I’ve been thinking about Stories a bit lately (I’ve been reading Granny Weatherwax stories the last week or so, which may tell you something, or may not). Stories are important, and any writer myself included will be the first to tell you that. We’ve written reams of words about how stories shape the world and show us the way to fight dragons in our own heads and all that sort of stuff. But rarely does anyone, least of all writers, talk about the ways stories are traps.
Stories tell us who we are, and where we’ve been, and how we fit into the universe at large. But the trouble is, sometimes we start to believe in the stories a little too much, and the stories start to tell us instead of the other way around. Take, for example and not at random, the old story of the “starving artist” starving for her art’s sake in terrible conditions and never achieving fame (or getting paid for her work) until she’s dead. This is an old and powerful story perpetuated over and over, and fought against sporadically by those who want to create art and eat. But the story is tricky. It makes us ashamed to ask for common money for our precious art. It makes people angry at us when we admit to wishing to pay bills with money paid to us for creating art. It makes artists turn to other means to make a living, keeping art as a “hobby” because while some of us want to make art we’re too practical (or too afraid) to let ourselves go down the path of the Story of the Starving Artist. Of course, some people escape that Story and still make art. But it’s hard, and treacherous, and more than a little matter of luck.
When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of the single story, she’s talking about another way Stories trap us. They trap us into believing that anything which looks like the story we believe in must, by definition, follow the path of that story. We believe all the little old ladies are helpless grandmothers eaten by the wolf, every princess locked in the tower is trapped, and pirates are romantic. Sometimes they even trap us into believing that if we embrace a part of a certain story, then we must embrace all of it, even if that doesn’t fit properly with our lives.
Sometimes, the simplest way the stories trap you is by providing an escape from the grind of daily life. Stories are predictable, logical, safe. Good wins over evil, princesses get rescued, romantic relationships end tidily in happy marriages, wars are averted at the last second, the murder is solved, and the wanderer returns home. Of course, the best stories aren’t nearly so cliched, but they still have internal logic and consistency and even the very most unpredictable murder mystery makes sense at the end. Real Life is the polar opposite usually. It’s messy, chaotic, uncertain, makes no sense, and if it was used for a book-plot would be rejected for being too consistently inconsistent. Real Life is hard, even the best Stories are an imperfect manual, and every ending turns out to be just a new beginning (which sounds nice and cheerful until you realize that means there’s no quiet rest-period in the middle.)
You can spend quite a lot of time moving through life as if it’s the dream between Stories, however you consume them. Sometimes, you might even think you’re making progress in your life, but you’re really just making a lot of progress on that pile of unread books. It’s a difficult trap to break free from. Humans need stories almost as much as we need food and water and air. They help us focus the insanity of the universe in a way that keeps us from ending up curled up in the bed with the blankets over our head. But as with anything, moderation is key. Finding that delicate balance between enough story to mask the barrenness of reality but not so much that we cease to function is a matter of extreme difficulty. It’s all too easy to slip too far one way, then overcorrect the other way. I’m still searching for that line, slipping back and forth across it. Lately, it’s been a bit harder to find, but there’s always hope for tomorrow.
Right after I finish this one book. I mean, I’m already half-way there anyway, I might as well finish tonight and get it out of the way. Right?