Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Stories Are How We Make Sense of Life

"Charles Reide" by Charles Mercier
Bear with me here, we're going philosophical. This has been on my mind a lot lately: Why in the world do we tell stories? Why in the heck do we write?

And then the other day it hit me: Telling stories isn't what we do in our spare hours, something just to pass the time. Telling stories is what we do period. Stories are how we make sense of life.

Our entire worldview and memories are created out of our stories. Two people can witness the same event, process and interpret it completely differently and reach completely different conclusions about what just happened. And that's before the fluid and corrosive effects of memory take hold. The reality of the actual event, even if it was recorded on film, blurs into the past. In its place: Stories, our way of interpreting what we have seen, which is all we have to make sense of what passes before our eyes.

We are so adept at distilling our lives into stories that we forget how tenuous a connection they really have to reality, how much we highlight some events while brushing over others, how much our biases come into play, how we will weave together disparate events, even random occurrences, into some sort of cohesive shorthand that can't possibly capture the enormity of a life. Heck, our stories can't even fully capture the smallest of moments.

And when it comes down to it, all of our divisions of politics, history, religion, and partisanship come down to different beliefs in different stories. We go to war over different stories, we silently despair over different stories. When our friendships and relationships dissolve they do so because we can't reconcile our competing narratives. One person's temper is another person's passion, one person's reluctance is another person's prudence.

How do you explain something as complex as the dissolution of a friendship? We'll come up with a story that we can explain to others, but if we're honest with ourselves I think we all sense that there's some greater truth lurking just outside of our grasp.

Life is too complicated to hold in your head and relationships are too immense and multi-faceted to easily comprehend. So we write and tell stories to make sense of our relationships and existence. A novel can capture more than we can readily contemplate, and an author can, brick by brick, build a world that can illuminate and give meaning to some part of the full tapestry of our lives and relationships. They help us understand things that are too difficult to think about all at once.

Sometimes we catch a glimpse of the dark abyss of uncertainty beyond the comfort of our stories. When our stories are challenged in a particularly incisive way, when they fail to really encompass the totality of what we're experiencing, when our beliefs are exposed for being mere stories rather than the reality we had tried to transubstantiate out of our fictions, we are confronted with the the chilling fact that there are unknowable truths at the heart of life.

So when faced with that paralyzing taste of uncertainty we retreat back to our narratives and the comforting cohesiveness of our fictions. Even if our stories are, inevitably, imperfect and incomplete.


Deb Marshall said...

Really don't have much to add except:

"Life is too complicated to hold in your head and relationships are too immense and multi-faceted to easily comprehend. So we write and tell stories to make sense of our relationships and existence."

Gave me goosebumps, because it is so, so _right_.

Wax philosophical anytime!

abc said...

Exactly! To sort of quote Joan Didion, "We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live".

Matthew MacNish said...

Have you heard about the new Werner Herzog film about the ancient cave in France?

He discussed it on Science Friday on NPR recently along with Cormac McCarthy, of all people. There was also a physicist, but I forget his name.

I put it up on Facebook, but I will @mention you in a comment, so that you can find it if you want to have a look.

GKJeyasingham said...

I agree completely. Even the earliest of stories, such as old myths from various cultures, were used to explain our existence and how the world came to be.

Just to take it one step further, not only do we write stories to understand our own lives, we read/listen to them to understand the lives of others. They are gateways into another experience, another culture, another life that may be different from our own.

There are other reasons we use stories, too. We can use them to make sense of unjust atrocities. We can use them to communicate and understand social issues. We can use them to escape into a world different from our own. Stories are multipurpose machines.

Nathan Bransford said...

Awesome, thanks Matt.

Raejean said...

That's why so many people write, even if they never strive to get published. Writing is therapy!

Barbara Kloss said...

Nathan, what a beautiful post! Thank you for sharing, and thank you for being philosophical today. (Though I think you tend to insert morself of philosophy in every post...:D )


Linnette R Mullin said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nathan! I never thought about it that way.

