Art & Soul, Story pt. 1: I’ve been told

This is part one of a five-part trilogy about story and my relationship to stories and storytelling. There’s a reason why it’s a five-part trilogy, and it’s part of my personal mythology and childhood solace. Don’t panic.

            It’s easier to tell the truth in fiction. I knew this even as a kid. As an adult I know it’s also easier to tell it in comedy, song, and in other forms of art. It’s especially easier to express anger if you have catchy rhyme, melody, and meter—or self-deprecation, an ethic of punching up, an ability to check your shame at the door, a magical feel for timing and tone. It’s also, in each of these creative disciplines, extremely easy to get preachy, take yourself or your message too seriously or overidentify with it [point to self], and go overboard. But for the most part the arts have been has been a refuge and a bridge for many of who have things to say that are complicated, uncomfortable, or even impossible to face and take in straight-up, for both the communicator and the audience.

            Sidney Rosen wrote: “Stories have been used as a way of transmitting cultural values, ethics, and morality. A bitter pill can be swallowed more easily when it is embedded in a sweet matrix. A straight moral preachment might be dismissed, but guidance and direction become acceptable when embedded in a story that is intriguing, amusing, and interestingly told.”

            Terry Pratchett has written… well, more than I could ever hope to quote here about story itself, its power, its purposes, its role. In his Discworld novels he often refers to the force of stories as ‘narrativitum’ and we can observe it here in roundworld in children who know how the story will go regardless of any kind of monomyth or form. Cameron Jace wrote an oversimplified explanation of this noting that when kids hear ‘Once upon a time’ kids expect a happily ever after, and when they hear ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ they check for monsters under the bed.

            Both Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, two of my favorite authors—who also both happen to be prolific and British and white and recently deceased—have both related anecdotes of adults coming to them complaining that their books were too advanced, adult, or scary for children to understand or handle, while the child in question is right there disagreeing and saying that it is in fact the parent who can’t understand or handle it.

            Jim Henson wrote, “As children, we all live in a world of imagination, of fantasy, and for some of us that world of make-believe continues into adulthood. Certainly I’ve lived my whole life through my imagination. But the world of imagination is there for all of us—a sense of play, of pretending, of wonder. It’s there with us as we live.

            “As I’ve grown older, I’ve been attracted to fairy tales and folk tales, and the rich quality of these stories—grown richer as they have gone through generations and generations of telling and retelling. They’re important—for the flow of information, and energy, and entertainment from the storyteller to his listeners as the storyteller calls upon them to meet him halfway, to create the story in their own minds.

            “It is our responsibility to keep telling these tales, to tell them in a way that they teach, and entertain, and give meaning to our lives. This is not merely an obligation, it’s something we must do because we love doing it.”

            I think, and I’m by far not the first or only one to think this, that when we’re children imagination and story is our native language and most of us are unfortunately broken of it until we lose touch with it, that ‘forgetting how to fly to Neverland’ or getting to old to go to Narnia can be read as a metaphor for not only being saddled with adult responsibilities but also no longer being able to use our imaginations in the same way, navigate the same imagery and stories by childish instinct.

            Neil Gaiman, I think—and I could be misattributing this—said something profound about fairy tales, the original dark, gruesome fairy and folk tales, the ones meant to disturb and unsettle and shake us and lodge creeping-flesh unforgotten in our adult minds—that their purpose is to teach us as children that there are real monsters and that they can be beaten.

            For me one problem lies when we come to believe that monsters look a certain way, act a certain way, that they are somehow Other or Outside of humanity. I know sometimes children just ‘don’t like’ a certain relative or person for no reason apparent to adults, and sometimes that instinct turns out to be accurate, and sometimes not, so I’m not going to weigh in definitively on that. But I will say this: a lot of old, old, dark fairy tales refer in many unsubtle ways to child abuse and other kinds of human-on-human cruelty, with no monster or beast involved.

            There was a book I read about child abuse that had a diagram to try to spell it out for adults that did not seem to be able to get that when you strike a child, it would be like you being struck by a giant four times your size. Jack and the Beanstalk. To say nothing of other big giant men watching us from the sky and meting out punishment, or the division of the served and the servile, once very aptly portrayed in British estates as those upstairs and those downstairs. Or, for more contemporary takes, the saying that you should never meet your heroes, seniority voices in any workplace or social circle being afforded more weight and validity and relevance, the dangers of putting people up on a pedestal, and the lyrics to Tal Bachman’s song ‘High Above Me.’

