Everybody loves stories, they’re one of the first things we fall in love with as children, stories and toys, but when we imbue story and storytelling with some biohuman essence beyond its aesthetic pleasures (or edifying ones), we fall into a mindset I’m calling story chauvinism.
Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms’ captures it fully, the mindset’s I think therefore I am. Any brief perusal through storytelling circles—creative writing handbooks, MFA program literature, viralgoing pullquotes from author interviews, ‘The Moth’-style event posters, etc.—will soon present a belief, if not a certainty, that the game we play of putting events in consequential order is a practice humans literally can’t live without.
For instance, behold Elizabeth Koch, co-founder of the resoundingly successful publishing hub Catapult, writing on its website: ‘[Prehistoric] humans did not become the revolutionary beings we now consider ourselves to be until we began to share what we know. Swap stories. Consistently. Stories that mattered. It’s our humble point of view that every creative act, every scientific development, every technological disruption is the result of some brand of storytelling collaboration. We say with equal humility that everything in existence, past present and future, is in constant storytelling interaction with everything that came before. […] We don’t celebrate stories because they’re easy. We celebrate stories because that’s the best way we know to celebrate life’ (her italics).
I’ve been thinking a lot about where this mindset comes from, and the faith that it proselytizes with this kind of language, and I’ve been thinking about this as someone who might be called an essay chauvinist. (Swap ‘story’ for ‘essay’ in the above quotes and I nod along without worry.) Who are we and what are we needing when we give story the power of water, air, heartbeat?
One thing we might be is children all over again, in that story’s origins lie in myth, fable, parable. In the dawns of civilizations, stories carried customs from one generation to the next and instructed the young on Who We Are—and thus, Who We Are Not / Who The Other Is. That’s the function of a myth. Old stories are as nationalist as anthems. I’m risking an ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny fallacy here (then again so are story chauvinists, ’cause like I wasn’t the one who brought up the dawn of civilization), but loving story returns us to the early years, receiving stories directly from tellers wanting to help us understand the world. We remember those years and project them back to the infancy of our species and believe we humans cannot be ourselves without story.
I’ve found it helpful as a writer to see story less as a genre and more as a mode, or a method for drawing meaning from the world. (By ‘method’ I mean the process of finding causes and effects, and seeing resolutions to conflicts that produce lessons or ‘takeaways’.) Now: story is a method but not the method through which we understand the world, and it’s story chauvinism’s insistence to the contrary that’s driving me to write this post. It’s a cute if obvious point to make that story chauvinism is itself a story we tell about stories, one of many.
In this way, story replicates itself. Everyone has a story to tell, which leads me to appropriate a common story chauvinist dictum: stories are like assholes—everybody’s got one. Story chauvinists celebrate this plenty but lament the plenty of opinions, and I want to try to understand what makes the latter so less attractive in the public’s eye, and despite the dictum I don’t think it has anything to do with supply. If story is a record of what you’ve done and opinion is a record of what you’ve come to believe, people don’t have more opinions than stories (I’d argue they have fewer), but story moves an audience more than opinion does.
What I mean has something to do with story’s ability to transport the listener. In being led through a string of events, we avatar ourselves inside the actor and come through it together—in less time and with less risk. Story packages the whole of trial and travail and delivers its reward without the audience having to do the work. In many ways opinions—or, to use a less hated term, ‘ideas’ or ‘knowledge’—are the prize one wins from story’s contest, and prizes don’t share well. They feel precious to us. We show them off without affecting our audience too much.
Fine. This may be more clearly true of ‘bad’ or ‘pointless’ opinions, and it’s good to remember that stories can be bad and pointless, too; there are far more bad and pointless stories in the universe than atomic, life-celebrating ones. What interests me in the original formulation, ‘Opinions are like assholes’ is the low status granted the former through the presumed lowest status of the latter. For story chauvinists, the asshole is a locus not of creative pleasures but sodomitical ones (or it’s void of any pleasure at all, save voiding).
Instead, imagine the anus as a desired erogenous zone each of us shares, across genders, and something special happens: Opinions are like assholes! Everybody’s got one!
I have a flimsy argument about how there’s nothing more heteronormative than a story (I’ve made the argument elsewhere), but whenever I get into it I find myself soon in dark wood. My point in this section is to show that story chauvinism teaches what it’s learned, or what it’s decided on: stories have a value over other forms of sharing knowledge, and other forms of art. This is true only if you’ve decided you want it to be. Why, for instance, is the universe made not of atoms, but of songs? of poems? of dramas?
Note the way Koch above conflates sharing what we know (indistinguishable in our minds from what we think we know [i.e. what we don’t actually know]) with telling stories. Is that what we’re doing? If you want to share what you know, you better not tell me a story, dressing up what you know in a string of causal events.
