All Stories Are the Same

This article was written by John Yorke and published in the Atlantic, January 2016. 

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From Avatar to The Wizard of Oz, Aristotle to Shakespeare, there’s one clear form that dramatic storytelling has followed since its inception.

 

A ship lands on an alien shore and a young man, desperate to prove himself, is tasked with befriending the inhabitants and extracting their secrets. Enchanted by their way of life, he falls in love with a local girl and starts to distrust his masters. Discovering their man has gone native, they in turn resolve to destroy both him and the native population once and for all.

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Avatar or Pocahontas? As stories they’re almost identical. Some have even accused James Cameron of stealing the Native American myth. But it’s both simpler and more complex than that, for the underlying structure is common not only to these two tales, but to all of them.

Take three different stories:

A dangerous monster threatens a community. One man takes it on himself to kill the beast and restore happiness to the kingdom …

It’s the story of Jaws, released in 1976. But it’s also the story of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem published some time between the eighth and 11th centuries.

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And it’s more familiar than that: It’s The Thing, it’s Jurassic Park, it’s Godzilla, it’s The Blob—all films with real tangible monsters. If you recast the monsters in human form, it’s also every James Bond film, every episode of MI5, House, or CSI. You can see the same shape in The Exorcist, The Shining, Fatal Attraction, Scream, Psycho, and Saw. The monster may change from a literal one in Nightmare on Elm Street to a corporation in Erin Brockovich, but the underlying architecture—in which a foe is vanquished and order restored to a community—stays the same. The monster can be fire in The Towering Inferno, an upturned boat in The Poseidon Adventure, or a boy’s mother in Ordinary People. Though superficially dissimilar, the skeletons of each are identical.

Our hero stumbles into a brave new world. At first he is transfixed by its splendor and glamour, but slowly things become more sinister . . .

It’s Alice in Wonderland, but it’s also The Wizard of Oz, Life on Mars, and Gulliver’s Travels. And if you replace fantastical worlds with worlds that appear fantastical merely to the protagonists, then quickly you see how Brideshead Revisited, Rebecca, The Line of Beauty, and The Third Man all fit the pattern too.

When a community finds itself in peril and learns the solution lies in finding and retrieving an elixir far, far away, a member of the tribe takes it on themselves to undergo the perilous journey into the unknown …

It’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Morte D’Arthur, Lord of the Rings, and Watership Down. And if you transplant it from fantasy into something a little more earthbound, it’s Master and Commander, Saving Private Ryan, Guns of Navarone, and Apocalypse Now. If you then change the object of the characters’ quest, you find Rififi, The Usual Suspects, Ocean’s Eleven, Easy Rider, and Thelma & Louise.

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So three different tales turn out to have multiple derivatives. Does that mean that when you boil it down there are only three different types of story? No. Beowulf, Alien, and Jaws are ‘monster’ stories—but they’re also about individuals plunged into a new and terrifying world. In classic “quest” stories like Apocalypse Now or Finding Nemo the protagonists encounter both monsters and strange new worlds. Even “Brave New World” stories such as Gulliver’s Travels, Witness, and Legally Blonde fit all three definitions: The characters all have some kind of quest, and all have their own monsters to vanquish too. Though they are superficially different, they all share the same framework and the same story engine: All plunge their characters into a strange new world; all involve a quest to find a way out of it; and in whatever form they choose to take, in every story “monsters” are vanquished. All, at some level, too, have as their goal safety, security, completion, and the importance of home.

But these tenets don’t just appear in films, novels, or indeed TV series like Homeland or The Killing. A 9-year-old child of my friend decided he wanted to tell a story. He didn’t consult anyone about it, he just wrote it down:

A family are looking forward to going on holiday. Mom has to sacrifice the holiday in order to pay the rent. Kids find map buried in garden to treasure hidden in the woods, and decide to go after it. They get in loads of trouble and are chased before they finally find it and go on even better holiday.

Why would a child unconsciously echo a story form that harks back centuries? Why, when writing so spontaneously, would he display knowledge of story structure that echoes so clearly generations of tales that have gone before? Why do we all continue to draw our stories from the very same well? It could be because each successive generation copies from the last, thus allowing a series of conventions to become established. But while that may help explain the ubiquity of the pattern, its sturdy resistance to iconoclasm and the freshness and joy with which it continues to reinvent itself suggest something else is going on.

