How Stories Change Things

What is this thing about telling & re-telling the story until it’s the story we want?

There’s back-muses, check my timeline, but I’ll offer the relevant text:

"I believe we have to re-tell the story. We have to tell the story again, and again, changing it each time, until it becomes the story of bringing a large and diverse group of people together in a common culture of kind and creative community."

To make that case, it seems to me we have to talk about what stories are, how they change things, and how they might change things. And I have to give you an example that shows it off a little.

(This might take a while, likely even more than one of my long-winded muses.)

The neuroscientist William Calvin remarked that "homo sapiens", the wise human, would probably be more correctly named "homo seriatim", the serial human. He follows that theme, lightly, for quite a while in his The River That Flows Uphill.

He’s aiming here at the idea that humans are notable for our ability to construct enormous complex sequences of behavior, to use them in organizing the past, and planning into the far future, and executing in the now.

Another scientist, Yuval Noah Harari, in Sapiens, argues similarly that what is really notable about humans is our ability to live in two worlds at once: a "real" world, physical, lions & tigers & bears, and a "fictional" world, mental, of money & justification & dreams.

I take both of them to be talking about the centrality of narrative.

The great and surprisingly underread EM Forster though, drew a distinction about a century ago. "The king died and then the queen died," is one thing, and "The king died and then the queen died because of grief." is quite another.

(Close readers: I’ve elided Forster’s full quote, because he inverts my labels, and what’s important here isn’t the label it’s the distinction being made.)

All of these are about the centrality and the power of story-telling. But what is the nature of that power? What do stories do, that makes them so important?

Here’s a simple vision of a story. "A story is a sequence of factoids played back from a recording of reality made at a particular time, place, and viewpoint." This is direct, commonplace, and useful, but it is also so misleading I’d have to give it four pinocchio’s.

Start with playback, maybe we won’t have to go much further than that. This vision sets up a recorder, aims it out of your senses, writes it down, and when we story-ize it, we read back the recording and turn it into words.

But stories change the recording from which they’re pulled. I am not speaking metaphorically here, but physically. We have ample scientific data on this, many experiments run many times: recalling an experience removes the experience and replaces it with the recounting.

This is not about the fallibility of words in transmitting experience — tho that’s another big problem — and it’s not about the fallibility of perception in capturing reality — tho that’s another big problem — it’s about the most basic mechanism of the model.

How do we know "the past"? (I’m not a solipsist, put away the torches & pitchforks, I freely grant there’s a reality & time and that stuff happened.) But how do we know what all that was? We know it through recall, told or untold. And we know that recalling it changes it.

Stories change the past.

And because they change the past, they also change the present. And because they change the past and the present, they also change the future.

And they do all that not just inside one person, but between people. A story shared between two people becomes a new part of them both, even as it’s being shared. Your story becomes incorporated in mine, and mine in yours. And there’s a third story being made there, ours.

When I say tell and re-tell the story of us until it becomes the story we want, bringing us together in a culture of kind and creative community, I am not being mystical, airy, saintly, hippie-esque, poetic, or intellectual. I am talking about straight-up hardcore pragmatism.

Here’s my story and I’m sticking to it: I need to take a break. When I come back, eventually, I’ll throw a few stories about stories at you, real examples, if telegraphed, of all this in practice, both in the world and in the geek trade.


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