It’s the same old story everywhere I go; or, On Story and Fact

I have written in this space before in praise of our story-hungry nature, that our love of each other’s stories is the best of us human beings. But it occurred to me recently that it can also lead us astray. Not everything is a “story” — that is, if a story is something specific to the teller, and if another witness to the story can tell another version — sometimes things just are as they are.

Or are they?

On the radio, a journalist was speaking of the facts of a situation. A caller called in to assert that there was “another side” to the “story.” But are not facts something other than elements of a “story”? Are they?

There are deep histories of philosophical and scientific discussions of what is “truth,” “perception,” what is “real.” I’m sure Nietzsche had something juicy to say about it. Can there be such a thing as a fact? Or indeed was the caller correct — there is always another way to interpret, another “side,” another story? Is a fact always open to interpretation?

I’m reading a murder mystery. Based on the blood stains, how dried they are, how the body attended to the wound, the fact seems to be the person died between 3:00 and 4:30 a.m. Or did it happen earlier and the person held a bandage to the wound, with some antiseptic on it, so it could have happened earlier; or it was particularly dry that day so the blood dried faster, so it could have happened later? Was the getaway car blue? Not if the witness was colorblind.

What a slippery slope is truth. How can we wake in the morning and step onto the floor if all is in doubt? I want the caller to be wrong. A fact is a fact and there is no story, no other side. I worry that if I believe it, it’s a fact; if you “disagree” over a “fact,” you’re just wrong. Right? But how do we know, and how do we know what we think we know, and who is “we” and do we know things differently from one day to the next?

Is it symptomatic of this strange world we live in right now that I am even querying “fact”? If there is no such thing as a fact, how do we manage? If everything is story, and there is always another side, how do we, we nation-builders, we beings of communication and cooperation, how do we ever do anything together, if we can’t even agree on a basic understanding of the situation at hand?

I think about two paleolithic hominids arguing over animal scat. “That’s saber-tooth tiger poop. We better get outta here.” “No it’s not, it’s dried muskox poop.” “Is too.” “Is not.” Etcetera.


Gimme Shelter: or, Finding the Emotional Center in Travel Writing

I am still wrestling with an essay I mentioned several blogposts ago. I can’t seem to get comfortable with it. Every time I walk away I come up with ideas of how to change it, then when I get back to the page, the ideas seem unworkable.

The essay is a meditation on how sometimes you can feel attachment to a place you’ve never seen before. You come upon a place and know it, impossibly. It haunts you when (if) you’ve left. Not everyone knows this feeling, but enough people do that I think it’s “a thing.” It’s certainly a thing I experience.

I keep putting myself into and taking myself out of the essay in some kind of editing hokey pokey. I’ve even tried shaking it all about. I keep trying to make it strange. It keeps staying conventional. I keep trying to make it thin. It keeps staying a bit corpulent.

The personal essay/memoir form is fraught with this question of “I.” To be truly effective as art, the essay has to transcend its own I’s story. It’s not enough to say what happened, nor what “I” felt about it. The authorial consciousness has to somehow rise above itself, with empathy, with insight, wonder, and generosity.

The best stories have an ah-ha in them somehow — not a lesson taught but a moment expressed so clearly that the reader/listener feels the frisson.

I can’t seem to balance the intellectual with the emotional in this essay, the descriptive with the so-what. There is a balance in any piece of art among the elements: the what, the why, the who cares. Until I figure out my own emotional stake in the piece, it will continue to be travel without a destination.


Once Upon a Time; or Telling New Stories to Save the World

As Yuval Noah Hariri indicated in both of his books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, homo sapiens came to dominate all homo species as well as many other species because of its ability to cooperate. Homo sapiens developed that ability to cooperate across many individuals, time, and space, according to Hariri, because of its ability to tell and believe stories. And oh what stories we have come to believe — gods and monsters, gods and monsters. (And democracy. And the free market. And justice systems. And the importance of putting details of our life on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, with the corollary that people give a shit about the details of our life enough to view them.) So we excelled at creating vast networks of behavior that enhanced our ability to survive and thrive (often at the expense of whatever was in our way — large animals, other people who believe somewhat different things, the Earth).

Although I haven’t read the book yet, I believe Kurt Andersen argues in Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire that it was Americans’ particular impulse to believe all kinds of stories that led us to this fake-news moment in American history. He says our individualistic national culture was based on “epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies….” He claims that we began to believe that truth itself is individual and relative. Now in the face of scientific facts — that is, provable, verifiable — people still feel free to believe the opposite. Story is stronger than fact, and has sunk us deep into fantasyland, to the peril of our institutions and our world.

