Stories for the New Year.

Creating narratives (stories) is one of the most integral human things that we do, for ourselves and for each other.

In fact, telling and understanding stories is so crucial to our ability to function, both individually and collectively, that the anthropologist John Niles observes that we are not so much members of homo sapiens (we’re not all wise) but homo narrans (we all tell stories).

We are not born as passive blank slates, but blank books that largely write themselves. The frameworks and structures for narrative pre-exist the self, embedded in our neuro-biology and physiology. They are not just in our head, but woven into our bodily systems and our senses: around our eyes, to the tips of our fingers, and in our gut. Through them we take in what the universe gives to us, and through our proprioception, mirror neurons, and lymbic system we reach even farther into our surroundings and, some say, even to the divine.  We assemble this raw data of experience into narratives to orient and conceptualize ourselves in space and time. Stories do not grow out of who we are and what we do; in fact, it’s quite the reverse.

Disruptions to our ability to create or understand narrative (such as what happens with forms of Autism, schizophrenia, and Korsakoph’s) severely compromise the self and a person’s ability to function and flourish. And in the frightening case of Alzheimer’s, left only with fading fragments of past narratives, we eventually cease to exist. The broken structures that predated us live on even if we – the “we” who is “us” — do not. Perhaps there’s something to the ancient conviction that the way to immortality is to live on not in a body, but in a story. A person without a story is truly dead.

Narrative stories, then, are the means by which we process, understand, articulate, and perpetuate ourselves and others in time and space. Empiric facts and concrete experience are but elements in the story of our lives; they are markers in a tableau of impressions — a mosaic — that we arrange and rearrange to understand the present’s relationship to past and future. For, without a story nothing makes sense. And we need things to make sense. The human drive to construct a meaningful narrative is so strong that we will forge it out of choas or unrelated data, a phenomenon you can easily observe in the formation of conspiracy theories and the interpretation of dreams.

Collectively, it’s important to share stories. But it’s difficult to synchronize the time at which someone is ready and willing to share a story with someone who is ready and willing (and possibly needing) to hear it.  Many cultures have formal and ritualized times in which stories are shared just to make sure this happens. We, who have less ritualized lives, often miss the opportunities. I so wish that I had taken the time to listen to more stories from my grandparents and my father. And when I asked them they were often unable, at times unwilling, and sometimes just too preoccupied, to do it. Even with the amounts of time I spent with them there were too few stories, and now so much I would like to know.

I hope you had some time over the holidays to share your stories, or that you will make some effort to do it over the next year. That’s one good thing about a blog like this. You get to tell stories when you’re ready. And maybe someone, at the right time, will listen.

But since stories are so important to ourselves and to others we care about, we also need, I think, to consider those stories that we don’t want to tell, those that we don’t want to hear, and those we don’t want to change. Once we have a story established we will often cling to it for all it’s worth, even if we know it to be untrue, and even if it does harm or disservice. Close the book on it. Stick it on the shelf as if it were over.

But the past is never in the past: it is always the story shaping the present. I tell my students that history is a dangerous occupation because people often prefer the story they have to finding out what actually happened. Understandably so. Like the Ghost of Bobby Dunbar, when new evidence emerges it changes the story and  — whether we like it or not — changes who we are. No wonder that we work so hard to control our own story by suppressing elements or editing people in or out of them. Like Pandora’s box (which was really a jar, and out of which, originally, everything both good and bad came), you never know what’s going to come out of a story once you open the lid.

But since we are stories, shouldn’t we try, for ourselves and for each other, to get them right? And don’t we owe it to ourselves, and to others, to let them develop richly and authentically? Here’s to your story — and all our stories — in the next year. May they be the best, and most authentic, chapters yet.