I'm a little hesitant to say this because I don't want to offend anyone. Just like you've been plagued by the question of why we write stories, I've had my own question about how people deal with life. You see, I grew up knowing Christ since I was very young. I have no idea what life without him is like. I've always wondered how people who don't know him deal with life. (I'm not assuming you do or don't know Christ and I'm in no way disparaging anyone. Just sharing my heart here.)

Anyway, your post has given me some great insight and I think I understand a little better now. Thank you!

Mira said...

I love it when you get philospicial. This is brilliant thinking, and a topic I absolutely love to discuss!

But first, others have walked this path of thought too, and you might be interested in hearing their thoughts, if you're not already familiar with them.

This is an absolutely astounding interview that Bill Moyers did with Joseph Campbell called the Power of Myth. If you haven't watched this, it's truly essential. Here's the link to the DVD:

Power of Myth

Something else that might interest you is a type of therapy based on the stories we tell ourselves was developed. It works with helping people change the stories of their lives so they make different choices. It's an interesting and powerful approach, although controversial. It's called Narrative Therapy. Here's a link to Wikipedia about Narrative Therapy and if it interests you more, there are references at the bottom:

Narrative Therapy

Hope I got those links right. Probably didn't. :)

So, I want to add something of my own in slight....disagreement (?) with your conclusion. Maybe not disagreement, just a different viewpoint.

The reality that there are unanswerable questions doesn't have to be chilling. It can be...something else. And the fact that we live out our life in story may not only be a survival tactic.

I believe there is more than one way to know things. Logic and the mind are one way. But there are other ways to understand reality. In our current culture we believe the only way to understand truth is empirically - but, that's a story too, isn't it? Who is to say that our intuitive sense of things doesn't also give us a peek into the reality beyond? Perhaps the Universe has more than one way to communicate with us.

Just some thoughts.

Thanks for the post, Nathan. I love talking about this stuff. :)

Rick Daley said...

Stories are ingrained in our psyche, and our story-telling abilities probably developed as a survival tactic.

The first story ever told:

Don't eat that. Grog ate that and got sick.

Followed by:

Don't go in there. Grog went in there and never came out.

Of course our sense of plot and characterization has grown some since then...

WORD VERIFICATION: dific...So hard you can't even manage the -ult.

Mira said...

Oh, and in terms of a friendship ending - so heartbreaking, which always feels incomprehensible.

But something that is very hard to explain in the current moment can become much more understandable in later years. Time and space can help clarify why we made the choices we made. Or at least make clear our story developed the way that it did.

If only we had that perpective while we were going through it! Arrggh. That's the really hard stuff of life. We make the best choices we can, walk the path that seems right to us and come to understand it more clearly later on.

But it's just a reality that something like a friendship that worked once can stop working, and that we can change and/or outgrow things. Growth and change are very good things, but life apparently never wants the birthing process to be an easy one.

Okay, I think that's enough from me. :)

Thanks again, Nathan.

Mira said...

Oh, one quick thing, and I promise I'll stop. I suddenly got afraid you might think I was saying you need narrative therapy - aahhh, the internet is so tricky, so easy be misunderstood.

Just in case, I absolutely wasn't saying that. I just thought you or others might find it interesting, another way to think about the power of story in our lives.

Dave said...

I don't think it has to be nearly as negative as this, though. Your post makes think of oral tradition vs. written history; that is, that stories maintained their structural integrity in oral societies for generations before they were ever written down. This also leads to the thought that oral storytelling makes us more open to connotative meaning, whereas written stories can sometimes lock us into denotative meaning, if we're not careful. Such is the curse of modernity, I suppose.

You're right, though, that we do use our narratives as a coping skill of sorts to make sense of senseless things. But we also connect through our narratives, find common ground through our narratives (something we could use a lot more of in our current political climate), and enjoy each other's humanity through our narratives. That's the power of storytelling, and what makes it so superior, I think to non-ficition in so many ways.

Thanks for the post!

Ms. Casey said...

This spoke to me in profound ways, Nathan. Thank you.

Matthew MacNish said...

It's an interesting conversation about art and science, and though the concept is not exactly the same as what you bring up here, it's similar.

