Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey


Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?


Culture in Writing


Culture—ever ponder that word when beginning to write a story or when you can’t seem to find a way to fix a current work in progress? As I contemplated this word, I realized the books I can’t put down until my eyelids droop immerse me completely in the web of culture surrounding the characters, which populate the story I am reading. So much so, when I look up from the page I have to reacquaint myself with the fact that I am in the year 2014 and not say in 1830, or remind myself I don’t have to light a candle against the setting sun, but can merely flip a switch.

The word culture has several definitions, but I am using the word as it refers to the ways in which people perceive, interpret and understand the world around them; their social practices of customs, rituals, beliefs and habits passed down from one generation to the next. This definition gives identity to a particular group, ethnic heritage or geographical habitat.

Writers are taught one of the main components of a good story is the setting in which we the writer place our reader. It is our responsibility to ground the reader in place and time. Not only do I relish this when reading a great story, I’ve found I can accomplish this in my own writing, by using the culture, which permeated my childhood.

My short stories are often labeled as southern gothic. This is not surprising when you discover I grew up in the deep southern portion of Louisiana, where my mother and sisters still live. My childhood drips with rituals of voodoo, served up right alongside heavy helpings of holy water, saints and the black and white habits worn by the nuns who taught me in catholic school. Yes, the culture of the south flows thick and slow in my veins, much like the murky water of the swamps surrounding my childhood home.

I’ve just returned from a week’s vacation, where I soaked up the culture of southern Louisiana once again. I peeled crawfish tails from a steaming pile boiled up by my nephew. I ate cheesy grits, fried okra, cracklin’s and persimmon cake. I drank deep, rich Community coffee. I applied copious amounts of salve on bug bites, as the tropical heat breed’s bugs of every sort and my now northern skin, is no longer immune to their punctures. I danced in an old time honky-tonk—La Poussiere—to the sounds of an accordion and fiddle while the singer belted out songs in Cajun French. I visited childhood haunts, like the seawall I used to traverse in Morgan City (it didn’t break during Katrina) and the last home where my sisters and I resided together as a family, with its 12-foot ceilings (it did not fare so well after a hurricane knocked it off its foundation). When I boarded the plane to fly back to Oregon, if there had been a device to weigh the culture I was returning with—culture, I will use to weave many more Southern Gothic tales—I would’ve been very much over the weight limit.

So, what culture is the setting anchoring your stories? What past clings to your characters and their ancestors? What foods do they eat, clothes do they where? What bugs crawl in the corners of their homes? What weather plagues generation after generation?

I am most fortunate I’m allowed to reconnect with the customs featured in my writing. So what if you can’t visit the locale of your latest story or novel? Well, you can sit in the comfort of your own home and delve into it by studying its history through other’s stories, music, art, news articles, etc., and don’t think just because you write science fiction or fantasy you are exempt from the customs of say, fairies. There is a very distinct culture followers of the fey will demand you adhere to. Why even this newer genre of steampunk has its own unique traditions and ways of life.

Much like actors who assume in real life, the fictional roles they portray on the screen, our characters must live and breath in the environment, which informs their many decisions. We writers are weavers of story. With the right setting, how much more vibrant and rich is the tapestry from which our characters spring?

Culture—when I look up from reading a page of your story, will I still be in the year 2014? If so, I hope that is where you intended me to be.