Stories are everywhere around us, and they weave together to make up a huge part of our lives.
I watched a TED presentation by Karen Thompson Walker about fear in which Walker, the author of a novel about the whaleship Essex discussed why we have fears. Primarily, it’s because we have a story in our heads about the subject (spiders, let’s say) that causes us to act in a specific way. She calls fears “unintentional storytelling.”
Let’s say you are afraid of spiders, because you have heard stories about people being killed by spiders or people have warned you about them. You have created an unintentional story about spiders that keeps you fearful. The stories, you’ll notice, build up like a game of “telephone,” and the stories keep getting more fantastic and lurid.
In the case of the Essex, by the way, the sailors had heard stories about cannibals in the islands nearest them, and they didn’t go that way. The cannibals weren’t actually that bad, and that would have been the best way to sail. They chose the least scary way, the way their stories told them was least scary, which was the worst way. All died.
Where do we get our stories? The vast majority come to us when we are young, from our parents and others. The story of our religion is a good example. This story forms what we believe about life and death. The story of our family is told over and over, at the breakfast table, at holidays, at funerals and weddings. “Remember the time when…?”
Our stories about ourselves are powerful. In the Wise Heart, psychologist Jack Kornfield says, “Who would you be without your story?” I stopped and thought when I read this, and had a bid “Ah ha!” moment.
Who we are is the stories we tell ourselves. If I say, “I’m a writer,” I am what I think I am, what my story tells me I am. If the story you tell yourself is, “I can’t write,” you aren’t a writer. Take away the stories we have told ourselves, and others, and what do we have?
A recent article in The Atlantic discusses the human need for stories.
Stories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness. Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives—a form of existential problem-solving.
In one example in the article, research subjects saw several triangles and a circle moving around and when asked what they saw, all but one subject had created a story out of the movement of these inanimate objects. We do this with animals too – my husband insists that the dog licks his face because she loves him. Ha!
Stories may one of the most important links our brains make. We are “wired for story,” and our brains are built to make sense of what we see, creating context so we can figure it out. Our survival depends on it. If our ancient ancestors didn’t have stories about sabre-toothed tigers, for example, they wouldn’t know to run when they saw one, or how to kill it, and they would not have survived.
Thinking about the stories we tell as writers can help us be better writers. Are you telling a riveting, funny, sad, important story?