Oh, and you're welcome!

Matthew MacNish said...

By the way, I forgot to mention: this was absolutely beautiful. Thanks, Nathan.

Patrick said...


I happen to think that how we define our relationship to the world and other people matters; I think philosophy is important. So I have some serious questions.

Do you really think that all interpersonal conflict comes down to "different beliefs in different stories?" That narrative interpretation is our only approximation of truth?

Is a belief in God a story that some people tell themselves? Is a belief that homosexuality is a sin and should be punished merely a story? What about the idea that slavery is immoral? Is radical Islamism just a different narrative? Is the a conception of equal rights a Western narrative inapplicable to women in Iran or Saudia Arabia? Is it a story that the surgeon tells when he performs a liver transplant?

Are some stories better, or more truthfull, than other stories? If they are, what does that mean? If there is a measure of truth, then against what do we measure?

Nathan Bransford said...


You tell me!

Miss Good on Paper said...

Are you a fan of Tim O'Brien by any chance? The Things They Carried (my favorite book of all time) is all about the importance of stories in our life. O'Brien says "But this too is true: stories can save us." I love that.

And I love this post! Thanks for sharing.

-Miss GOP

Patrick said...

I can't tell you what you think, but I'd like to know. You said that we go to war over stories. Do you mean that?

Do you think that position trivializes the sacrifices and horrors of war? Do you think ideas like equal rights, universal suffrage, and political liberty are narrative constructs fashioned out of an ongoing discourse between competing power interests, or do you think they actually have truth value?

I don't think that human relationships are only reducible to narrative discourse. I don't think that narrative defines our relationship to the world. I think truth does.

But the question is what do you think? Do you think that the ethics of female circumcision is a matter of narrative perspective, or do you think it's wrong?

Skipetty said...

Dear Nathan - may I suggest a break, a comedy for your next read and your next film . . .


Nathan Bransford said...


I'll answer your questions with a question: how do you decide what is true?

dalyamoon said...

For further reading on this topic, might I recommend "Generation A" by Douglas Coupland? The book starts off a bit spec-fic/dystopian/satire, then turns into a big meta-storytelling feast.

Mira said...

Oh, I lied. I can't stay away. This is topic is too much fun.

Patrick, obviously I'm not Nathan, but can I respond?

My sense is that Nathan is saying story can only approximate reality. You are saying story and reality are different things. But I am saying that story descibes aspects of reality that are beyond rational argument.

And that's what you are doing. You are talking about VALUES. Values can not be proven. That doesn't mean they aren't true.

So my answer to your question: "Do you think that the ethics of female circumcision is a matter of narrative perspective, or do you think it's wrong"? is BOTH.

Story is our way of trying to capture the essense of our values and beliefs. And it is a powerful way to communicate.

For example, try to argue with someone who does not believe...non-controversial....that poverty is a terrible thing. "People can make do", this person says. You can argue until you're blue in the face, but they insist that poverty is no big deal.

Now have them read the story of the Little Matchgirl. Or argue with someone who believes people of another color should be treated differently and have them watch To Kill A Mockingbird.

Story and truth are not different things. Story helps us explore, define and illuminate Truth.

Robena Grant said...

This is a great post, Nathan.

I think, more than truth, it's wisdom that our soul searches for in putting words to paper.

It's about carrying forward the stories from our forefathers but laying down our own perspective, our little glimpses into the gaps between the local and the non-local worlds. We do our best to articulate that which we feel, dream, or intuitively know. And in doing so, we gain understanding of contemporary life, and leave something for future writers to contemplate and build upon.

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks Mira, well said.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

I agree. Our memory is merely the story we tell ourselves about our own life.

And, yes, sometimes the stories hide the deeper meanings, acting as a salve, making it easier to handle the chaos of life - but sometimes those stories are also the way we search out these truths. Stories are how we navigate meaning, and we are endlessly revising and re-shaping them, looking for the deeper truths. Looking for something truer. Each story tries out a new solution for the problem of meaning, the problem of life.

Matthew MacNish said...

Writing fiction is just telling the truth about things that never happened.