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Storytelling has a shape. It dominates the way all stories are told and can be traced back not just to the Renaissance, but to the very beginnings of the recorded word. It’s a structure that we absorb avidly whether in art-house or airport form and it’s a shape that may be—though we must be careful—a universal archetype.

Most writing on art is by people who are not artists: thus all the misconceptions.

—Eugène Delacroix

The quest to detect a universal story structure is not a new one. From the Prague School and the Russian Formalists of the early 20th century, via Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism to Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, many have set themselves the task of trying to understand how stories work. In my own field it’s a veritable industry—there are hundreds of books about screenwriting (though almost nothing sensible about television). I’ve read most of them, but the more I read the more two issues nag away:

1. Most of them posit completely different systems, all of which claim to be the sole and only way to write stories. How can they all possibly claim to be right?

2. None of them asks “Why?”

Some of these tomes contain invaluable information; more than a few have worthwhile insights; all of them are keen to tell us how and with great fervor insist that “there must be an inciting incident on page 12,” but none of them explains why this should be. Which, when you think about it, is crazy: If you can’t answer “why,” the “how” is an edifice built on sand. And then, once you attempt to answer it yourself, you start to realize that much of the theory—incisive though some of it is—doesn’t quite add up. Did God decree an inciting incident should occur on page 12, or that there were 12 stages to a hero’s journey? Of course not: They’re constructs. Unless we can find a coherent reason why these shapes exist, then there’s little reason to take these people seriously. They’re snake-oil salesmen, peddling their wares on the frontier.

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I’ve been telling stories for almost all my adult life, and I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of working on some of the most popular shows on British television. I’ve created storylines that have reached over 20 million viewers and I’ve been intimately involved with programs that helped redefine the dramatic landscape. I’ve worked, almost uniquely in the industry, on both art-house and populist mainstream programs, loved both equally, and the more I’ve told stories, the more I’ve realized that the underlying pattern of these plots—the ways in which an audience demands certain things—has an extraordinary uniformity.
Eight years ago I started to read everything on storytelling. More importantly I started to interrogate all the writers I’d worked with about how they write. Some embraced the conventions of three-act structure, some refuted it—and some refuted it while not realizing they used it anyway. A few writers swore by four acts, some by five; others claimed that there were no such things as acts at all. Some had conscientiously learned from screenwriting manuals while others decried structural theory as the devil’s spawn. But there was one unifying factor in every good script I read, whether authored by brand new talent or multiple award-winners, and that was that they all shared the same underlying structural traits.
In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs—the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within.

By asking two simple questions—what were these traits; and why did they recur—I unlocked a cupboard crammed full of history. I soon discovered that the three-act paradigm was not an invention of the modern age but an articulation of something much more primal; that modern act structure was a reaction to dwindling audience attention spans and the invention of the curtain.

Perhaps more intriguingly, the history of five-act drama took me back to the Romans, via the 19-century French dramatist Eugène Scribe and the German novelist Gustav Freytag to Molière, Shakespeare, and Jonson. I began to understand that, if there really was an archetype, it had to apply not just to screenwriting, but to all narrative structures. One either tells all stories according to a pattern or none at all. If storytelling does have a universal shape, this has to be self-evident.

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When it comes to structure, how much do writers actually need to know? Here’s Guillermo Del Toro on film theory:

You have to liberate people from [it], not give them a corset in which they have to fit their story, their life, their emotions, the way they feel about the world. Our curse is that the film industry is 80 percent run by the half-informed. You have people who have read Joseph Campbell and Robert McKee, and now they’re talking to you about the hero’s journey, and you want to fucking cut off their dick and stuff it in their mouth.

Del Toro echoes the thoughts of many writers and filmmakers; there’s an ingrained belief for many that the study of structure is, implicitly, a betrayal of their genius; it’s where mediocrities seek a substitute muse. Such study can only end in one way. David Hare puts it well:

The audience is bored. It can predict the exhausted UCLA film-school formulae—acts, arcs, and personal journeys—from the moment that they start cranking. It’s angry and insulted by being offered so much Jung-for-Beginners, courtesy of Joseph Campbell. All great work is now outside genre.

