“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” – Patrick Rothfuss
Eight-years-old and I’m lying on top of my bedsheets because that is the only thing that will keep me awake. And I must stay awake because I must finish this story tonight. The one that has been galloping through my head for over a week now, scenes flashing by like the View-Master movie binoculars of the 1990s. Only this time my closed eyes are the binoculars, looking inside my head as the characters I’ve created run seamlessly through their lines. I already know the ending, and my feet are twitching as if trying to carry me there faster, but obviously I cannot skip the scenes that create the ending. Oh no. No one flips to the last page first, right?
I grew up believing stories are an inherent part of a unique me. And at some point, the constant flow of stories I concocted in my mind at night as a child began to appear on paper. I created stories to help process why my best friend stole my GigaPet; I created stories to explore the world of horses when my city life did not permit them in flesh; I created stories to imagine what life would be like if I had siblings; I created stories to question how my foster cousin could have been abandoned; I created stories to question my philosophy that “everything happens for a reason” when a highschool friend died a mysterious, young death. Through these stories the voice in my head grew stronger, louder and more opinionated.
At times I could sit back and let that voice take over my pen. It was as if a force greater than myself was generating stories. It was in moments like these that I started to observe patterns: values arose in my stories, values and premises that moved the story forward and generated enticing conflict. In time, I began to recognize a belief that lay deeply embedded in the folds of my stories. There was no moment of epiphany, no shining-lightbulb scene where I declared this belief to myself. No, it was quite the opposite actually. The belief slipped in unannounced, stealthily setting up camp in my heart and mind.
We are stories.
Yes, I write stories. But we, human beings, are stories. Everything we see, hear, touch, smell, taste is experienced through our unique internal View-Master. Through some sense, these things enter us. And we react. We react, we process it, maybe we try to label it, we seek to understand it–and all this is narrated by a voice inside our head. The narrator to our life’s story. Everything around me becomes a character or prop to the story in which I am the protagonist. And I, in turn, am a character in yours. I am part of your story and I am a story in myself. My understanding of reality is created by the story I am listening to in my mind.
Sound a little obscure? Think of it this way: you meet someone at a party that is not particularly attractive. They are just an extra in your movie. But then you hear them talking, find what they are saying intriguing, and get roped in. The more you get to know them, the more attractive they become. Maybe you even end up dating. What happened there? That extra started sharing their story (for whatever comes out of our mouths is produced by that running narrative in our mind) and by doing so, entered yours. Your internal View-Master binoculars clicked on, and all your senses began to react to this person. All the little pieces that make you you – your values, your passions, your beliefs – guided the narrator in your mind toward an interpretation of this person, and they took on a role in your story that you rather liked.
Still a little hard to wrap your mind around? I thought so too, so I set out to see if I was the only one who carries this belief. And of course, I’m not. I found many of authors who have declared the same premise.
For instance, the fantasy novel extraordinaire Terry Pratchett purports, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.”
Let’s break it down. If the voice in my head is the narrator to my life’s story, then my story is based on the accumulation of my thoughts, perspectives, beliefs, opinions, etc. All those things swimming inside me are reflected through my words and actions. In short, the way I live my life and interact with the world around me creates the plot of my life’s story. And the way I interact with the world influences all those around me. In turn, all those around me are doing the same thing. So their story is influencing mine just as mine is influencing theirs. It’s a little thing we call socialization. First, we all project our inner stories onto the outer world. Second, all those millions of stories reverberate back to us and are absorbed into our thought processes. Next, our unique lens filters, interprets and reacts to those stories, thus influencing our inner narrator and accordingly shaping our individual self.
So, you thought you weren’t a storyteller? Think again! That inner voice is constantly telling a story at the same time that other stories shape us. Yes, this tugs on the strings of the nature vs. nurture argument, but let’s go a layer deeper. The way we think about nature vs. nurture, the way in which we believe we are the way we are, the way we interpret and interact with the world around us…it all streams through our minds and our bodies. Each is a component of the story we tell ourselves through all senses. That is why music and photography can be such powerful storytellers. Ever have one simple song invoke a complex memory of thoughts and emotions? Yep, we are wired to understand and learn through stories. Even from fictional stories, we pull truths. And what is truth, really? The Thomas Theorem, a basis to the school of sociology, declares that “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” So we create reality, our understanding of the world around us, through the stories we tell.
Ok, so this was all fascinating to me. I was feeling pretty good about that fact that my whimsical beliefs are embedded in some theorems out there, not just agreements among the writing community. And I was starting to get a better grasp on the infamous quote by Buddha, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” This is pretty promising–what budding young leader doesn’t want to influence the world? At this point I recognized another premise ingrained in the foundation of my passion for storytelling:
Stories deserve to be told.
But I was still a little perplexed by what a story is, really, so I called up my buddy Google, and asked her to define: story.
“An account of past events in someone’s life or in the evolution of something.”
An account, that’s all. Each of us is that “someone,” and each of us is going through an “evolution.” The whole is the sum of all its parts, right? So the whole of an evolving world is the sum of each of our parts. Each of our stories. And if our past events are a story, so is our present and our future. Considering this, it is fairly simple to understand how we can be agents for change by living out the story we want our evolving world to follow.
And this is why stories deserve to be told.
You may ask, if we are living out stories, why do they need to be told in any other way? I have no concrete answer for you. Your answer will depend on your story. However, I can remind you that stories have existed as an integral part of cultures through all times. Oral stories, ceremonial songs, fables– our ancestors must have seen something beneficial in stories. Perhaps they would agree with anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s statement, “The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” They wanted their communities to think critically and deepen understanding, just like you and I do.
In that sense, it is just as important that we listen to each others’ stories. In his article “Why Our Stories Need to be Told,” Michael Oliphant states, “…our nature and character as a nation will change and we will become a nation of listeners instead of what we are now–screamers and whingers, opening our mouths only to demand.” That one hits home for me. By being aware of the stories I see, hear and crave, I am more conscious of the world around me. And with that consciousness, I can envision the world in which I want to live. Michael Margolis, founder of Get Storied – an organization striving to promote the transformational power of storytelling – puts it perfectly: “The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story.” For the sake of the power of the story, it deserves to be told–and only you and I can give it that opportunity.
- Consider the voice in your head the narrator to your life’s story; what aspects of that story do you enjoy? Are there any aspects you would change?
- Think about your community back in the US: the people, the places, the opinions, the teachings. What story do you see embedded in that community? If you had to name that story, what would you name it?
- What is a story you are beginning to observe play out in your host community?