Monthly Archives: June 2012

When does telling a story not serve us?

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It was probably about the fifth time that I was going through the story in excruciating detail that I realized I really didn’t want to tell it anymore.

I had been made temporarily homeless.  One of my roommates had thrown me out of my apartment amidst shouting, accusations, and withheld money.  Everything of mine that was not in storage back East was piled in my car.  I just knew I was leaving; I didn’t know what to do next.

It’s not that I didn’t want to share the story with my friend, but just talking about it made me feel anxious, upset, panicky, angry, and sweaty again… just by thinking about it at that visceral level that any good story needs to have in order to connect with the audience.

I was actually reliving the experience.

To make things even more difficult, my closest family was almost 800 miles, and my closest friends more than two thousand miles away.  All we had was the telephone – and it became my lifeline.

Talking about the experience was a way for me to deconstruct it and try to understand it.  In the first several days, I felt the need to share a blow-by-blow description of events with whomever I happened to have on the phone.  Additional events in the following days meant that the story grew in length with each retelling.

It began to be exhausting, both from a mechanical perspective in terms of speech, but also emotionally.  I felt sucked into the same horrible emotional vortex of that day.  So I tried to triage the details when I had to talk about it, but that felt dishonest – as though I was glossing over the lived reality of the experience.  And yet with each new, loving inquiry as to how I was and what had happened, I started to dread revisiting that place.

I’ve been some kind of storyteller my whole life.  As I’ve written here before, I was drawn to writing from an early age.  But even prior to my relationship with the written word, I used to concoct plays and dramas to stage for my family.  I used the tall dining room chairs and a series of blankets draped across them for theater curtains, roped in various siblings and cousins, whose participation wasn’t always voluntary, and arrogated to myself the functions of plot conception, direction, production, and starring role.  My family also had a tradition of talking to each other in stories, often involving dramatic flair, role play and partial reenactments.  Numerous members of my family have been bitten by the acting bug.  By nature and experience, I was accustomed to really sinking into the details of any story, real or fictional, and participating in it.

This level of involvement makes it quite difficult to approach storytelling of emotionally traumatic experiences.  Though I really did need to share the details of my crisis immediately after it occurred, that need muted within a relatively short period of time.  Since then, I’ve been wondering about the line between storytelling as catharsis, and storytelling as a ball and chain, imprisoning us emotionally.  I had to recognize that the story as I originally told it was no longer serving me.  In fact, it was anchoring me in a place that I wanted to depart from as quickly as possible.

These days, we’ve all been acculturated to the concept of sharing as an emotionally liberating choice; repression, or keeping private, is mostly viewed as a negative, a contributing factor to later snarls of emotional debility.  It’s certainly lonely, not sharing our stories.  But I think our relationship to the story we are telling is important and often overlooked.

Why are we telling it?

How does it end?

Because a story is more than just words.

The science of imagination

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Recently, I received further confirmation of the power of the imagination, scientifically established.

A NY Times article in April outlined some neuroscientific research which demonstrated a greater stimulation of the reader’s brain than the act of reading itself would require.  Reading about walking, for example, stimulated the motor cortex; and it stimulated a different part of the motor cortex than reading about swinging one’s arms did.  Reading about smells stimulated the part of the brain responsible for the perception of smell.  There was no actual walking going on, and there was no perceptible smell in the room of the reader, but the brain sprang to life, accepting input from a non-tangible source.

The mind created a physical experience.

It makes me think the fMRI images produced during these studies were visual representations of the imagination at work.

I have always related strongly to any well-written story, and to the characters that live there.  Some of the best books have been physically nearly impossible for me to put down, because of my involvement in what was happening.  I have felt literally as though I entered an entirely different world.  Now, it appears as if science is suggesting that, from the perspective of my brain, at least, I have been brought into a different world.

It’s not just a figment of my imagination.

On top of this, studies have shown that readers of fiction developed better empathy, understanding of inter-personal relationships, and an increased ability to perceive the world from different points of view.

This as the result of something which is supposedly not real. Something which is invented.

Maybe reading novels and short stories should be a prerequisite for work in the diplomatic corps.  I like that idea.  World peace through prose.

The most amazing part of the Times article, for me, was the fact that these effects of reading also applied to children who were not reading themselves, but who were read to.  Listeners to these stories experienced the same enhanced empathy and relational intelligence as readers did.

To me, this is compelling outside evidence of something inherent in the story itself, and in the participation of the storytelling experience, which is special and incomparable.

Something essential.

It’s the central fact of art: what is not real is, sometimes, the most real of all.