Sunday, June 21, 2015

June 21 2015, Every life is a story. Would you risk death for a story?





Though I hold writing—and my fellow writers in the highest regard—for much of my life, I have tended to think of my own writing as entertaining enough, but not really significant in the scheme of things (except where I have ben working for a cause—as is frequently my habit).

For instance, on a scale of 1 to 10—without having given a great deal of thought to the matter, if asked about their value to society, I might initially have mentally rated members of the medical profession as being at 10, effective teachers at 9—and so on.

I say ‘might have’ because I am no fan of the medical profession. However, I am not trying to be over-analytical here—but more to give a conventional response.

Though teachers are common, effective teachers are comparatively rare—but wonderful to encounter and experience. It’s a sad thing that society largely seems to be unable to identify and encourage the latter.

On that basis, I guess I would have rated my own writing contribution as being a worthy 4—useful enough, but very far from essential. Quite where I would put most politicians is an interesting question. Currently, Congress has something like an 8 percent approval rating—and I have to wonder if it is not too high.

Let me stress that what I am talking about has much more to do with learned behavior—cultural attitudes, if you will—that what I really think deep down. For the purposes of this exercise, I am focusing on behavior more consistent with the social norm--not the heretical observations, insights, and conclusions of my own decidedly unaccepting intellect. At a very early age, I came to the conscious conclusion that much of what I was told was wrong—and have had no reason to change my mind.

It was something of an epiphany—and I remember my age, the location, and the circumstances—but such details can await my memoirs.

But accurate though my insight was at that young age, one thing I didn’t then either understand, or appreciate, was the degree to which we have created a way of life where we tolerate an exceedingly high degree of manipulation—and, in many fields, regard wholesale lying as absolutely normal—and cheating as more acceptable than losing. 

But learned behavior—regardless of our inner intellectual behavior—is what governs our daily routines, influences those around us, and, inevitably, conditions our own attitudes and thoughts. After all, even if you despise the medical profession, if you consistently talk about, and treat, doctors as being superior beings—your own mindset will inevitably be affected (even if only subconsciously). Repetition does the rest.

To a very great extent, once we are presented with socially acceptable role models, we condition ourselves—even against our own knowledge, experience, and instincts. The pressures to conform are great indeed.

I am also the product of my Anglo-Irish/British public school culture which (at least in my day) regarded self-deprecation as the socially acceptably norm—and ostentatious self-promotion as anathema. Boasting was “just not done.” 

Apart from placing me at a huge cultural disadvantage in the networking oriented U.S.—where aggressive self-promotion (regardless of merit)seems to be genetic—that has undoubtedly also made a major contribution to my selling my role as a writer short.

I regret that deeply. I regard writing as a supreme talent, at least as effective as the medical profession in alleviating the ills of the human condition—and rather better at enhancing it. Beyond that, I owe the vast majority of the happiness I have experienced in life—and continue to experience every day—to the wonder of words.

I am proud, indeed, to be a writer—and an author. Writing is as good as it gets.

Stories are my life—and they make it a fine one.

The following is from the ever admirable Maria Popova’s website I cannot recommend it too highly.

Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last

Stories have shapes, as Vonnegut believed, and they in turn give shape to our lives. But how do stories like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimmor Alice in Wonderland continue to enchant the popular imagination generation after generation – what is it that makes certain stories last?

That's what the wise and wonderful Neil Gaiman explores in a fantastic lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking.

Nearly half a century after French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the "abstract kingdom" – a conceptual parallel to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate like organisms do in the natural world – and after Richard Dawkins built upon this concept to coin the word "meme," Gaiman suggests stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does.

Please enjoy Neil Gaiman, with transcribed highlights below.

Considering the scientific definition of life as a process that "includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death," Gaiman argues that stories are alive – that they can, and do, outlive even the world's oldest living trees by millennia:

Do stories grow? Pretty obviously – anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously – they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes... Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce – they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.

On story being the original and deepest creative act:

Pictures, I think, may have been a way of transmitting stories. The drawings on cave walls that we assume are acts of worship or of sympathetic magic, intended to bring hunters luck and good kills. I keep wondering if, actually, they're just ways of telling stories: "We came over that bridge and we saw a herd of wooly bisons." And I wonder that because people tell stories – it's an enormous part of what makes us human.

We will do an awful lot for stories – we will endure an awful lot for stories. And stories, in their turn – like some kind of symbiote – help us endure and make sense of our lives.

A lot of stories do appear to begin as intrinsic to religions and belief systems – a lot of the ones we have have gods or goddesses in them; they teach us how the world exists; they teach us the rules of living in the world. But they also have to come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and we want to help them propagate.

Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor:

A few years ago, she started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book ... the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger – books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class... a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them maths, she'd teach them Polish, she'd teach them grammar...

One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone with the Wind. And Helen stayed up – she blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour, she read a chapter ofGone with the Wind. And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book. And each night, she'd stay up; and each day, she'd tell them the story.

And I said, "Why? Why would you risk death – for a story?"

And she said, "Because for an hour every day, those girls weren't in the ghetto – they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.

I think four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And she told me how, when she was an old woman, she found one of them, who was also an old woman. And they got together and called each other by names from Gone with the Wind...

We [writers] decry too easily what we do, as being kind of trivial – the creation of stories as being a trivial thing. But the magic of escapist fiction ... is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better... It's a real escape – and when you come back, you come back better-armed than when you left.

Helen's story is a true story, and this is what we learn from it – that stories are worth risking your life for; they're worth dying for. Written stories and oral stories both offer escape – escape from somewhere, escape to somewhere.

Remarking on how Helen's story changed him, he adds:

Stories should change you


No comments:

Post a Comment