            It makes a lot of sense that frighteningly erratic and unpredictable hierarchy literally above and larger than us is the metaphor we tend to religiously or monarchically or socially carry with us absolutely forever whenever anything bad happens to us that’s out of our control. Or, as Terry Pratchett puts it in a Discworld novel, the instinctive tendency of human beings to bend at the knees. He’s referring to kings, but we’ve historically blurred the lines of monarchs and gods and prostrated ourselves before both, often more so the more abusive they became, much like parents. Until we either rolled out the guillotine, or painted the room black and drew all the blinds and cranked the stereo and adopted the polar opposite of ideals and beliefs, or ran away and possibly died on the streets, depending on the situation.

            Bear in mind that my point of view is this: I have problems with authority. I think a lot of our systems are broken and corrupt. I’m paranoid and cynical with good reason when failed by systems supposed to be in place that aren’t doing their job. I’m suspicious and neurotically critical of power structures especially where other people claim there aren’t any, i.e. socially. Plus I have a streak of a rebellious anarchist in me very similar to the Doctor on Doctor Who with a strong moral component; however, having been preyed upon nastily from birth in a free-for-all sort of atmosphere I’m decidedly strongly against a model of widespread anarchy because I’m well aware of the monstrosities humans commit when there are no consequences and there’s no oversight. Not that what we have is much better, since justice is a luxury and privilege that is often not afforded to those who need it most because money money money. Privilege means ‘private law’; I’m not making this up. One law for those with, one for those without. Or, to quote George Orwell from ‘Animal Farm,’ “Some animals are more equal than others.” That was the first book that made me cry, for about three days straight, when I was eight. I felt like there was no hope for the future and I was never really the same afterward.

            Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘Rope’ was based on a true story of two extremely intelligent young men who decided that because of their intelligence that laws ought not to apply to them, and as an intellectual exercise killed another young man. This is not a novel occurrence by any stretch of the imagination, but it typifies a specific kind of person that isn’t actually as rare as I would like—the person who honestly believes that laws don’t or shouldn’t apply to them, and yet is mentally competent enough to plan, execute, and conceal their crimes with mastery to avoid consequences.

            On the milder, less homicidal side but also troubling to me and much more omnipresent, there’s also a whole spectrum of people I meet every day who believe that whatever boundaries I set shouldn’t apply to them for whatever reason. These reasons they will argue at length, creepily and angrily once they get me alone. Without exception these people are white, privileged, middle-class or upper-middle-class people, cisgender men and women both, of all ages and sexual orientations. People who do not like to be told ‘no.’

            It doesn’t matter if I state up front how I want to be treated, that in itself is an offense to them, or a challenge. They make their own rules, just to rub my face in the fact that I don’t have seniority or resources or even social support to aid me in standing up to this harassment. I haven’t had any transgender or genderfluid harassers at this time, but this is not to say it’s not possible; we’re all human, and what’s happening to me is a human failing that just tends to show up more the more privileged someone is and the more they can get away with it and develop it into a habit or trait.

            It’s the spoiled-child problem, only much scarier, because these are the adults at the top of their heaps making the rules and there is no one to intervene or curb their behavior when they have sufficient privilege to afford the best lawyers.

            Anyway, the world isn’t safe. We can’t make the world safe. Trying to pretend the world is safe and shelter one’s children from dangerous stories or realities, we have the story of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where the prince was kept sheltered in a walled-up palace, so he would never know or see suffering. Once he saw agedness and illness and began asking questions everything unraveled for that plan.

            Or there’s Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden,’ with the young boy kept shut up in his rooms, kept convinced by the house staff that he’s sick and hunchbacked and unable to leave, which reminds me of pretty much a thousand percent of the privileged New Age Hippies I spent most of my life around, in eternal search of the magic bullet cure of all their mysterious ailments while sterilizing their life of anything that makes them uncomfortable or upsets their worldview or demands that they take responsibility and actually admit being wrong about anything. And developing orthorexia and pill-popping unregulated unscientific supplements as a way to focus all that manic, frenetic energy into a never-ending self-righteous obsession and crusade they would attempt to rope others into by force feeding them different flavors of packing material amidst unstoppable diatribes not based in logic or science.

            In case you’re wondering, my parents opted for largely having me parent myself, supplemented with a lot of isolation and brainwashing, that isolation meaning I only had access to people and places and things they either brought in or took me to that were serving their own interests, and then blaming me when things went wrong.

            In the place where story, parenting, religion, and totalitarianism or anarchy overlap, here’s a quote from Salman Rushdie about our visceral human relationship to story and how it shapes our lives, perceptions, histories, cultures, destinies: “We need all of us, whatever our background, to constantly examine the stories inside which and with which we live. We all live in stories, so called grand narratives. Nation is a story. Family is a story. Religion is a story. Community is a story. We all live within and with these narratives. And it seems to me that a definition of any living vibrant society is that you constantly question those stories. That you constantly argue about the stories. In fact the arguing never stops. The argument itself is freedom. It's not that you come to a conclusion about it. And through that argument you change your mind sometimes. … And that's how societies grow. When you can't retell for yourself the stories of your life then you live in a prison. … Somebody else controls the story.”

