There’s a lot of focus on stories now. Ads or pitches must tell a story…or so the story goes.
I’m uninterested in the story Pepsi tells you or in learning how to craft such stories.
I am interested in the stories that your grandmother told you.
I’m interested in the stories you choose to tell to friends and family because, without understanding exactly why, they feel important.
This is the first in a series of posts that aim to tell the Story of these Stories. I begin with the genesis of my love of storytelling.
Six times a year, the families of the eight children of my great-grandparents got together. I remember the first time it occurred to me that the tales being told by the ‘old’ folks after mid-afternoon dinner could be more interesting than chasing the other kids up and down the stairs. I was around 7. By the time I was 9 or 10, I was a convert, staying with the stories rather than dipping in and out during play.
During late adolescence, the path of stories became a more serious business.
I grew up in idyllic small-town America. It actually was that semi-mythic land of the 50’s sitcom. It was religious, industrious, and patriotic…a land of Boy Scout values and I was an Eagle Scout. We strove to be obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
The ’60s kicked me out of the garden. The ’60s dropped like a bomb. Images of America came pouring in and revealed all the stories I’d been told were suspect and deeply untrustworthy if not deliberate lies. Even my much-loved grandmother had been feeding me a mash of treacherous platitudes. Beneath the veneer lived a racist blood-stained empire. And I was complicit.
This was not merely a matter of me having to adjust a few misperceptions. If you remove enough props from a building, the whole structure collapses, and so it did. My little house of happy ’50s sitcom America vanished, leaving me in a strange and desolate terrain. (Oddly, wandering strange and desolate terrain was one of the few things that gave me solace.)
All assumptions, values, and hence reasons to act, were now suspect. I became angry and destructive.
Deepening my outsider status was the aftermath of a ruptured appendix. A protracted recovery had me starting high school underdeveloped and weighing 75 lbs. (I graduated from college rail-thin at 128; I’m 5’11”.) Girls bloomed and bobbed above me like giant inflatables at the Macy’s Parade. My high school peers were Scandahoovian boys with wrists the size of my neck.
It took me more than a decade to reorient and reground. I used tools ranging from the trite to the extreme.
Nietzsche was attractive. In his view, values are posited as an act of will in the face of an uncaring and cruel universe. He advocates doing philosophy with a hammer (Gotterdammerung), first pinging the idols to test for substance and then smashing the false. Damn straight!
I signed up for a psychology major, but it was mostly Behaviorism, so I took courses on Freud in the philosophy department and learned Jung from religion professors. I’d stay up all night walking and thinking…struggling with my angels and demons, as it were. Psychedelics were useful because they could fuel long stretches of contemplation.
My college transcript is the map of a battleground.
Ultimately, Jung and, later, Joseph Campbell proved the most useful. I came to believe we not only look to stories for guidance but that we assemble ourselves as a story — not only in introspective soul-searching but in collaboration and dialog with others and the environment and against a background of the prevailing stories of our family, culture, and milieu.
Often we can flow along with one of the prevailing narratives and accept a story off the rack. I was blessed and cursed by having that fail dramatically. It was a pisser at the time, but I gained significant benefit from having to junk my stories about who I was, who we all are, and what I was aiming to be and do, and just start over.
The opportunity to slowly and painstakingly build a new path gave me something solid that simply going with the flow never could.
And the path assembled itself as a narrative, a story among stories — that fact in itself remains fascinating.
So, stories: Stories are how we build ourselves. Stories define our culture and provide the touchstones of our identity. Stories are how we deepen relationships and pass time over dinner, in bars, or around campfires. Stories are how we knit the world together after the old woman’s dog unravels it at night. If there’s anything approaching wisdom, it’s communicated via stories.
I’ll be following up with some of my key discoveries about stories in future stories.
I’d like to give a shout out to my favorite story sessions of the past: long-distance drives with my brother Tim.
(This was written originally for a web experiment of mine: a framework for storytelling as a social media. The experiment failed, but it did end up extruding an oral history of the backpacking biz so not a total waste. I’m in the process of taking what I’ve learned and trying again.
That site’s mission: my objective is to create a home for stories to get shared — shared following our noses or the lead of our compatriots. Stories that feel important or poignantly funny or nag at the back of our mind or float back into memory with warmth and feeling or heart-clutching dread. Stories that simply want to be told. And so we tell them!)