As a writer I like to celebrate the virtues of an active imagination, but my own gets me into trouble all the time. The same tools I use to craft fantasy worlds can become weapons in the real one.
While we celebrate New York Times bestsellers it’s the stories we tell ourselves that have real power. I can write a scary story with a subtle theme about managing depression and someone might take that to heart.
Meanwhile, I can tell myself a story about how I lack the stability, maturity, and status to attract a partner and I know I’ll take that shit to heart. The same goes for when I tell myself stories like: I’m still too wet behind the ears to reach out to that publisher or my social media presence isn’t wide enough to attract the right agent. That stuff always resonates on the first draft.
Western civilization has wired us to remember stories more than any other form of information. That’s why politicians use anecdotes about “real” Americans to make their points. That’s why charities showcase the plight of one disadvantaged child to represent an entire community. That’s why we file memories in three act structures, even when that’s not how the events occurred. Stories are easier to recall than abstract information because of how they’re linked.
That’s why when we tell ourselves stories about our failings they sink in. Fortune may have dealt us a bad hand, but good storytellers can convince ourselves that we’re cursed.
Storytelling Changes How We See Things
Everything is a nail to a hammer and everything is a story to a writer. That’s why we see story structure everywhere, like threads of fate, and a lifetime of writing happy endings can give anyone unrealistic expectations.
Writers spend so much time building universes around their protagonists it’s only natural for us to think that the real world revolves around us too. All our friends and family members are just supporting cast members there to aid us in our journey.
We start believing conflicts in our lives are there to break us out of overbearing routines. We think that every problem will advance the narrative of our life, teach us a lesson, and fundamentally changes us a person. We think less of ourselves when a conflict leaves us feeling the same as we did when we began.
We’ve been conditioned by so many stories to believe that our lowest moments will lead into climatic triumphs, that those lessons we learn at the bottom will embolden us, but they so often don’t. They might just serve to reinforce our fears.
In a movie you might miss a character’s change if you have to go to the bathroom. Real shifts in our personalities are so gradual they’re imperceptible.
Storytellers reinforce the notion that so long as we quest for a goal that we will ultimately get what we need, not necessarily what we want, but what we need. We can be forgiven for thinking that if our hearts are pure the universe will provide for us.
We forget that so many of the fundamentals of a great story are fallacies in the real world. That’s why they’re stories. They’re an escape from the cruelty of reality.
How to Write a Bad for Romance
It’s time for this week’s Oversharing Anecdotesponsored by Jack Daniels. Jack Daniels, it’ll get your tongue so lose it’ll practically fall out of your mouth.
My 20s were a montage of breakup texts and fetal position showers sessions. Upon seeing someone new I made the mistake of dubbing the kicking-at-the-tires stage of dating “a relationship.” When that process came to an abrupt end, I performed a postmortem so I might catch the signs earlier on.
I developed a protection measure inspired by all the pulp detectives who were too hard boiled to get their hearts broken. I turned first dates into investigations, looking for patterns in behavior. I convinced myself that I was an acquired taste and that anyone who showed too much interest early on did so for the wrong reasons. I was looking for evidence to confirm my bias, to fit the story I was telling myself.
Romantic encounters became a chance to role play at film noir. I honed in on every micro expression, read between the lines, and saw sagas in the subtext, and whenever I spotted a femme fatale in librarian’s clothing I’d show her my “evidence.” Oh how my psychic Sherlock loved to show off.
Long story short, my time role playing as a detective did not go well. Unlike the characters I most admired I was not quick whited, I was quick to assumptions, quick to anger, but I wasn’t that clever. I never solved my partner’s grand deceptions so much as I gave them a good reason to move on. My story became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Long point made short: people are terrible mind readers. When we assign motivations to one another’s actions we’re almost always wrong. Storytellers who spend their days empathizing with fictitious figures run the risk of doing this to their partners.
Want to know what someone is really thinking? Ask them.
Our imaginations have a tendency to buzz on when its inconvenient. We replay scenes in our heads adding drama upon each retelling. We elevate the conflict in the present and raise the stakes when we fear new situations.
People have always told me I think too much. I’m just now realizing that what they mean is I think too much about things outside of my control. I’m slowly learning that that’s a great way to turn observations into problems. Sometimes the healthiest thing to do is to take things at face value.
Storytelling Can Amplify Your Ailments
I think the line between fantasy and reality blurs in very subtle ways, ways that we writers have a hard time catching. For those of us who’ve been telling ourselves stories about all our failings we need to learn to make some revisions so that we can better live in the moment.
When we’re in the throes of depression we forget the long periods of time when we were doing fine. We need to remember that painful urgency in our gut hasn’t always been there, and that it will pass.
We need to recognize that emotional memories link to one another as a kind of neurotic mnemonic. That’s why when we feel humiliated we find ourselves hard pressed to think of a time when we didn’t feel like that. We tell ourselves a story that our lives were nothing but a series of embarrassments.
We need to acknowledge that this is a fiction, one that edits out all of our success, to play better upon our heartstrings.
We need to learn to leave that shit on the page where it belongs.