            The stories I sought out for myself stepped in and filled the aching soul of me where the ones I had told at me and brainwashed into me left me gagging and violated in ways I may never come to terms with, and that have certainly left me with hair-trigger rage responses to others’ perceived attempts to tell me about myself or my reality or rub out my sketches in the sand, drown out my words and rewrite what only I can tell about my life.

            I read a lot of books as a child, and I still do. I had access to most of the episodes of Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock from about age seven as well as the early Muppet Movies, many books of my own, and many other movies on tape I would watch over and over out in the woods where the television reception was often fuzzy at best.

            Lewis Mehl-Madrona wrote a book that kindled my heart called ‘Healing the Mind through the Power of Story’ in which he talks about his Lakota background, and his schooling in traditional psychiatry and finding himself—I don’t know how he puts it, but missing something, lost, cut off from something, and he returns to the wisdom he was raised with, the story as medicine.

            In my favorite series of books, ‘Otherland’ by Tad Williams, here’s what he writes about stories: “Stories are things people use to give the universe a shape. There is little difference between a folktale, a religious revelation, and a scientific theory.”

            Later on: “They were a story that gave life order, that taught the universe how to speak the words that humans could understand. And what was anything, any human learning or belief, but just that? She could let chaos swallow her up, she realized, as the All-Devourer swallowed everything—even Grandfather Mantis, the spirit of first knowing—or she could shape chaos into something she could understand, as Porcupine had done, finding order where only hopelessness seemed to exist. She had to find her own story, and she could make it whatever shape she thought best.”

            Still later: “…perhaps randomness itself is only a name for stories we have not recognized yet.

            “Sometimes people need reasons for things, even when there are no reasons. That’s what makes people believe in conspiracies or religions—if there’s any difference. The world is just too complicated, so they need simple explanations.”

            In Terry Pratchett’s novel ‘Raising Steam’ the History Monk Lu-Tze, one of the caretakers of time, states that “what we know is that the universe is a never-ending story that, happily, writes itself. The trouble with my brethren in Oi Dong is that they are fixated on the belief that the universe can be totally understood, in every particular jot and tittle.”

            Story has been so many, many things to human beings. Story as a teaching tool, as a way of relating and engendering empathy, as a tool for building bridges between different people and cultures, for building and strengthening relationships—but also for revealing buried truths, breaking down destructive lies, unchaining and bringing justice to those wronged and harmed deeply by stories that were falsehoods and lies and bullshit and fantasy.

            Story has cut both ways, revealing and hiding truths. Story can come from many perspectives and show many facets of a situation. Story can manipulate us, it can teach us, guide us, lead us, hypnotize us, brainwash us, unite us, destroy us, divide us. Stories are powerful and some are very damn boring, too. Most are more complicated than we give them credit for, and often art or drama or emotion insists on exaggeration of elements to show not just the facts of the story but the feel of it too.

            And again, that cuts both ways—like in Stephen Colbert’s satirical show ‘The Colbert Report,’ where he lays down the mission statement of the show in the first episode, promising to ‘feel’ the news at his audience—he’s doing it to satirize real news shows that were doing the same thing while insisting in extreme over-the-top up-front statements that they were not doing that, insisting that they were speaking from a place of facts and truth and calm and reason when, if examined from such a place, it was blatantly obvious the tone and voice and story were entirely emotion-driven. It isn’t that there isn’t enough news in the world to sustain a twenty-four-hour news cycle. The monkeysphere theory suggests that what a watching and ad-revenue-driven audience is tuning in for is judged to be stories that appeal to them personally—i.e. stories that hit close to home either nationally or emotionally.

            Story can be a good place to start getting information, but if I want to be a critical thinker, it takes digging deeper, searching further, paying attention, and being able to tell when I’m being manipulated or played or my entirely human buttons are being pushed in order to pay sharper attention to why, and who gains. Because story can teach and story can lie.

            Stories—canonical stories—are the foundation of most religious teachings we have history for, although many oral-only traditions have been lost and corrupted or appropriated. This is unfortunate.

            In an interview, Emma Watson asked Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Do you think that storytellers have a responsibility to drive us forward as a society to try to perceive things in new ways, and if you do, does this ever weigh heavily on you?” He replied, “No. I’ll tell you the way I think of it. I think storytellers can’t help it. I think your worldview affects what you see in the work and it affects what you make. …I really try not to think of writing as a burden at all. My job is to fall in love.”

One Comment

  1. I love that final paragraph; the question and the beautiful answer. Story is such a powerful medium and more powerful than ever when it comes from the heart.

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