Charlie Kaufman, who has done more than most in Hollywood to push the boundaries of form, goes further:

There’s this inherent screenplay structure that everyone seems to be stuck on, this three-act thing. It doesn’t really interest me. I actually think I’m probably more interested in structure than most people who write screenplays, because I think about it.

But they protest too much. Hare’s study of addiction My Zinc Bed and Kaufman’s screenplay for Being John Malkovich are perfect examples of classic story form. However much they hate it (and their anger I think betrays them), they can’t help but follow a blueprint they profess to detest. Why?

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All stories are forged from the same template, writers simply don’t have any choice as to the structure they use; the laws of physics, of logic, and of form dictate they must all follow the very same path.Is this therefore the magic key to storytelling? Such hubris requires caution—the compulsion to order, to explain, to catalogue, is also the tendency of the train-spotter. In denying the rich variety and extraordinary multi-faceted nature of narrative, one risks becoming no better than Casaubon, the desiccated husk from Middlemarch, who turned his back on life while seeking to explain it. It’s all too tempting to reduce wonder to a scientific formula and unweave the rainbow.

But there are rules.

As the creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin, puts it:

The real rules are the rules of drama, the rules that Aristotle talks about. The fake TV rules are the rules that dumb TV execs will tell you; ‘You can’t do this, you’ve got to do—you need three of these and five of those.’ Those things are silly.

Sorkin expresses what all great artists know—that they need to have an understanding of craft. Every form of artistic composition, like any language, has a grammar, and that grammar, that structure, is not just a construct—it’s the most beautiful and intricate expression of the workings of the human mind.

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Did God decree an inciting incident should occur on page 12, or that there were 12 stages to a hero’s journey? Of course not.

It’s important to assert that writers don’t need to understand structure. Many of the best have an uncanny ability to access story shape unconsciously, for it lies as much within their minds as it does in a 9-year-old’s.

There’s no doubt that for many those rules help. Friedrich Engels put it pithily:

Freedom is the recognition of necessity.

A piano played without knowledge of time and key soon becomes wearisome to listen to; following the conventions of form didn’t inhibit Beethoven, Mozart, and Shostakovich. Even if you’re going to break rules (and why shouldn’t you?) you have to have a solid grounding in them first. The modernist pioneers—Abstract Impressionists, Cubists, Surrealists, and Futurists—all were masters of figurative painting before they shattered the form. They had to know their restrictions before they could transcend them.

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As the art critic Robert Hughes observed:

With scarcely an exception, every significant artist of the last hundred years, from Seurat to Matisse, from Picasso to Mondrian, from Beckmann to de Kooning, was drilled (or drilled himself ) in “academic” drawing—the long tussle with the unforgiving and the real motif which, in the end, proved to be the only basis on which the real formal achievements of modernism could be raised. Only in that way was the right radical distortion within a continuous tradition earned, and its results raised above the level of improvisory play … The philosophical beauty of Mondrian’s squares and grids begins with the empirical beauty of his apple trees.

Cinema and television contain much great work that isn’t structurally orthodox (particularly in Europe), but even then its roots still lie firmly in, and are a reaction to, a universal archetype. As Hughes says, they are a conscious distortion of a continuing tradition. The masters did not abandon the basic tenets of composition; they merely subsumed them into art no longer bound by verisimilitude. All great artists—in music, drama, literature, in art itself—have an understanding of the rules whether that knowledge is conscious or not. “You need the eye, the hand, and the heart,” proclaims the ancient Chinese proverb. “Two won’t do.”

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Storytelling is an indispensable human preoccupation, as important to us all—almost—as breathing. From the mythical campfire tale to its explosion in the post-television age, it dominates our lives. It behooves us then to try and understand it. Delacroix countered the fear of knowledge succinctly:

First learn to be a craftsman; it won’t keep you from being a genius.

In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs—the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within.


This article has been adapted from John Yorke’s book, Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story.

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What is so great about Snapchat?

The story teller in me finds this review of Snapchat, and its power to threaten ubiquitous social media platforms such as Facebook, very interesting.

As a neophyte Snapchat user what I can ascertain the key appeals to be, are:

  1. It’s ephemeral nature. Disappearing snaps and stories create a compulsion to share and view immediately.
  2. Stories. Adding a series of snaps to a story, shared for 24 hrs, invites followers into a narrative account of an experience.

Tell your friends a mini story about your day?! Awesome.

