Story 2 : Why the hell is it?

We are hard wired story telling machines.

We’d like to change this – but we can’t.

Experiment with this one: next time someone asks you how your day was, tell them EVERY detail. Every movement, every posture, every thought, EVERY SINGLE THING. If you’re lucky you’ll get to the 10 minute mark before getting smacked in the head. And rightly so. They want a summary – obliging you to omit plenty of details. They want, most likely, something at least reasonably entertaining. Once again obliging you to exaggerate certain things and simply invent others.

Like I said in the last blog, a story is a simple as a beginning, middle and end. But it’s a pattern we simply don’t find in life. To get it, because we so very dearly want it, we must: Omit, Exaggerate, Invent.

And let’s face it – it’s not just that ‘they’ expect these things – it’s you too. You want to give a ‘good’ accounting of your day, your car, your birthday party, your life … your whatever.

You, too, want to tell a good story.

OK – we do it. All the time and in every way. It’s certainly genetic – but can’t be explained in terms of species survival. We can communicate the location of food, water, shelter and danger very well thank you very much WITHOUT resorting to story structure. Unlike sex drive, or the fight or flight response, it has no physiological underpinning. No hormone has or ever will be linked to the telling of a story.

So what the hell is going on here?

If anyone had the answers I figured Joseph Campbell would, specifically in his monstrously important work ‘The hero with a thousand faces’. I was sorely disappointed. All I got was a confirmation that humans have been story tellers for millenia, and that we’ve been telling EXACTLY the same stories even when separatd by chasms of time and space. It seems Mr. Campbell found evidence for the collective unconscious – but sadly nothing more. I was still no closer to knowing WHY humans tell stories.

Stories nourish the soul. We tell them. So be it.

For the writer, understanding this is foundational. You are driven to tell stories as much as the reader is driven to find them.

Many writers just get this instinctively. Others have been blocked by so much theory and, let’s face it, bullshit, that they’ve missed the forest for all the trees. This latter is a very sad state of affairs. What results is writing that, in spite of any of it’s other positive attributes, is so lacking is structure that it makes for a fundamentally unsatisfying read. Writing like this cannot be rescued. The paper, of course, can and should be re-used. For wiping bottoms if nothing else.

But more of that next blog. Much more.

For now, homework. Spend one whole day, 24 hours solid, NOT telling stories. When someone asks you how you’re doing, what you’ve done, or what you’re planning on doing, DON’T give them the abbreviated story. Instead give them THE TRUTH, THE WHOLE TRUTH, AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH.

You will get glazed eyes, irritation, shock, anger and a whole lot more besides.

But because you’re a writer, and fearless, not only will you do it, but you’ll share your experiences with us here.


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