Once upon a time, somebody told the first story.
I’m sitting here, trying to imagine it. Who it was. Who she was telling it to. What the world looked like then, and what the story might have been about.
Maybe it was an answer to a question, like, “Where did you come from?” Or “Where did you find that Paleolithic deer?” Or “How did you get that black eye?”
Or maybe it was a mother, telling her child about the night he was born. Or more likely, making up something scary to keep him from wandering out of the cave while she went out shopping.
Certainly, as time went on, the story became a tool. As communities formed, as tribes came together, stories held their histories—explained their creation, their identity on the land and under the great, dark press of the universe. Stories entertained in the evening around a good fire—but were more than simple entertainment. They carried in them the norms and mores that bound the people together in peace with each other, that gave them hope and the courage to stand against enemies and monsters and weather.
Stories taught the young what to grow up to be as men and women. Taught them roles. Taught them what to die for. What to live for.
Tales explained the universe, outlining strategies for dealing with and pleasing the God or gods who held the reins of fate. And taught the ways of earth – of seasons and planting and hunting.
And as we live our lives, our own experience with stories pushes us to look for the narratives that make sense of our own situations. We hope for good endings. We expect conflict, human cause and effect. We believe in balance and judgement, and expect a certain order and timing for things. Which is sometimes why we are left blinking and defenseless in the face of shocking, abrupt bad news.
As I wrote that last bit, I began to wonder if maybe our seemingly primal need for narrative might actually be a disadvantage—creating in us certain expectations. Like – that good will prevail and evil will suffer. Like, that—no matter what—everything will turn out all right in the end. Which often does not prove to be true. Unless you extend the narrative past death – to where justice might unfailingly apply and restitution be made.
Stories are, unquestionably, the most potent means of productive human communication – you are more likely to make your point if you tell a story that frames it obliquely, or paints an example inside a context that belongs to the person you are talking to. Compared to, “You always stomp all over my heart,” the story actually has a chance of being listened to.
A story can engage the emotions. Can drum up sympathy or passion. Can reach into the brain, calling on memory and the sets of chemicals that create emotion (we must instinctively know how to tweek these in each other, mustn’t we?) in order to bring about an emotional state in the hearer.
If I, as a storyteller, do my job well, I can string together words (or print them on a page) so that when you read the words, or hear them, the hair on your arms will stand straight up in the air – exactly as they would if you were to hear a strange, unexplainable sound outside your window one night. I can make the skin on the back of your neck prickle – and I can do it from hundreds of miles away, and maybe hundreds of years. Or I can make your body respond to my words the way it responded to your first kiss, or your most embarrassing or frustrated moment – without ever asking you to leave your corner of the couch. Without my needed to be in the room with you. Without any other outside stimulus at all.
“There is no frigate like a book to take us Lands away . . ..” Emily Dickenson wrote that, and I have always resonated with it. I remember lying in the top bunk of our bedroom, reading Walter Farley’s Flame—the part where the airplane is going to crash, and Alex has to save The Black and himself (yet again). The palms of my hands began to sweat and my heart to pound. I had to lift my eyes off the page because the experience was too hard for me. But I couldn’t stop reading it. I knew something odd was happening to me—I wasn’t on that plane, but I felt like I was on it.c So amazing. In fact, I remember it so vividly, all those things just started happening in me again as I wrote this.
We use stories to inform us. To give shape to our dreams. Sometimes to help us escape from our present, real situation, even if it be for a very few moments. To lift our hearts and minds. Or to indulge our dark and secret selves.
But now, in our time, story is no longer only in the hands of the story teller. Now, everybody’s a story teller. And we don’t tell the stories around the fire, after all have come in after a day’s good work in the fields and forests. Instead, we all want everyone else to work, and to bring us – the story teller – dinner. But since there are so many story tellers, the game is to come up with a story that will please the most people – not teach them, not warn them, not remind them who they are or help them deal with the world – but what will amaze, arouse, thrill, and indulge them. We want them to come to us with their dollars and their wide open hearts and minds, so we will be rich and safe.
And some who succeed in this actually have disdain for the hearts and minds left on theit doorsteps, wondering how people can be so gullible. I saw an article in TV Guide once, an interview with a Hollywood insider who confided that his writing staff regularly referred to their faithful TV audience as “the trailer trash.” And it wasn’t like they were writing WWF or bounty hunter shows.
I think we, as an audience, have to take care now, picking whose stories we open ourselves to. Not that everything we take in has to be vegetables. But – you know – there’s a story thrown up on screen every half hour on every one of 600 cable channels every day. How can there be that many good stories? And it used to be that the ALA Best Books for YA list alone had about two hundred books on it a year. Can we really crank out that much stuff worth telling? And what about the stories that are lies – setting up situations but writing unrealistic consequences – telling us what we want to hear instead of making us face the truth?
Walter Farley jacked with my brain chemistry big time. It’s probably why I get so antsy now when I fly. But how many other strangers have left their traces in my head, I wonder? They say you still have in your mouth the DNA of every person you ever kissed. Makes you want to be a little more discerning, thinking about that.
Who can I trust enough to let them stick their fingers into my brain? And who am I to ask people to let me stick my fingers in theirs? I think, if an artist isn’t asking those questions, maybe he isn’t somebody we want to trust. As story hungry as we all tend to be, maybe we ought to just think about that.