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6 Responses

  1. Mitch Hull says:

    Eric, I enjoyed this piece of writing for several reasons. I mentioned the book “Grammatical Man” by Jeremy Campbell which is fairly obscure and, I believe, out of print. But someone gave me this book long ago and it was facinating and peaked an interest in the subject of language, Chomsky, storytelling, etc. In the summers of 1992/93 I spent a few months conducting base-line trawl surveys in the Arctic/Chuckchi Sea and one of the side benefits was visiting many of the coastal Yupik and Inupiat Eskimo villages. Their oral traditions are very strong and fundimental. I was struck by this and enjoyed listening to the elders tell their stories passed down for centuries, mouth to mouth. On Little Diomede Island, we crouched in Moses Milagrak’s low built one room home while he told stories and carved ivory – and Russia really was visable from his porch. In every village, it was the same thing, lot’s of stories. After that experiance I read every book on the Eskimos that I could find. And still every year, even while fishing much further south in the Bering Sea, I somehow manage to tune into the AM radio skip and listen daily to the Nome and Dillingham stations. Most of the radio programs are some version of call in programs or story telling. Your post reminded me of how important this subject is. Good article.

    • Eric Nelson says:

      Mitch, I always enjoy your comments because you’re not only a careful and appreciative reader, but a lifelong learner with a wonderful range of adventure and experience that you integrate your interests with. I’m also fascinated by language, and by the ethologies that underlie many of our social and intellectual capacities. Thanks again!

  2. Yes, but what about those stories you cannot connect well to the sort of narrative that people receive well? In my ample free time, I have written three books full of stories of adventures, romance and spiritual truths I discovered. And yet, I cannot shake the feeling I am talking to myself. I sure as hell can’t find an agent to talk to. In a good story, the audience is part of the narrative, something that bloggers all too often forget, and they end up writing to themselves, or to a clique of readers who do not want to be challenged. How do you plug in to your audience?

    After my grandfather turned 90, his short-term memory gave out and his long-term memory went on “shuffle” mode, telling us an assortment of things about ancestors I never met. He asked his great aunt Elizabeth whether the family had owned slaves, and she said, “Oh, you don’t want to know about that,” and he assumed that meant that they had. Nice little vignetts, although I don’t think I’ll ever be able to turn them into a cohesive story that people would actually listen to.

    • Eric Nelson says:

      Well, you’re talking here, in part, about taking narratives and turning them into a marketable commodities, and that’s a whole new (and additional) enterprise. As you have found, it has frustratingly little to do with how good the story actually is. Finding the right audience, and then a delivery vehicle that can reach that audience, is a mixture of alchemy, luck, and finding someone else in the medium (blogging, publishing, etc.) who believes in your work and is willing to give it a chance. Tim (my friend and the founder of Altered Focus) gave me a shot and I’ve been able to connect to some people. One thing that blogging can do for you is that it gives you a chance to put your material out there so that someone can have a look at it. What needs to happen now, for us, is for other bloggers to link to our material and for us to link to theirs, so that readers from one blog cross-migrate and take a look at both. So if you have a blog perhaps we can send some traffic your way and visa-versa.

      But I know that you would really like to get some of your material out there as paid published stuff. There, the only way that I know is by getting to know people who have also published in the same kind of venue you want to work in. That means figuring out your audience beforehand. For me, it was my colleague Don Ryan, who had already written a couple of Idiot’s Guide titles, who suggested that the Rome book to me and then introduced me to my editor. I had to make the pitch and come through, but he got me in through the door.

      As far as my blog goes, I write pretty much what comes to mind and what I’ve found works over the years. One of the things as a professor is you have a captive audience to try out material on. 🙂 My secret agenda is to say “thank you” to a long list of people and places that have meant a great deal to me, and to preserve a bit of my own family history that might otherwise be forgotten. I hope to invite some people to think, and others to remember, in the process, but I don’t want to be either teachy or preachy because my audience (as I envision them) are beyond needing, and wanting, that. But even this blog only gets an average of 20-30 reads a day (except when I put the word “virgin” in the title – then it’s more).

  3. Tim Hief says:

    My ex-wife’s grandmother passed away in her late 80’s. About 18 months prior to her death I suggested we bring a video camera and record her telling whatever stories came to mind. At first, Nana was afraid of what to say while the camera was rolling. I advised to just get her talking and in a few minutes she’s ignore the camera and regale us with stories of her world travels and life as a child. It worked wonderfully. I have considered sitting in front of a webcam and creating an video history of ‘my story’ too.

  1. January 17, 2010

    […] we know, and as Eric has already written about so eloquently in another blog, part of what makes us human is story-telling.  We share the use of tools, communication, and […]