But maybe story can save us too. I keep thinking about the energy crisis in the ’70s. People actually changed their behavior, temporarily anyway — drove cars with better mileage and drove them more slowly, turned their heat down, recycled. Sure, there were plenty of gas-guzzling cars still on the road, plenty of speeders, plenty of people strolling around their homes in shorts when it was 0 degrees. But a lot of people changed their behavior based on ongoing stories of what will happen if we don’t. We heard tell of a crisis, we heard about what we could do, we did it — I mean, with the help of some economic incentives and disincentives. I think too about littering. In spite of all the litter I see on the street, I suspect the anti-littering campaigns, particularly those that target kids, have created what amounts to a widespread habit of not throwing stuff on the ground. We believed in that crying Indian in that TV ad from the ’70s. Don’t cry, man, I’ll put this hamburger wrapper in this trash can, okay? Geesh.

So come on, storytellers. We need a new story to believe to bring us to the next level of development as a species. We need us some fresh gods and monsters to save us from ourselves.

writing off the edge of the known world

I get confused thinking about atoms, molecules, cells, space. I set my giant cell-full foot on the fuzz of growing things on this giant rock that reveals itself on the edges and slides as slitting as slate and colorful, blood red, sea green, cloud blue. The snarl of bunched greenery with reds and pale berries-to-be and the sproing of it after I’ve stepped onward counterpoint the kachunk of a wave blasting into a fissure. In the distance what seem to be grand white ships are icebergs. On the horizon what seem to be gray icebergs are low lying cloud formations, now stately, now like a guy waving, now like two arms making monster claw forms like I do when I’m trying to scare small children. What are we? Solids, liquids, in motion, stuck, big, minuscule, gone — or, as we are matter, not entirely. Icebergs are not salty, as they’re made of snow and ice formed from rain coming down. I’ve forgotten where the salt goes when the ocean condenses. I tire of the things I don’t understand. I only feel better when I begin to understand what I don’t know. It’s what I don’t know I don’t know that scares me. Monster claws monster claws. I think about the table of elements. What are they again? Building blocks of stars and me and my milkshake. Things are not what they seem. I saw an exhibit of how the high promontory I’m looking at was formed of ancient pressure, two land masses shoving shoving. Now little is left of them. Rubble, some relatively small islands that are being elbowed by the sea. It’s not just change I’m talking about but the actual shifting nature of all things. Shifty nature. Look away for a minute and nothing is there. Or nothing was there all along. The space of not-knowing is a vital starting point for writing. My last post mentioned memoir. I think what trips up would-be memoirists or personal-essayists is that they (we) think because it’s their life, they know what they’re talking about. But they may only know the timelines, the linear course of “what happened.” The powerful starting place is why, or so what, or and what do I make of all this? The large and small of life, the spaces, they are the stuff of life, but only as waves are the stuff of ocean. It’s the patterns of salt stains left by the spray that we’re after.

Ah-One, Ah-Two, Ah-Three; or How Story Makes Us More Than One

On most ordinary days I find at least once or twice reason to intensely dislike my fellow humanity. And it was a day as most ordinary days. The speeding jerk on the highway, the pushy person in line, any news headline. (Oh, that thing from last week about me being more equable? Yeah, it’s a work in progress.)

But as the day sputtered toward bedtime, I watched an episode of Call the Midwife, and I remembered a movie had just seen whose characters stayed with me, and I read a few pages of a book of a conversation between a poet and a scientist, and a story I heard on the radio. I realized that it is story that makes me feel better about humanity. Story, real or imagined, the tellers, paid or published or overheard — are stories are the best of us. They are the roots and vines that connect us in our isolation.

Through story, the stranger becomes familiar, family, if the story invokes in us at least sympathy, at best empathy. Stories invite us to imagine ourselves as others. Even if our final conclusion is that the storyteller other is nothing like us, in that act of imagination, we have connected. We are born alone and die alone and the rest of life is about trying to connect across that isolation.

History is all story. Even a factual list of the dead in a certain battle, or the passenger list of a ship crossing the sea is a story of sorts. We only understand the past through memory and story. Through story we remember and misremember, edit and expand, conflate, repress, and try to make sense of the series of random events that is our life. History and story come from the same root, words meaning inquiry, knowing, to know. An even older word for story is tale from Old Norse roots meaning talk. Few conversations don’t involve at some point telling a tale. Even talking about what to have for dinner might involve my husband saying well, we could have this or that, but remember, last time I made it, it turned out too whatever. The tale of our meals is informing our talk. To talk is to tell, an old word itself, coming to us from the same root, but by way of “to count” or make an account.

Would it be step too far to say making story of history is a way to discern meaning? Can there be said to be meaning in our series of random events?

Everything is fiction, in a sense. The etymology of fiction is from a word meaning form. Through history we form a story of what has happened to us, and we offer it up to each other. Why? I think to try to determine if we are unique — and for some stories we may want to be, or if we are in company — and for some stories, we yearn for the other person to say, yes, I have experienced that too. And we listen to stories for the same reason — to identify our own outlines and to feel out the contours where we fit snug next to the outlines of others. To tell if we can count ourselves not quite so much the lonely sum of one.

