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.