Isabella Amaris said...

I have to say I like this post. A lot:) I suppose, though stories are narratives, they are only ONE type of narrative. Intuition, as Mira pointed out, is another narrative altogether. So is belief and perception, which is I guess where you're coming from, Nathan?
Being grounded on other narratives doesn't make our beliefs/perceptions any less true or illusory, though, does it? Or chilling.... I dunno...

I guess I see uncertain truths as an unfortunate but pretty inescapable byproduct of language in general, which is so steeped in symbology and narrative anyway that meaning can become pretty subjective, not to mention reliant on those reading stories being able to 'access' the context of the writer's symbology.

That would make the 'truth' of the story truer only to those who see and interpret the symbols in it the way the author does, I suppose.

Anyway, all this subjectivity makes me think that everyone ultimately makes individual moral decisions/choices (subconsciously or not) on just about every story or narrative they interpret, even if they might hate the word 'moral' with a passion lol.

Hmmmm, after this, I must cleanse my dazed, overly-inundated-with-symbols brain with some chick-lit/brainless action movie...

Darian said...

"When our friendships and relationships dissolve they do so because we can't reconcile our competing narratives."

Wow, Nathan. I've been divorced and I never looked at it that way. I suppose I should have, seeing as how a decade between us has done nothing if not made me out to positively be a silent movie, mustache twirling villain in her eyes and to the stories she tells people. Great blog, sir!

Isabella Amaris said...

@Mira - just saw your reply to Patrick's question, and it is spot on! I agree with you completely. May I just add one more thing: stories can both illuminate truth AS WELL AS create lies/conflict, so absolutely ppl can go to war over what are essentially narratives, Patrick.

cc said...

sometimes the greater truths are the most simple, though. that sounds so easy when i write it, yet it is so elusive in real-time.

D.G. Hudson said...

Well-spoken, Nathan.

Telling stories is centuries old, and has always provided a means of retaining history and remembering who was related to whom.

To be able to create out of the ether is to attempt to understand it. It's like being a conductor in a world of your own choosing. Such a feeling of freedom comes with that, and it's what draws me to writing fiction.

BTW - really like the paintings you've been featuring in your posts. We get a little art knowledge on the side of this blog.
Thanks for making us stop and think.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

And this is an interesting discussion started by Patrick. To jump in, I do think we go to war over stories. Why go into Iraq? Vietnam? We went because a particular story was convincing. And suffrage and circumcision exist as concepts, and they exist in the world, but in our perception of them they are always a story, or part of a story.

Each of us experiences these things differently. Each of us has a different narrative for these concepts; each of us folds these experiences differently into the story of memory.

I don't think it demeans soldiers or sacrifice; these, too, are stories, and important ones.

The story is the how of experience, the way we distill and refract it. This is human experience. There is no inherent value in the storyness of this experience, but rather these stories are the way we seek out and frame meanings, the way we codify our values.

Are there universal truths? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But these ideas, too, become part of the narratives that we think, and live, and share; they become part of the story.

Our stories are us: the ones we write, the ones we think, and the ones that form our memories. They operate consciously, but they also operate deep beneath the surface. The brain is a machine that makes connections; it is a storytelling machine. Its whole job is to make connections, to organize, to find the narrative logic in the randomness of the world. That is what it does, neuron connecting to neuron, bringing things together, creating a new path, a new story.

There may be universal truths guiding us, but we often live by the subjective ones - or, at least, by the universal ones as filtered through our subjective narratives.

J. T. Shea said...

Stories are how I make NONSENSE of life!

But seriously, another excellent piece, Nathan. We are characters in stories which happen to be true, depending on one's definition of the truth. Certainly we live more anecdotally than statistically, much as many would like to reduce us to mere numbers and learn the price of everything and the value of nothing.

C-NET must be a very philosophical place!

Excellent comments and links, Mira! You answer Patrick's questions very well. Nathan is not advocating some culture-bound moral relativism. Approximation is the key, but approximation implies something absolute to approximate!

I wonder what Charles Reide's white dog would think?

Bryce Daniels said...