Ancient Stories and Enactment

A previous post, One Thousand and One Nights, looked at how the classic Middle Eastern tale had much in common with the Biblical account of Esther and the origin of the Feast of Purim. In both accounts, the protagonist, the Queen, artfully delays the king and his judgement across several nights. In doing so, she not only spares her own life but the lives of many others.

These ancient tales reveal something of the way narrative and embodied narrative, almost pantomime a significant part of oral cultures. Lessons are enacted rather than spoken directly as in literate or more linear cultures.

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Another biblical tale that illustrates this exact point in the narrative of Joseph. Genesis 42 recounts the journey of Joseph’s brothers to Egypt during a crippling famine. They travel to the court of Pharoah to beg for grain and are presented before Joseph their brother, a man they do not recognise. Joseph, seeing them bow before him is reminded of the dream he had as a young boy. A few chapters earlier, ch 37 tells:

Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”

His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.

Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

 

This jealousy had led the ten brothers to conspire to kill Joseph. Rather than shed blood however, the sell the boy to slavers who take him to Egypt. There is becomes a servant to the Prime Minister of Egypt and eventually to Pharoah himself.

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When confronted with his brothers however, Joseph does not reveal himself immediately. Instead he decides to toy with them. After quizzing them about their father and other living brothers, he tells them they are liars – and puts them in jail!!

21 They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

22 Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” 23 They did not realizethat Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.

Joseph understands that only a journey of personal discovery will help them feel what he felt, and bring them to not only a place of repentance for the wrong they did him, but of full understanding of the nature of the dream he had all those years ago.

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He sends them back to their father, retaining one brother Simeon in jail, and demanding they bring the youngest Benjamin with them. On the journey home they discover the silver with which they had paid for their grain had been hidden in their sacks, making them feel more dread of the consequences of facing the Egyptian Vizier again.

Once home they plead with their father to release Benjamin to go with them. Jacob an old man, one broken hearted by the loss of Joseph will not release the youngest, further making the brothers suffer. They know their aged father will perish if Benjamin comes to harm. Reuben even pledges the lives of his own sons if anything happens to Benjamin; however Jacob refuses.  Until they have no more food…..

Upon returning to Jospeh, the brothers fear the wrath of this Egytpian noble because of the silver that had been returned into their sacks. Againt the brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph and this time he can barely handle his emotions at the sight of his brother Benjamin.

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Joseph, according to custom, eats separately from the foreigners but he has them seated in birth order at the table leaving them to look at each other in astonishment.  He also has Benjamin presented with a portion five times larger than the others.

The following day, the brothers set off with the grain they have purchased, however Joseph has a silver cup hidden in the sack of grain on Benjamin’s donkey.

As morning dawned, the men were sent on their way with their donkeys.They had not gone far from the city when Joseph said to his steward, “Go after those men at once, and when you catch up with them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid good with evil? Isn’t this the cup my master drinks from and also uses for divination? This is a wicked thing you have done.’”

When he caught up with them, he repeated these words to them. But they said to him, “Why does my lord say such things? Far be it from your servantsto do anything like that! We even brought back to you from the land of Canaan the silver we found inside the mouths of our sacks. So why would we steal silver or gold from your master’s house? If any of your servants is found to have it, he will die; and the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves.”

10 “Very well, then,” he said, “let it be as you say. Whoever is found to have itwill become my slave; the rest of you will be free from blame.”

11 Each of them quickly lowered his sack to the ground and opened it. 12 Then the steward proceeded to search, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. 13 At this, they tore their clothes. Then they all loaded their donkeys and returned to the city.

Joseph feigns fury at the theft and claims Benjamin as his slave. This is too much for the brothers and prompts a lengthy speech by Judah to intercede for his brother on behalf of their aged and frail father. Judah presents himself in the place of Benjamin, declaring that their father who had alreay lost a beloved son, would not survive if they return to tell him that Benjamin was also lost.

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At this point Joseph knows that the Brothers have fully repented. They have been broken by the wrong they did him through the pain it brought their father. Several times they have bowed down to him, fullfilling the dream he had as a boy.

