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?


Living With the Gap: Or, Embrace the Suck

by Eric M. Witchey

Desperate Writer: “Hi! My name is Eric Witchey, and I’m a writer.”

Chorus: “Hi, Eric.”

I was in graduate school studying theoretical linguistics when I decided to attend my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily if you have a different perspective than mine, the meeting was at a church, and the church was full of in-your-face Evangelical Christians who took it upon themselves to attempt to convince me that my only hope was to embrace the only higher power that was worth a damn—theirs.

Yeah, I now know that’s not supposed to happen, but I didn’t know it then.

So, my exposure to their 12 step program was very short. I was desperate, so I went to three whole meetings before I choked on their attentions and assertions.

I decided to break my bad habits my way, and I immersed myself in work. I traded one addiction for another. I’ll talk more about that problem in some other post.

About my fifth day rededicated to my new focus, I was sitting in a linguistics class in which we were exploring the relationship between vocabulary acquisition processes and their possible implications for brain structure (Ugh). That’s what theoretical linguists do. Anyway, in that class, I learned about the relationship between recognition vocabulary and working vocabulary.

It wasn’t a new idea for me, nor is it a new idea for you. We all have the experience of learning a new word then suddenly seeing it on billboards, in books, in newspapers, and in blogs. It’s like, “Wow… Nobody ever used that word before, and now everybody is using it.” Of course, that’s not really what has happened at all. The only real change is in our brains. We have learned to recognize the pattern of the new word. Later, if we practice with the word, we begin to be able to use it in normal conversation. It enters our working vocabulary.

We learn new words all the time. We add them to our recognition vocabulary. Then, with use, we add them to our working vocabulary, which means they have become part of our fluency in the language. Frustratingly, we can always recognize more words than we can comfortably use.

Back to grad school.

My new addiction to work, and perhaps the fact that the concept described above came to me during one of those first, blissful days of post-withdrawal health, left me with a predisposition to see the vocabulary acquisition concept functioning in my life with every new idea to which I was exposed.

Go figger. You use the same brain to learn words that you use to learn everything else. For example, you can see and understand how a clown juggles three balls long before practice allows you to do it yourself. Same concept.

So, it wasn’t long before I started to feel depressed.

Yes, depressed.

Okay, the bliss of newly found health probably wore off, too. However, that’s another post. The important thing here is that I noticed a pattern. It went like this:

  • I learned a new concept. Yeah! I’m brilliant!
  • I suddenly saw the concept reflected in life all around me and realized that everybody else on the planet already knew it. Boo! I suck! I’m sooo far behind.
  • I practiced using the new concept in order to catch up with everybody else. Yeah! I’m doing okay!
  • Just when I got caught up, I learned a new concept. Yeah! I’m brilliant!
  • But wait… The new concept shows up everywhere. Everybody on the planet already knew it… Boo! I suck!

The pattern repeated. It repeated again. What a bloody rollercoaster. Pretty soon, I could see that it would never end. Everything I tried to do would always suck. This turned out to be especially true for my writing.

Fast forward 25 years and thousands of hours of learning, practicing, and publishing.

The bloody rollercoaster never ended. It just kept on and on and on. The thing has been relentless. I swear, it was like no matter how hard I worked, I could never ever catch up.

And that’s the point this convoluted post is trying to make.

Writers learn new techniques all the time. We learn to recognize a new pattern for creating an effect in the mind of the reader. For example, this sentence opens with an introductory element offset by a comma in order to create a transition that marks an example of a point being made in the text. We recognize that pattern and begin to see it around us in use. Then, we practice it. Eventually, our hands can produce it without the intervention of careful thought. We express ourselves through the pattern without considering the pattern itself. The pattern becomes part of our working fluency.

However, we also always experience a gap between what we can recognize and what we can execute. The gap never goes away. The more we can execute, the greater the potential we will encounter new patterns we will learn to recognize. Once you can juggle three balls, you can see how it might be possible to juggle four or five.

Over time, our recognition and execution skills both improve, but the gap between what we can recognize and what we can execute always exists. It never gets smaller. Not ever. No matter how skilled we become, the gap is forever.

So, everything we do sucks because we can always recognize our failure to execute.

In fact, if our writing stops sucking, we’ve stopped learning.

And that brings us back to the early days of my recovery. In spite of the good intentions of the not-so-helpful Christians at my first meeting, I eventually learned that recognizing my addictive tendencies and understanding the potential benefits of clean living were very different from actually living without self-medication. No matter how detailed my understanding of a drug-free life became, the reality of the physiological underpinnings of my abuse meant that living clean was existence in a state of constant discomfort. With practice, discomfort became the proof of my health. Later still, I embraced the discomfort so completely that it became comfortable.

Writer lesson learned?

If I wanted to survive as a practicing writer, I had to learn to embrace the gap. Trust it. Believe in it. Feed it new patterns. Practice and improve. I had to learn to recognize that the important thing is not that my work sucks. The important thing is that I know I am improving because what I write sucks in different ways as I improve.

We’re all stuck with the same brain whether writing, juggling, or getting clean.

Embrace the suck.