Friends, and quite frankly anyone who will listen, often hear me talk about story as the way in which we construct our lives. Reading The Hero With A Thousand Faces, watching hours of film criticism, learning the music of editing film, listening to actual music, acting, taking in way too much Alan Watts, and countless other experiences lead me to believe that Story is the the raw material for our existence. This idea is not be confused with stories—those narratives found in books, shows, movies, tales told over a drink or sitting on a couch with a best friend, talking through tears.
What do I mean by Story? I’ve had these thoughts bouncing around in my head for a while. There’s nothing better to clear out a little mental space than writing, which is what prompted this little rambling piece of prose. In its simplest terms, Story has these qualities:
• Story is self contained. There is a beginning, middle and end. For good or ill, we see stories as these little packages that should tie themselves up neatly. In fact, it’s hard for us to see things otherwise. Ronald Reagan just happened to be president around the time of the fall of the USSR, so you often hear the phrase “Regan won the cold war.” But ever since the end of WWII we saw communism as an existential threat, and even after the fall of communism players like Vladimir Putin still loom large on the international stage. All this nuance is hard to grasp and still go about our day to day lives, so we shoehorn the major facts into a little box, tie a bow on it, and it becomes an object.
• Story sets up expectation. Something introduced in the beginning will be further explained, its true nature revealed, its function within a system made apparent. We don’t like something to be introduced and discarded without showing purpose. How many times have you seen a poorly written movie after which you find yourself asking “what was with that other detective that showed up in the middle of the movie? We never saw him after that.” Anything that looks like a loose end is ignored. Expectation not met is annoying or painful. Expectation fulfilled permits your mind to let go, and get to the rest of your day.
• Story is economical. Going hand in hand with expectation, Story removes elements unnecessary to the overall arc. This is why you never see characters in film go to the bathroom, unless it helps paint a picture of who they are, or the nature of the story being told. Even epic works like War and Peace have been edited and refined. The most intricate and detailed sculptures still feel like a single piece because of what the creator chooses to include, and, more importantly what they leave out. In design you often hear the phrase “something is done, not when you have nothing left to add, but nothing left to take away.”
• Story has a discernible pattern. Story is something we can examine and make a map of, in the abstract. The Heroes Journey—from the call to adventure, through the trials, to transformation and finally back home, but changed. A Song—intro, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, ending. Education—kindergarten, elementary through high school, choose what to study, higher education, waiting tables, going back to school, carrier. Even Ordering fast food—drive up, wait in line, order, wait some more, food is delivered, diabetes.
Viewing something through these lenses can be pretty liberating. Almost like diagraming a sentence, but far more interesting—forgive me if diagraming sentences is your favorite hobby.
Ever since I could remember I felt the weight of narratives imposed by others, as I’m sure everyone does. Expectations of good grades, of manners, of what it is to be a man, a woman, what Christmases and birthdays should be, all of it. I was sent to small Christian schools until 12th grade. When you have a class size of 16, if you’re the weird kid then you’re the only one. In retrospect I envy the freaks and geeks in public school; In a class of 400 you’re bound to make some friends no matter who you are. You can, in part, create a collective story within your group of friends. So if it’s just you, everything feels more like an obligation.
Dissecting and deconstructing narratives is, at least for me, the best way to reclaim your power. We’re so afraid as people and most narratives we fall into, we do so out of fear. And it’s a nebulous, second order fear. When we’re kids our parents hit us or yell at us (because their parents yelled at them and hit them), we’re shamed by media, and that so easily works its way into how our peers treat us, even at a very early age.
That’s what makes Story such a useful tool. If you add fear to each element it can become a death force. Expectation becomes Obligation, Economy becomes Scarcity. Fear is like an immune system to keep a narrative pure, therefore creating an identity. Deviation from the pattern feels dangerous. And why not? On the savannah, the unexpected often meant immediate danger.
But we no longer live on the African plain. Our food comes from grocery stores, shipped in giant containers from halfway around the world in little refrigerated boxes. We no longer need fear, at least not in the way we did thousands of years ago.
So how do we combat fear? Knowledge. But not just rote knowledge but the means to use knowledge to our advantage. Christopher Hitchens said “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” I’ve known many people who have vast amounts of book learning and yet seemed trapped in their own narrative just as powerfully at the most uneducated person I’ve met.
But this power is useless unless you use it on yourself first. True knowledge starts with the self.
The real work—and the trickiest part of it all—is allowing yourself the courage to dust off your own stories and go through them line by line. It sounds easy at the outset, but when you’re in the thick of it you have to be open to the possibility that even your most deeply held beliefs may be built upon a false narrative or may be just a reaction to a wrong conclusion you came to at an early age.
You have to wrestle with the jealousy of those whose narratives have given them unearned confidence, whose fates have gifted them unearned success. The part that chaos plays in our lives is so underacknowleged because our collective narrative says that chaos is something to overcome. We love a story like that becasue it feels so good to think we’re in control, but we achieve success becuase of chaos just as much as we succeed despite it.
Yes, hard work exists, intellegince exists, resourcefulness exists, failure and triumph exist, and these have been written about at great length, but these aren’t the whole story.
How many of us get to choose our parents? How many of us get to choose where we were born? How many of us get to choose our circumstances at age 10? From the moment we’re born, we make conclusions about the world that we then use to build our world further. What if they’re the wrong conclusions?
Everyone has a narrative, even those we choose to give our power and reverence to. Celebreties, game show hosts, football players, tech billionaires, navy seals, CEOs, legistlators, presidents, and musicians. We are so willing to give our power and reverence to them becuase we feel they have something that we don’t. They then use that power to take more of our agency from us. They set up shop in our psyche and when we see them, no matter what thier actual circumstances and character, we have an automatic impulse to place them above us for some reason. And if you’re one of these people, in your mind, do you place yourself above others? Why?
If ‘successful’ people can teach us one thing, it’s the power of narrative.
Just think if you could take your own narratives and rewrite them. The past is immutable, but we rewrite stories all the time.
If our own identity is a story, what’s stopping us from writing a new one? At the very least our stories could use a little editing.