I don’t read much fiction anymore. There was a time that I couldn’t imagine not reading fiction. Crazy! But somehow what’s made up has become less compelling to me than what someone has made of their experiences — not just memoir, but science, nature writing. I’ve even read some history now and then, to learn the story someone else has made of other people’s stories. I appreciate the imagination that fiction writers call forth, but I often find the situations contrived, the characters silly and even more tiresome than real people, the structures creative for the purpose of being different but not necessarily serving a good telling of a tale. (Somehow I’m more open to the fiction of a good TV or Netflix series? Hm. That feels blasphemous.)  I know I’m being close-minded, and I do venture into fiction now and then, just to make sure I’m not missing anything. But when I go to the library, it’s the poetry, essay, and science writing aisles I’m drawn to first, just to see what’s new, to discover someone new, someone who will help me feel connected.


Notes from a Reluctant Story Slam Judge

I was roped into judging a story slam recently, something I will not readily do again. Here were all these regular folk clamoring up on stage to tell their heartfelt story, and I and my fellow judges were scrutinizing their ability to hold our attention, to use time wisely, to keep focused and on point. In the end we didn’t give the top prize to the person whose story brought us to tears, nor the one whose story brought THEM to tears, nor the one who made us laugh the most heartily, but rather the one who created a nice tight arc of a story. We never checked the timepiece, never felt a lag, felt brought to a pleasing conclusion at just the right point, so she won our judgy minds, if not our human hearts.

It all came down to pacing. She quickly set up the context of the story, whereas others seemed to take a while to figure out exactly where to start and what details to give us. As listeners, we aren’t able to discern what’s going to be important later, so we have to listen to everything, and then later realize all that backstory we were hanging on was irrelevant to the point.

She sketched a few vivid images on which the story hung. This allowed us to be with her and see through her eyes as the story unfolded. We could see it all. Another storyteller threw out almost inadvertently an image that she should have set at the heart of the beginning of her story — a coffee cup suddenly appearing on the floor at her cubicle entrance from someone who had just fallen to the ground and dropped it. This was a chilling half-second that should have been allowed its central moment.

The winner rolled out her story and then gave us the punchline without preamble or warning. It startled us to laughter and delight. Another storyteller threw out his punchline seemingly almost before he was ready, and then gave it to us again, undermining the power of the moment. One storyteller brilliantly used the punchline as the lesson, although that left us a bit breathless.

The winner ended her story a bit abruptly, but that was better than the few who petered out, unsure exactly how to wrap up. A story doesn’t need a moral, but it does need some kind of ending. A few of the slam participants actually excelled at ending their stories. But they had already lost our good grace by taking too long with the set-up.

So, to summarize, here’s what I noticed:

  1. Beginnings are crucial. To set up the story, give only details that feed the story, that move it forward, or that provide vital information to the point. Better yet, start in the middle of things, then give us a quick sketch to give context once you’ve got us.
  2. Imagery is helpful. Provide a few images that are alive and important to the story, that act as a kind of metaphor.
  3. Pacing is vital. Keep the story moving along. If you’re going to linger, or draw out the pacing, do so later in the story arc, not earlier. Win the audience’s attention with good pacing early on. You can toy with us once you have us in your storytelling hooks.
  4. Endings are important. Figure out how to end the story — you want to try to do this before you start talking. Ending the story with the punchline can be hazardous. The story may feel too much like a joke. On the other hand, a good long narrative joke can be fun. We don’t get much of that nowadays. A lesson-learned ending is often satisfying. If there is a lesson in the story, however, allow it to rise from the story — then a lesson-based ending feels authentic. But give us some kind of ending, even if you have to walk off into the sunset or something.

In French, the word denouement means untying. We use denouement as a literary term to mean the opposite — the drawing together of all the aspects of the story. A good story uses the word in both ways — untie the strands so as to sweep and tie them back up again.

Finally, I will say, as a judge I could have been bought. If you’d bought me my Guinness, well, let’s just say things may have turned out differently…


Once upon a time

I had a story-full weekend, a drive up the highway with various NPR-based story shows, lunch and a walk with some storytelling friends, and attendance at my first story slam, and then watching the Oscars, which is, after all a celebration of the many ways to tell a great story.

The story slam was an amazing feel-good event as people eager for stories crammed into a bar on a gray Sunday early evening, clapping, laughing, cheering for the doughty tellers, who spoke of near-death accidents, triumphs over adversity, lucky breaks, sudden perceptions and changes in perspective, and the many ways in which we get by with a little help from our friends.

A well told story is a symphony of little pauses and great crescendos, of sotto voces and staccato lines, of discordance but ultimately resolution. And the listener is active. An entire bar of a standing-room-only crowd would be utterly still at times when a storyteller had us in his or her spell, and then explode in laughter or applause. It was magic. The best kind — not the spell that turns an Other into a toad, but the kind that enchants us all into dreamers in the same dream.

Although I’m not a storyteller myself, I do believe that it is in story that we are most human, most prone to empathy, the only connection that will move us forward as a species away from our tendency toward xenophobia and hostility and toward community in its broadest definition — you, whoever you are, and me.