Monday, September 7, 2009

Telling Tales

There is a saying: "Stories weave the world".  I think this is true on many levels and I'd like to use this space to explore some of them.  Take a walk with me, won't you?

This past Sunday on NPR's "Weekend Edition", Liane Hansen interviewed author Dan Chaon, who has just published a novel titled "Await Your Reply" (full story here).  During the course of the interview, Liane asked the author, "Did you know when you were writing the book how it was going to end?" to which he replied, "No, I did not — not during the first draft — and in fact, I was really surprised by a lot of the twists and turns that came up as I was writing."  What's this?  Shouldn't the author, the one who is telling the tale, know, not only the "beginning, middle and end" but all of the details in between?  It would seem not.

If you listen to interviews with authors, you'll notice that they frequently refer to such phenomena as the characters "taking over" the story or the plot veering in unexpected directions.  Most people who have written fiction will acknowledge that at some point, the characters take on a life of their own and, as the author, you are not so much directing their actions as reporting what they do within the framework you've created for them. You may even find that the characters revolt if you try to force them into doing something that's "not in their nature".  Madness, you say?  Try it some time — I think you'd be surprised.

Okay, so what's going on here?  The process of creating a story usually begins with an inspiration of some kind — a first line that pops into your head; an event or person you observe that starts a chain of speculation; a real-life story that you feel can be tailored to fiction.  The question of where inspiration comes from is a whole other topic — let it suffice that most stories grow out of its root.  The next things you might do are to outline the plot, dream up a cast of characters, situate the action in some known or invented place and then stitch the whole thing together with movement and dialog.  Every writer does it a little differently but those are the basics.

Now, the important thing to note is that all of this is takes place first in the writer's mind.  Oh, true, sometimes the story flows out so fast that you think it's coming directly through your pen (or word processor) but the scene arises in the mind and is witnessed in all its detail by the mind's eye.  In fact, all of the senses plus the full panoply of the emotions may be called into the scene, potentially giving the writer access to as much detail as real life.  The degree to which the writer can record this scene and, through craft, remove themselves from the telling will, in large part, be the measure of how successfully the story can draw the reader in.  Draw them in so that they witness the scene as the author did.


When we dream, we find ourselves in the middle of a parallel life, peopled either with those we know or with complete strangers.  The scenes may range from the familiar and mundane to the wildly outré.  On those occasions when we become aware that we're dreaming (the "lucid" dream) it can seem indistinguishable from waking life.  Further, recent research using FMRI has shown that our minds make no distinction between dreams and movies — or moving-image stories in general.  It doesn't require much of a stretch to suggest that the creative state of the writer falls into the same class.   It is a kind of 'daydreaming' deliberately engaged for the purpose of creating a story for the page or the screen.  Night dreams are stories, daydreams are stories and stories are, well, you get it.

The next step may require you to don a larger set of boots.  I am going to suggest that our normal waking consciousness is of the same class as the story or dream.  The only distinction is an artificial one that we've "agreed" to make.  More on that in a moment.

All of our sense organs connect to our brains via nerve pathways — wires, for all intents and purposes — and the signals they carry require a finite time to get from one end to the other.  Although we take for granted that our sensory impressions register in our minds at the same instant that our eyes, ears, etc. perceive them, there is a measurable delay between perception and cognition.  Fractions of a second to be sure, but still measurable.  What this means is that "now" is not right now but a microsecond or two in the past.  Instead of directly perceiving the world moment-to-moment, we are actually building up an image complete with sound, touch, taste and smell within the theater of the mind — the same theater that presents us with the Late-Late Show of our dreams as well as moving pictures provided by books, movies, radio, television and, for that matter, our buddy pouring his heart out over a beer at the local pub.  It is the same apparatus and it behaves, in all circumstances, in essentially the same way.  Given the well-known efficiency of Nature, it would be hard to imagine that She would have created us otherwise.

So, what do I mean when I say that we agree to make a distinction between dreams and reality?  From the moment of our birth (some would argue before that), we begin getting messages from our parents that the world works a certain way.  We learn that mother means safe and warm, that day is for waking and night is for sleeping and that our needs are usually met if we make a lot of noise.   Later, teachers, friends and the media tell us that the world is filled with delights and dangers, that we do things this way and not that way.  It's part of a complex story called "This is How We Live".  Among the lessons is, "it's just a dream" — meaning that the images and stories we remember on waking are not part of our real life experience and need not be taken seriously — especially if the images are scary.

With the increasing mobility and communication available today, it's possible for many of us to see that the stories that build a person's reality differ from culture to culture — sometimes wildly.  For example, the aboriginal people of Australia have the concept of "The Dreamtime" as a reality that connects them with their earliest times, when their Gods walked the earth.  They don't see this as a metaphor — it exists and plays an active part in their culture.  They are taught to enter the Dreamtime in the waking as well as sleeping state, to interact with it and bring back information from it.  You cannot convince someone brought up this way that "it's just a dream" — no more than I could convince you that you could enter the Land of Oz by walking out your front door (well, most front doors).


I believe that we are now beginning to see serious rifts in society as a result of cultural stories that differ in significant ways.  This is occurring all over the globe in what otherwise appear to be homologous cultures.  Part of this is due to the increasing diversity in news, social and information media and entertainment.  There are so many different media channels available that large segments of the population can receive a noticeably different set of stories from those told to other large groups.  There is, in effect, no longer a "mainstream" of thought but more and more individual streams that diverge, sometimes to an alarming degree.

I'd be willing to bet that you wouldn't have to go back too far into your past to find an example of a social or political issue where you felt that you had a solid grasp of the facts and that your conclusions on the subject were inescapably true — only to find that someone with apparently the same facts had arrived at a totally different conclusion.  I am also willing to bet that you found the opposing view to be either intellectually insupportable or morally repugnant — or both.  You may have thought, "How in the world could these people believe this stuff?"  And, of course, "these people" are wondering the same thing about you

The tapestry of life is vast and unimaginably complex.  Each of us weaves our own thread and the more creative or influential among us embroider designs into the fabric that may impact the lives of millions (or billions) for generations.  It's possible every now and again to get a glimpse of the loom of time and change, and to use the knowledge of this to make your life more meaningful — or, at very least, less stressful.  Once you know for a certainty that stories weave the world, you can use your story to weave a place of beauty and know that it is good.

All the best,



For some lighter fare, I invite you to enjoy "A Fish Story" — a short work of fiction that I wrote several years ago.  This is how I know about characters taking over and telling you what to do ;-)

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