Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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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?

-End-

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

img_6420By Lisa Alber

You know what’s funny? Since my last post here on ShadowSpinners, my second novel launched–woohoo!–but I’m already so far beyond the fact of it, that I’m not going to tell you about the book, WHISPERS IN THE MIST. Easy enough to get information online, if you so desire.

I spent most of my summer feeling harassed by the specter of the public life (readings, launch party, etcetera) and stressing out about promotion and publicity tasks. Plus, August was shite-meet-fan deadline time for my next novel, you know, the untitled one that’s coming out next year around this time? Yeah, that one. And, frankly, book launch was getting in my way. I wanted it done and gone and behind me, which only added to my stress.

After awhile, I imagined WHISPERS like a baby too long in the womb: Get this bloody thing out of me! A tad dramatic, true, because it’s thrilling to have a book come out, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’d practically forgotten what WHISPERS was about because I was so immersed in the next next novel.

My head at the beginning of August: I have to talk about WHISPERS now? Yeesh … Can’t I hole up with my deadline for the next novel? Really, I’m frantic about handing it off to my editor in decent shape. The manuscript needs so much work. It’s an utter tragedy, and the ENDING ISN’T RIGHT!

Plus, I have a day job (alas) with big August deadlines every year, wouldn’t you know it. Plus, for some reason everything the publisher might want and need from me (in addition to the manuscript and authorial book launch tasks) landed in the hopper in August too: flap copy, book cover discussions, proposal for next books. Yee gads.

I’m happy to announce that in the wee hours of Thursday, September 1st, I emailed my editor the manuscript for Novel #3, a.k.a next next novel. And that was it. The black-out curtains closed on Lisa the Author for a full week. I looked forward to a last summer-hurrah (but really, what summer?) Labor Day weekend full of zippity-do-da-nothing that included a marathon of “The Affair,” season two (recommended if only to see how the screenwriter plays with point of view), reading for more than ten minutes in a sitting, and sleeping.

img_6463It’s been a restful week, but the new school year has begun and I’m already behind! I probably should have started writing the next next next novel (pub date 2018–isn’t that crazy?) by now. The other night a character revelation popped into my head, so that was a good sign. I bought a new organizational notebook (Christina, you might like it!). I have my first task list in said notebook. I need new business cards and need to prepare for a reading tomorrow night and next week I’m flying to New Orleans for a huge conference and need to–what?–something …

Hold on, wait–the next next next novel! Before I know it, it’s going to be a year from now, and I’ll be freaking out all over again. Number one priority: write first draft. This will be number one priority (and home squalor be damned) for the next, oh … nine months? Do you think I can finish the first draft by June 2017?

So, let the school (writing) year begin!

What’s on your list as the school year begins?

When Real Life Interferes

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Writing fiction takes up an enormous amount of cranial space. It requires quiet, solitude (or your version of those things), and quite a bit of time just staring into space. Or mindlessly playing solitaire. Whatever, you need your version of quiet time to let your mind freewheel.

Carving out that time to write in a dedicated, ongoing, consistent manner is more difficult than any non-writer can imagine. There is always the phone, the ding of email, the person coming into the office saying, “I’m not disturbing you, I’m only…” All of which are distractions so off-putting it’s truly a wonder we get any pages written at all. And when we do, we have a right to be satisfied, even if they suck.

But then there is the other interference, and that consists of life events that vaporize our concentration.

A good friend confided in me not long ago that he was “blocked” for the first time ever in his writing, and what few sentences he wrote were hard fought and turned out to be crap. He was truly mystified. With a little discussion, it turned out that he had not one, not two, but three major events happening in other areas of his life that were of maximum stress.

You know that list of stressors? Here they are:

  • Death of a family member
  • Terminal illness (one’s own or a family member)
  • Physical incapacitation, chronic pain, or chronic illness
  • Drug or alcohol abuse (self, family member, partner)
  • Divorce
  • Marriage
  • Loss of job or job change
  • Moving house
  • Primary relationship problems
  • Severe financial problems

There are more, of course, but these are the big dogs. Most, if not all of these happen to all of us at one time or another, because that is the stuff of life. That is the human experience. We should welcome these events, even when they stress us out, because that’s how we learn about ourselves—how we react in stressful situations. Need I mention that it is all grist for the mill? We need new experiences to feed our fiction machine.

However, when we work so hard to carve out the time to write (and we can’t give that up, no matter what), and one or more of these situations takes up all of our cranial space to the point where we’re either “blocked” or all we come up with is hard-fought crap, then it is time to reevaluate our priorities.

Sometimes we just need to sit down and deal with what is in front of us. Sometimes writing is not and should not be the number one priority. We have bigger issues to deal with. As writers, though, our fiction-writing minds are busy focusing on future scenarios and how what it is that we’re bothered by is likely to turn out. It almost never turns out the way we imagine, but we can’t help ourselves. Plotting is what we do.

We’d rather feel guilty about not writing.

We’d rather deny the stress, as if confessing to it makes us less of a person, less of a writer, when in fact it not only makes us more of a person, it makes us more of a writer.

And then there’s comparing ourselves with others. We all know that so-and-so pumped out four books last year despite a divorce, the death of a child, and moving to Europe. Well, maybe, and maybe not. Nothing is exactly as it appears. Besides, that person’s career is not your career and not your life. Certainly not a life you would trade yours for, not really.

So if you find yourself “blocked” (I put that word in quotation marks because I don’t believe in writer’s block—but that’s a blog post for another day), or all you can write is hard-won crap, take a look at your life and see if you have one or two or three of these major stressors. If you do, use your solitude and writing time to puzzle out not the plot of your new book, but the way to peace and serenity with the situation that life has handed to you.

The job of a writer is to articulate the human condition. To do that, you must experience it.

Embrace it, live it, journal about it, and when it passes, as it always does, you will write about it, and your life and your work will be all the richer.