The tale shows an interesting feature of Ancient Near Eastern cutlure in which narrative and behaviour draw close together. Joseph acts out his message. He engages in a pantomime with his brothers, feigning fury, indignation, accusing them of being spies, thieves and liars. He imprisons them and sets them up as thieves, but he also honours them with feasts, silver and goods. Utterly confusing them, he confounds their pride and brings them to a place of contrite repentance for the evil they did against him.

Rather than wow them outright with his splendour and royal standing, he makes them take a journey in his shoes. He makes them face an ageing and grieving father and the pain they brought upon him by asking for Benjamin’s life as well. In all of this he does not seek to make them suffer, but to prepare them for the amazing revelation that it was not they that sent him to Egypt but God.

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He was destined to save them. He had been raised up at the right time to be “father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt”. With five years of famine remaining, Joseph could provide land for this family, now numbering over 70 people, and their flocks in Egypt.

Moreover, the strict mores of Egyptian life, meant the Israelites would not intermarry with the Egyptians, a segregated culture who would not even eat with foreigners. Here in safety, the Israelite people could truly grow to become a nation.

Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last

A favourite blog of mine is Brain Pickings and I’ve shared posts on Bear Skin before. This post particularly interested me for the variety of perspectives on the significance of stories to our lives. Enjoy!

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Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last

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“Stories … are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”

Stories have shapes, as Vonnegut believed, and they in turn give shape to our lives. But how do stories like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Alice in Wonderland continue to enchant the popular imagination generation after generation — what is it that makes certain stories last?

That’s what the wise and wonderful Neil Gaiman explores in a fantastic lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking.

Nearly half a century after French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the “abstract kingdom” — a conceptual parallel to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate like organisms do in the natural world — and after Richard Dawkins built upon this concept to coin the word “meme,” Gaiman suggests stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does.

Please enjoy, with transcribed highlights below.

Considering the scientific definition of life as a process that “includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death,” Gaiman argues that stories are alive — that they can, and do, outlive even the world’s oldest living trees by millennia:

Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.

On story being the original and deepest creative act:

Pictures, I think, may have been a way of transmitting stories. The drawings on cave walls that we assume are acts of worship or of sympathetic magic, intended to bring hunters luck and good kills. I keep wondering if, actually, they’re just ways of telling stories: “We came over that bridge and we saw a herd of wooly bisons.” And I wonder that because people tell stories — it’s an enormous part of what makes us human.

We will do an awful lot for stories — we will endure an awful lot for stories. And stories, in their turn — like some kind of symbiote — help us endure and make sense of our lives.

A lot of stories do appear to begin as intrinsic to religions and belief systems — a lot of the ones we have have gods or goddesses in them; they teach us how the world exists; they teach us the rules of living in the world. But they also have to come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and we want to help them propagate.

Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor:

A few years ago, she started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book … the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger — books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class… a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them maths, she’d teach them Polish, she’d teach them grammar…

One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. And Helen stayed up — she blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour, she read a chapter of Gone with the Wind. And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book.

And each night, she’d stay up; and each day, she’d tell them the story.

And I said, “Why? Why would you risk death — for a story?”

And she said, “Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto — they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.

I think four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And she told me how, when she was an old woman, she found one of them, who was also an old woman. And they got together and called each other by names from Gone with the Wind

We [writers] decry too easily what we do, as being kind of trivial — the creation of stories as being a trivial thing. But the magic of escapist fiction … is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better… It’s a real escape — and when you come back, you come back better-armed than when you left.

Helen’s story is a true story, and this is what we learn from it — that stories are worth risking your life for; they’re worth dying for. Written stories and oral stories both offer escape — escape from somewhere, escape to somewhere.

Remarking on how Helen’s story changed him, he adds:

Stories should change you — good stories should change you.

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n how Douglas Adams predicted ebooks in the early 1990s and in the same prophetic breath made a confident case for the perseverance of physical books (which I too, being no Adams but as staunch a believer in the tenacity of the printed page, contemplated on a recent episode of WNYC’s Note to Self):

Douglas Adams … understood media, understood change. He essentially described the first ebooks long before most commuter trains were filled with people reading on them. And he also perceived why, even though most commuter trains are a hundred percent people with ebooks, there will always be physical books and a healthy market for physical books — because, Douglas told me, “books are sharks.”

[…]

There were sharks back when there were dinosaurs… And now, there are sharks. And the reason that there are still sharks — hundreds of millions of years after the first sharks turned up — is that nothing has turned up that is better at being a shark than a shark is.