Here’s something I know (or think I do) that I want to share: we have a tendency to make story more than what it is, and regardless of what this reveals about us, in doing so we belittle or shut down the potential power of other forms of understanding the world.
How do I tell you that story?
Indeed: that this knowledge is untransferable through story leads us often to belittle the very quality or utility of the knowledge. (Opinions are like assholes.) I don’t have a ready example. I might be in another dark wood, but tied to the transportive quality of story I got at above, our resistance to listening like bedtime toddlers to each others’ ideas may have something to do with our sovereignty, and the difficulty we have in transporting ourselves within the mind of an opinion-sharer.
Essay tends to shatter the ego as much as story works to keep it intact, by forming an avatar-ego out of an other person (whom we call the protagonist). Essay’s omnipresent ‘I’ reminds me often of the scene in 30 Rock where Jenna is hanging with a lot of other D-list narcissists (Mankind, Knob Kardashian, etc.), and she keeps saying me. ‘You’re using that word wrong,’ Mankind says, knowing certainly that me refers always and only to him.
It’s been a struggle as a longtime opinion-haver and -writer (and even -editor, back at my college newspaper) to learn how to design a thought process in a way that evokes, for readers, not an argument or confrontation or speech, but an experience (even, yes, a transportive one) more along the lines of Lane Kauffman’s point about the essay, which is a form that seeks ‘not merely to transmit the essayist’s thoughts but to convey the feeling of their movement and thereby to induce an experience of thought in the reader.’
If a story is like a little adventure you go on, an essay is more like a dream. Or a delirium. So much art lies behind creating that essay delirium, and so many essays transport me as viscerally as any good story does. Here I am once again fighting for the underdog.
Underdog? Hasty Wikipedia-ing teaches me that the origin of language in humans is an unsettled matter, but it’s far easier to see those origins as something other than telling each other stories. (Noting that Koch’s claim above is not that we began speaking with story, but that only when we turned language to story did we become post-prehistoric, which like good luck proving.) Risking again a recapitulation fallacy, likely the earliest spoken words were some variation on yes/okay/like and no/stop/dislike, which make us, in a sense, protohuman op-ed writers.
The world’s oldest joke, dating to Sumer around 1900 BCE, is ‘Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.’ Another essay. Another desire to take what we believe we know and share it artfully with another. And if you want to argue that all jokes are essays, I invite you to consider the causal/fictive transport lying at the heart of the world’s 2nd oldest joke: ‘How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.’
So you know, we’ve been around since the dawn of civilization, too.
Back when I was an unwitting story chauvinist, I read Didion’s ultra famous line, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ as an affirmation of what I thought I knew. Yes, stories are life. It wasn’t until I read more Didion (and more everyone, I needed a while to get better at reading), that I started to understand what this opening to ‘The White Album’ is really saying, and I found it best articulated in Michael Silverblatt’s interview with The Believer:
[Didion] has a mind that aggressively finds the flaws in an argument and the places where you’re trying to burnish your weakness with pretty words. And her attitude is ‘Everybody’s lying and life is the story we’re telling ourselves in order to stay alive. And an artist sees through the story. Sees through the fakeness of the story to the very bare and difficult impossibilities of the coping mechanism functioning in a true situation of devastation.’
Stories help us fit the world and our lives into patterns that may very well be the basis of our undoing, or so says this writer who lived 25 years in denial of his sexuality because To Be Gay created too great a conflict in the story I’d been working to fit myself in.
Here’s how I wrote about this last week in my book-in-progress, in a section about the Oedipus complex and other origin myths: ‘If I learned anything from my young heterosexualization it was how to isolate any difference—one of these things is not like the other—and connect it to a reason why. Hetero thinking also taught me to see myself at the end of a story, the result of a series of conscious/unconscious plot points. It’s such a romantic and in-built notion of selfhood that the alternative—in which we might not be in a story, but an essay; we might not be a character, but a fact—reads like death. What else to do in the face of such a hard truth than do what unresolved Oedipus did? I blinded my eyes.’
When I hear about story, I think about what that story is blinding us to. Every story told tells another story the teller isn’t telling, and may not even be aware of. I see mostly danger in putting that at the center of my creative or reflective practice, which is ultimately why story chauvinism bothers me so much. It’s not just about rooting for the underdog (no matter who they are). Story does indeed bind us, but not together so much as to itself.
- I can’t find the source, but recently N shared a story he found where ethologists believed they’d decoded batsong, and turns out it’s like 99% kvetching over space and comfort, which returns us to sovereignty, and the swift ability of essay to shatter it.↵