"Life is too complicated to hold in your head..."

Perfect, Nathan, absolutely perfect. You can get philosophical any time you damnwell please.

But this begs the question: How do people who DON'T write deal with day-to-day dilemmas? I'm on one side of the fence and can't see what goes on in my neighbor's houses. Indulge my voyeurism.

Is this where all the bad stuff comes from? Or is this why, worse yet, some are destined to the unfulfilled life?

jesse said...

This is, pretty much, the premise of Douglas Coupland's Generation A. It's a fun read, full of stories within the story, which work as evidence for the theory.

marion said...

Interesting. Thanks, Nathan.
I'll have to read this one a second time, thoughtfully.

Patrick said...

Philosophy is fun, but it's not just an idle game; ideas have consequences. In particular, the ideas that a people have in regard to truth has lasting consequences in the world.

The doctor who develops a vaccine believes that truth exists in a correspondence with reality. The consequence is that the vaccine works and saves lives.

Parents who believe that truth is revealed through biblical exegesis do not believe in a correspondence reality. Their refusal to vaccinate their children costs lives.

The father who believes that cultural narratives demand the subjugation of women mutilates his daughters. His actions have consequences too.

Mila, it is one thing to say that story is a means of communication. It is another thing to say that all conflict reduces to narrative interpretation. It is one thing to say that we each have different beliefs. It is another thing to say that all those beliefs have equal validity.

Yes, wars have been fought over stories, some quite explicitly, but not all. The conflict between the father who mutilates his daughter isn't a relativistic conflict among narratives; it's a man brutalizing a child. It is not both wrong and right at the same time. Moral judgment does not depend on exegesis or the hermeneutics of the local linguistic power discourse. He's a man brutalizing a child.

Moral relativism is great fun in literature classes; it provides such ready metaphor and has all the frisson of weighty intellectualism, but in practice, it is neither philosophically sound or useful. Relativism simply cedes power to whoever choses to wield it most ruthlessly.

Finally, to say that all of our divisions of politics, history, religion, and partisanship come down to different beliefs in different stories demeans not only real conflict, but also the power of story itself. We tell stories about *things* and those things are real, they are not simply the constructs of other stories. The world is not actually an endless literary recursion; as much as we writers might wish it, our stories do not create our world.

Great art, in whatever medium, is great because of its power to speak to so many different people about something fundamentally true. That's the point of art. When we write, or paint, or make music, or whatever, we take aspects of reality and we highlight them. We gloss over other parts and we arrange the narrative to make a point, to say something about the world.

Some stories are simply better than others. Some stories are more beautiful than others. Some stories are more true than others. Stories matter. And if stories matter, then the words we use to tell those stories matter. When we write, we choose our words carefully, we choose them to impart meaning to our stories. We use them to flesh out our feelings, our thoughts, and our beliefs. Words are ideas and ideas have consequences.

Either we build our relationships on reality, or we build them on stories. Either our conflicts are based on real values, or we're just play fighting. Either our love is real, or it's not.

Leila said...

Stories shape our relationships, our values, they embed our beliefs or lead us to repel them later in life, they set expectations - of ourselves and others - and they, as well as our cultural influences, are the filter through which we experience life.

They teach us to grow, to explore, to learn, to reach, and to say what we may not otherwise be able to, in story form.

Stories are also the way we explore those aspects of ourselves that are hidden so deep in our subconscious that if anyone bought them to our attention we'd say, for example, no, I'm not like that character! Because we genuinely wouldn't be able to see the connection.

They allow us to be vulnerable, to experience emotions which may be difficult to express as our everyday selves. Maybe they allow us to be stronger, or softer, sharper or harsher. Whatever the end result, storytelling is the essence of life.

maine character said...

It's true that nearly all we believe and do outside of the most basic biological functions comes from stories (which we then excuse or hide by way of stories).

Byron Katie has an interesting bit on how the stories we believe about ourselves - "I can't be in a relationship because of what happened last time" - keep us trapped. She asks, "Who would you be without that story?"

maine character said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
marion said...

