The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Lifewriting Origins #3: We create stories, and stories create us

Origins of LIfewriting #3

The response of my UCLA class stunned me.   Merely thinking of their lives as a story they were writing enabled them, somehow, to gain sufficient perspective to begin solving problems that had been intractable for years.  Why?

I did some digging over the next week, and came across a statement by Joseph Campbell that opened a door in my head.  Paraphrasing: “Cultural myths are depersonalized individual stories.   Our individualized life stories are the personalized cultural myths.”

In other words, the myths and fictions that we tell each other over camp-fires, in songs, books, movies, television and comics are representations of actual life experiences, exaggerated or realistic depictions as they might be.  And our life experiences are framed in the contexts of the stories we have heard from childhood.

In my novel GREAT SKY WOMAN I theorized that not only did human beings create story, but that in some crucial ways, stories created humanity.  That fiction and myth creates a web of meaning out of an almost infinite mass of events, facts and feelings in a given situation.  That this meaning is both linear and non-linear: we react more powerfully to certain events from childhood than we do to things that happened yesterday.

That story enabled human beings to travel from one part of the world to another, preserving their identity as they did: “we are the people of the valley, descended from the First Men.  And when the great fire drove us forth, we traveled far, fighting beasts and beastly men, to come to this place of shelter…”  and so forth.

Just as we tell ourselves stories about our cultural identity, we also have stories about ourselves as individuals.  These stories are positive or negative or some combination of both.

One of the first things I do in most coaching situations is have the client write what I call the “Child story” which is a short essay on how they grew up to be the person they are today.  Because it is short, it will contain many of the basic building blocks of identity: events, beliefs, emotions, relationships, successes and failures.

Remember that our pasts don’t control us, but the stories we tell ourselves about our pasts most certainly do.  The same is true of our present.

Each of us has been exposed to countless thousands of stories since childhood.  We understand “story” organically, instinctively, unconsciously.  And when I asked my student to view his current life as if he was a characters in a story…and that the character ended the story getting everything he wanted, in order to parse my statement and make sense of it, he literally had to dive into a trove of countless movies, books, comic books, television episodes and what not where at the end of the second act all seemed lost…but somehow the character “pulled it out” and ended with a smile.

What did this do?
1) Created context.  Changed the meaning of the current situation.  It was not “I can’t” but rather “I have to solve this.”

2) It made it fun.   Adventures are fun…once you are sure you ain’t gonna die.  If some part of you STARTS with the assumption that you can succeed, you don’t slide into a pessimistic “fear tunnel” in which you can see no options. You literally have more access to your own resources.

3) And…you get more resources.   The attitudes, beliefs, and experiences of fictional characters usually overlap with reality.  Flash Gordon may be fighting Ming The Merciless in space, but the lessons of courage, trusting companions, honor, honesty, and ingenuity resonate with audiences.  I would suggest that ANY story that lasts more than a generation contains lessons that the audience found valuable on an actual life level…there was “meat” under the frosting.   

4) You take the “long view”—the “can’t see the forest for the trees” aspect of tunnel vision.  We lose perspective.  Forget the value and meaning of our daily efforts because there is so much going on, or we are so far from the finish line.

5) The structure of story, passed down to us through the ages, in and of itself contains a BRILLIANT syntax for success.

And that…we will discuss tomorrow.



No comments: