s linguistic anthropology,which studies language.

There’s physical anthropology,

which studies, you know, which isvery closely related to archaeology.

And so so we’re notnecessarily interested in.

In interpretive work in archaeology,

but we’d be very interested in finding outwhat can be understood culturally

from from what archaeologists talk about,how they narrow divides, what they find

cultural anthropology, I think,is very closely related to folklore.

But we’ll move into as folkloristsinto things like performance theory,

we’ll move into ethnomusicologyand we’ll look for nuance.

We tend not to be very broad strokesresearchers.

We tend to look at small groups,sometimes individuals.

One of the things that I looked

at in my own research is, you know,you have 10 animal rights activists

and they’re all going to have 10 differentideas about their performances of activism

and what they think ethicallyand that sort of thing.

So so I’m not necessarily looking

to generalize and draw a broaderconclusion, although I will do that.

I’m always very careful to say, OK, thisis what I see, as I understand up here.

But these are the nuances and theseare the individual voices.

So nuanced.

An individual voice isextremely important to a court.

Does that help a little bit?

I don’t think that’s the best answer I

could possibly give you,but that’s —

Well, I didn’t tell you the question was coming, so foroff the cuff it was pretty good.

But but no, I think you’re you’redescribing something that you know what

I’m sitting here listening to and I’mthinking about when I write, you know,

I’ve done some historical fiction and Ican easily look up, you know,

what was the map of this city 2000 yearsago that we’ve excavated today? Or I can

things. But then I gotinto a point where I’m like, OK,

what were the various viewson breastfeeding in that particular….

Archaeologists haven’t written that down?

Nobody has, you know,like how many people were

breastfeeding or versus using wetnursesversus whatever and like,

how would we know this and allof these kinds of things.

And that was a pretty odd exampleto pull out, but it’s one that I,

I personally struggledwith in the back in the past.

And so I really like what you’re sayingabout finding, you know,

it’s not in no culture is a monolithof everybody believes one certain thing.

Everybody practices one certainthing, you know, saying,

you know how you know.

Yes, this was the general gist of this.

But you’re always going to have, you know,

a bell curve always hastwo ends, you know, so.

Yeah, well, and one of the other things,

too, you were talking about archaeologyand one of the things that that that

gosh, how do I phrase this?

Archaeologists haveto interpret what they find.

And that process of interpretationis a process of narrativization.

They create a narrative.

And that narrative certainly isrooted in the science they practice.

But it is still a narrative.

And sort of I had a leapfrog moment when

you were talking about narrativizationin the process of your citation.

And one of the things folklore do iswe study that process of .

And for instance, if I may be a bitpolitical and talk about Q-anon

when we’re talking about some

of the underpinnings of thisconspiracy movement,

there is there’s a narrative,a narrative process that’s happening.

And folklorists understand that there isa narrative process happening here.

We can identify, OK,this is what’s happening here.

OK, I know this is happening next.

And and I wrote a special editionon Conspiracy Theory a couple of

a couple of months ago for the Folkloreand Fiction newsletter.

And I think

Philip Stevens Jr.

when he was writing about the SatanicPanic in the 1990s,

which is the Satanic Panic itself,is a moral panic rooted in legend.

So he said folkloristshave an obligation to bring

what they understand about narrativeto contemporary events

and help people understandthat what’s happening is a pattern.

And this is what the pattern lookslike and how you identify the pattern.

And so that’s another way I think folkloreare different from anthropologists,

especially as it comes throughfellowship of narrative.

Does that make sense?Yeah, yeah.

And again, like listening to what you’resaying and I’m connecting it with things

in my head, you know, so my day job,when I’m not playing with my imaginary

friends and making them fight each other,is in behavior, mostly animal behavior.

But there’s a lot of human behavior that’sconnected with that,

and they’re not as dissimilar aspeople would like to believe.

But one of the things we’re constantlybattling is the idea of the explanatory

fiction of, you know, oh,my dog barked at this child

on a bike because he must have beenscared by a bike in the past or.

This dog is shy, therefore he wasabused or, you know, whatever, because.