Ebooks are absolutely fantastic at being several books and a newspaper; they’re really good portable bookshelves, that’s why they’re great on trains. But books are much better at being books…

I can guarantee that copy of the first Sandman omnibus still works.

But stories aren’t books — books are just one of the many storage mechanisms in which stories can be kept. And, obviously, people are one of the other storage mechanisms.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from ‘Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds.’ Click image for details.

On how books, as much as they connect us to our all humanity, connect us to all humanity:

As individuals, we are cut off from humanity; as individuals, we are naked — we do not even know which plants will kills us. Without the mass of human knowledge accumulated over millennia to buoy us up, we are in big trouble; with it, we are warm, fed, we have popcorn, we are sitting in comfortable seats, and we are capable of arguing with each other about really stupid things on the internet.

Gaiman tells the story of how, in 1984, the Department of Energy hired the Hungarian-born American polymath Thomas Sebeok to devise a method of warning future generations not to mine or drill at repositories of nuclear waste, which have a half-life of 10,000 years — a method that would transmit information for at least as long:

Tom Sebeok concluded you couldn’t actually create a story that would last 10,000 years; you could only create a story that would last for three generations — for ourselves, for our children, and for their children.

But what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren — because that’s the purpose of stories, that’s what they’re for: They make live worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive.

On how the internet is changing storytelling:

A lot more writing is happening because of the internet, and I think that bit is great — I just love the fact that more people are writing.

I think the biggest problem that we have … is that we have gone from a scarcity-based information economy to a glut information economy. In the old days, finding the thing that you needed was like finding the flower in the desert — you’d have to go out into the desert and find the flower. And now, it’s like finding the flower in the jungle — or worse, finding the flower in the flower gardens.

[…]

The task becomes finding the good stuff, for whatever your definition of “good stuff” is — and your definition of “good stuff” might be some horribly specialized form of Harry Potterslash.

On humanity’s long history of thinking with animals and why so many lasting stories feature animal characters:

Animals in fiction … are your first attempt to put your head into the “other” and to experience the other, the idea of another…

The most important thing that I think fiction does [is that] it lets us look out through other eyes … but it also gives us empathy. The act of looking out through other eyes tells us something huge and important, which is that other people exist.

[…]

One of the things that fiction can give us is just the realization that behind every pair of eyes, there’s somebody like us. And, perhaps, looking out through animal eyes, there’s somebody like us; looking out through alien eyes, there’s somebody like us.

Art by Maira Kalman from ‘The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.’ Click image for more.

On his ultimate point about the symbiotic relationship between human beings and stories, both compliant with the same evolutionary laws of life:

You can just view people as this peculiar byproduct that stories use to breed. Really, it’s the stories that are the life-form — they are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going. But they need human beings to reproduce, much as we need food… we need things to keep ourselves alive. Maybe stories really are like viruses… Functionally, they are symbiotic — they give and give back…

The reason why story is so important to us is because it’s actually this thing that we have been using since the dawn of humanity to become more than just one person… Stories are ways that we communicate important things, but … stories maybe really are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.

You can read the original post at Brain Pickings here.

The Soul of Relationship

One regularly hears the epithet that ‘communication is key’ to relationships.  If you can truly listen, hear each others perspective, express your views – you can evade a multitude of woes. Learn each others love language, learn each others Myer-Briggs personality profile, understand each others’ family of origin narrative and so on.

I recently complimented a 5 year old girl on her beautiful hair and dress, calling her a princess. Her aunt promptly added, ‘and we love you for your brains and personality darling.’ Yes – I was a child who hated that adults cou-cou’d children, clucking to them and calling them cute! Especially as a girl, it becomes frustrating to not be asked about ambitions and thoughts. How have I slipped into being that adult?

If stories express a voice, the perspective of characters, then they contribute to our human conversation.  The more we read stories, the more communication we receive, the more we are forced to hear the perspective of others and to empathise and understand.

However, the more stories we read from the same kind of people – the more we hear one voice. Do we find ourselves sliding into stereotypes and views of gender, race, social class, political view, religion? Stories need a multitude of voices from a multitude of people and persepctives to contribute to our conversation.

To flourish as humans, our happiness stems from good communication, and for this to occur we need to hear and listen to good stories.