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The Story Is The Life

I said last week  and Sarah said the other day that stories and how they work are central to who we are. In a lot of ways, the stories we tell each other and ourselves are our culture. They’re how culture was transmitted until very recently, and how an awful lot of culture is still transmitted.

The stories a person believes and internalizes are a huge part of who that person is.

If you’re raised on stories of hard work and doing the right thing leading to rewards, you’re going to feel cheated when your hard work doesn’t get you anywhere (sound familiar? It sure does to me). If you’re told all your life how special and wonderful you are, you’ll expect everything to land in your lap. More than that, if you’re raised on special and wonderful people having everyone recognize their specialness and getting what they want, you’ll expect that for yourself.

Here’s the thing: while our conscious mind can distinguish between fact and fiction, our subconscious doesn’t have that filter. It’s the ultimate in GIGO (for the bemused, that’s “Garbage in, garbage out”). That means our subconscious treats the stories as real – and adjusts reactions accordingly (this, incidentally, is the reason why well-crafted visualization and well-designed positive affirmations work. The loudest, most persistent message getting down there is the one that gets latched onto – and no, this does not mean we should be going headlong into every new age woo we can latch onto. That’s its own argument… but more later).

So, your story-diet affects who you are. This is reason enough to pity those poor sods fed a neverending stream of gray goo. Sooner or later, without something to contradict the goo, they’re going to wind up believing that nothing they can do matters, so why bother?

All of this goes back to how tuned we are to stories. My view is that stories are uber-patterns in the form of “this made that happen” strung together ad infinitum. We’re all in possession of finely-tuned pattern-recognition engines (otherwise known as brains), and the “this made that happen” pattern is one that has particular strength because of the possible consequences when the “this” is a lion and the “that” is a rustle of grass a few feet in front of us. We’re all descended from the people who were best at recognizing that pattern and running like hell. Or possibly, fighting off the lion with a sharpened stick. But the relatives of our distant ancestors who weren’t too good at recognizing that kind of pattern didn’t have children because they were too busy being lion chow (this, for those who wonder, is why evolution looks as though it fits living things to some kind of purpose. We’re good at it because our ancestors were better at it than our non-ancestors).

So our causal pattern (“this made that happen”) is the core of stories. When you look at mythology, you see attempts to work out what made some aspect of the environment happen – the Just So stories. Later myth gets into motivations, which are a kind of inner “this made that happen”, where the “this” is an emotion or a desire rather than an observable, physical thing. Some of the oldest art in the world tells stories – the cave paintings in various places, the rock art in Australia… it fits forms that allow it to tell stories of successful hunts, or myths, or in Australia, the first encounters between Australia’s aboriginal peoples and European visitors (yes, there is rock art showing this). Stories are also told through dance – again, using forms that are commonly understood by the dancers and their usual audience. Everything from Australian native dance forms to modern ballet tell stories. I know some of the ballet “storytelling” forms from long-ago ballet lessons (I stank at it, but some things stick in the memory) – there are standard gestures used to indicate the most commonly depicted emotions. Song is another storytelling art: ballads typically tell a story via a series of verses, with or without a chorus. Then (and I hesitate to mention this, given what happens when I get started) there are limericks – 5 line stories in a snappy verse form that’s a whole lot more difficult to do well than it looks (all right, all right. Go look at the comment thread here. I don’t know how this degenerated to a dirty limerick contest, but dirty limericks are something I do well. I know hundreds of them, and can make more easily. Yes, I also have a truly astounding repertoire of feeelthy jokes, including what may be the only joke in the universe that justifiably uses the word “c**t” and manages to be somewhat funny as well).

So, we’re tuned to stories and our view of the world and experiences are affected by the stories we hear, read, see, and generate. So where does that leave us as writers?

Tune in next week to find out.

Oh, and don’t forget to stop by on Saturday, when there will be a contest and a chance at Free Stuff.

  1. ppaulshoward #

    Since most understand this idea, I wonder what kind of people want others to grow up reading the “grey goo” stories?