The human brain,for very good reason,

is designed to connect thingsand to extrapolate between them

and project between them, and that’sa really useful trait in a lot of areas.

It’s less useful when we’re trying to makeup data that doesn’t actually exist.

And so knowing how that works, I mean,

just knowing myself,knowing that my inclination is going to be

to find a connection where there may ormay not be one allows me to be more

skeptical of connections that Ihave not actually observed.


So, yeah, that is somethingthat is constantly

what am I doing?Which just something we need to be aware

of and something that we’re tryingto stay on top of as we are playing with.

These concepts and just, you know,

I don’t know,I don’t really have a point to make.

I’m just taking what you’re saying

and going, oh, yes, this makes sense because!It does.

And I’m hearing you talk about narrativization

and the behavior,the animal behavior community and how

in your work, what you’re trying to do is,is understand the narrative that your

clients are creating aroundthe animals in your life.

And you understand thatthere are patterns here.

You understand that,

for instance, my cat, Salem,

and this is true, my cat, Salem, werescued him after he was struck by a car.

And,you know, now I have a narrative

in my head that says he hates to travelbecause he was struck by a car.

And that’s a narrative that I’ve created.

And I don’t know whether or not it’s true,but I certainly give him I certainly give

him a little something to calm him down ifI have to take him in the car, you know,

but that’s that’s a that’sa process of narrativization.

That’s a process of creating a storyin our minds about our lives.

And it’s it’s human, as you say.Yeah.

And Natalie’s pointing out in the chat,Natalie also works in animal behavior.

And,you know, she’s talking about sticky

narratives like dominance,which is something that was introduced

culturally about six,seven decades ago now and was disproved

four or five decades ago now,

but has stuck in the culture so muchthat no matter how much the scientific

community says, like this isn’t a thing,it’s a narrative that feels so good

to the average layperson, you know, “Oh, no,I am owed respect” and

all of these kinds of things, that it’sjust so hard to get those roots out,

you know, that that’s a weedthat won’t let go, you know.

And yeah, it’sand it’s one of those things where it’s

like I can look at it and I can say, “OK,I see why this is working for you,

but at the same time,it’s really not working for you.”

It’s right.Yeah, right.

So and and that’s that’s a really

a really interesting thingthat folklore can do


There have been folklore,contemporary folklore to have studied

narratives around ageand narratives around illness.

And in understanding these narratives,we come to understand how they’re

culturally derived and how theirpast and how they’re transmitted.

And in you know, it’s not my place to make

a judgment about, you know,these narratives.

But I do think that it is my place asa scholar of narrative to say, OK,

this is what this looks like.

This is what this pattern looks like.

And this pattern hasvarious and sundry hallmarks.

And if you’re looking at this pattern,

you’re probably lookingat this sort of phenomenon.

And if you’re looking at this pattern over

here, you might be looking at thissort of phenomenon over here.

And I’m specifically thinking, again,about about conspiracy narratives.

As I say, the.

Yeah, yeah, and I think, you know, sayingthis is part of a pattern does not.

That’s notI don’t think any rational person would

automatically dismiss somethingjust because of a pattern.

But it’s also good to say, OK,let’s look at this in context.

Is this something we can graspadditional about this?

So, yeah, and you’ve used an incrediblyimportant word right there.

You’ve used the word context.

You said, “let’s look at this in context.”

And that’s what we’re alwaysdoing is folklorists.

We’re always taking whatever we’re lookingat and we’re looking at it in its context.

So it’s nuance and context.

We’ll look down at the individual.

We’ll look at the context there in.

And that’s where the ethnography happens.

That’s where we learnabout about the culture.

So we just got a question in the chat

that’s a great question.

And I’m going to…

OK, because


we are in a delicate period pre-election

in the US and I reallydon’t want to turn — my chat

people are always fantastically well

behaved and we’re just goingto continue that here.

But I totally trust you’re going

to address this from a completelyacademic perspective.

I’m just throwing a warning out therebecause of paranoia, because social media.

But the question it’s a really fantastic