    June 21, 2012
    • Dorothy Grant #

      ppaulshoward – It’s been my experience that people who are most about “speaking truth to power” and “shocking the establishment” or “breaking conventions”, rarely tend to think about the effect of their intended actions on any people who aren’t in their clique, except as a faceless stereotyped “Other.” These cliques also rarely include responsible parents.

      Great rebels rarely make for good leaders, because being stridently against something brings no guarantees that you’ll be thoughtfully, rationally for anything. The iron-fisted and single-minded dedication to bringing down something turns into iron-fisted closed-minded attempts to continue to force the world to what they want… even if it means publishing grey goo and turning a blind eye to the falling revenues and dismissal by readers who don’t want that. Rebels also define themselves by their enemies, and have no solid core to themselves – so they must find someone to fight, be it “privileged white males” or “that great evil, Amazon.”

      I find a delicious irony (tastes like rasperries, really) in watching the image of someone like Che who fought his whole life against capitalism being printed and sold for a tidy profit on t-shirts to people who think they’re supporting anti-capitalism as they shell out their money. That Human Wave books and their Indie publishing system (or that heretic, Baen) strikes such fear and loathing into the same people who tries to force-feed me feminism and grey goo is icing on the cake.

      The internet, the rise of geek culture, and the destruction of the gatekeeper’s monopoly means my story diet is as eclectic as I care for it to be. Delicious!

      June 21, 2012
      • Kate Paulk #

        Great rebels generally make terrible leaders – people who are good at bringing down a power structure rarely have the skills needed to run anything. Especially if they’ve devoted their lives to “the cause”.

        Che… would probably be first in line to shoot the idiots who buy the t-shirts, as well as the folks who sell them. He might run out of ammunition.

        And yes, a nice eclectic story diet is the best.

        June 21, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #

      The people who don’t actually think these are gray goo – usually they’re so ideologically blinkered they can’t see past that it pushes what they think everyone else should believe (they get a pass because they’re ‘doing the right thing’).

      June 21, 2012
  2. Hey now, not all the limericks were dirty! (only the funny ones, I admit) And some of them weren’t even limericks because certian people (ahem) haven’t looked at poetry in so many years that they were unaware that a limerick is 5 lines 🙂

    June 21, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #


      The limerick packs laughs anatomical
      Into space that is quite economical
      But the good ones I’ve seen
      So seldom are clean
      And the clean ones so seldom are comical…

      June 21, 2012
  3. TXRed #

    There was an old man from Nantu . . oh. Sorry. Wrong thread.

    I was reading a piece yesterday at City Journal about apocalyptic thinking in the modern secular world. One thing the author (a French gentleman) pointed out is that we should not be surprised when a generation that has been told over and over that the environment is going to heck in a handbasket firmly believes that the environment is going to heck in a handbasket. And they do not believe that things can be made better. Behold the power of a story: the fall from an environmental paradise. One generation of grey goo in a spiritually toxic flavor leads to a society of despair.

    I fear that is one answer to Paul’s question – the people who make a profit off of despair. In this case, it is the indulgence sellers. (“Paging M. Luther, Mister M. Luther, please meet your party at Rio.”)

    June 21, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #

      The French gentleman nailed it. If all you’ve ever heard is X, of course you’re going to believe X. Makes it really difficult if the power-brokers and the like need to do a u-turn on X – and it doesn’t matter what X actually is.

      Mister Luther would probably figure the handbasket had arrived and want to know how come he was in the wrong place.

      June 21, 2012
      • Yeah, you just s-l-o-w-l-y rename Anthropogenic Greenhouse Warming to Climate Change, and you’ve buried the worst of your errors. Keep it up long enough and you will be positioned for the next attack of reality you have to explain away. While still keeping your position in power.

        Publishers need to be careful, they don’t seem to see much need to adjust to reality. I shed no tears, watching them rush the cliff, without stopping to grab a rope, a parachute, a ladder, a bit of common sense . . .

        June 22, 2012
        • Kate Paulk #

          Common sense is the rarest commodity known to humanity. Just saying…

          June 22, 2012

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