Rick Daley, LOL!
Grog the tragic hero.
Or Grog the intrepid trailblazer.
Depending how you spin the yarn.

By the way, I wasn't going to get into the heavy discussion, but I think Rick's Grog narratives show that stories can equal truth. But if someone tells the story, Grog ate the berries and didn't get sick, then that's a different story but one that happens to be false.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Patrick

I don't think people are saying that everything is relative, and that there is no meaning, and no consequences.

What, I think, is being said is that this meaning is simply experienced through story and narrative. There may or may not be a universal truth or meaning when it comes to the forced circumcision of a child, but the only reason that the words "child" and "circumcision" mean anything to you is because of story, because of the shaped experiences of our memories. It will be based on the story of your own childhood, of what you tell yourself of its narrative arc, its meanings, its ups and downs, and also of the thousands or millions of other stories you have experienced that have given you an idea of what a child is. And all of these, too, have been shaped by your memory. They are subjective experiences, exactly the same to no one else in the world. The same goes for circumcision. What does the word mean? What is your individual experience of it? How has it been shaped into your own narratives?

The question is not whether the act is morally wrong: it may well be. The point is that people will act according to their narratives, to the stories they tell themselves that explain the world in a way that makes sense to them, in a way that offers them a set of values or beliefs. The father circumcising the child might be wrong in an absolute sense, but he is reacting to his own narratives, to the world of experience that has shaped his own story and places a value on this act.

Acknowledging the capacity of the human narrative process does not impart a value, does not necessarily indicate moral relativism, does not counter physical reality; it simply indicates the way in which this reality is interpreted.

Kyla said...

That's a very interesting thing to talk about. I think it's more complex than even you captured, but I do agree with you.

Something I've been thinking about lately is how little people think about the importance of life experience in writing. Living life is just as important to a writer as reading or writing every day.

Anyway, thanks for giving me some more food for thought! Have a great day!

Shadowkindrd said...

It's called Narrative Studies. Huge branch in Linguistics these days. Why people tell stories, how those stories are structured--academics are all over it. My best friend is getting her Ph.D. in Narrative Studies, and she clues me in on all sorts of things. Fascinating stuff.

Isabella Amaris said...

@Patrick - I get what you're saying, but at the same time I have to disagree with the 'either/or'- 'black/white' nature of your words. To espouse absolute/universal truths quite so confidently in a world that is largely grey in nature (let alone varies in culture, tradition and belief systems in basically every continent) would be to downplay the huge significance narratives have played in swaying people AWAY from truth - which has happened worldwide at some point in history re race, gender, politics and religion - and which is just as important an issue as negating moral relativity is.

In other words, to combat moral relativity, it helps to acknowledge its very real existence in everyone's inner world, and the power narrative/story has in not only influencing such relativity, but in creating it.

Make no mistake, I have my own moral stand on the issues you mention (and I suspect for the most part I would take the same view as you seem to be taking on those issue), but if our views were ever to defer, we'd probably each defend them respectively as the 'truth', and that would almost certainly bring to what Nathan mentioned earlier: a clash of narratives in our system of beliefs.

Now, I just wish that the moral narrative 'we agree to disagree in peace and love while holding hands and singing Kumbaya' would enter into everyone's personal belief system somehow:D That would make things so much better all around:)

Isabella Amaris said...

And what Bryan Russell (Ink) said too:DD Interesting, this all is:)

Mira said...

Wow, such wonderful comments. So interesting.

First, thanks so much, Nathan. I'll be glowing on that for a week. :)

And you too, J.T. :)

I admire everyone's thinking so much - Bryan, wonderful as usual, and I include you in that, Patrick. But I think you misunderstood me if you thought I was advocating moral relativism. I suspect we may agree more than you think we do. I'm in complete agreement with this: "Some stories are more true than others. Stories matter. And if stories matter, then the words we use to tell those stories matter. When we write, we choose our words carefully, we choose them to impart meaning to our stories. We use them to flesh out our feelings, our thoughts, and our beliefs. Words are ideas and ideas have consequences".

Wow. Well said. Completely agree.

I thought what Isabelle said was a also a really important point: "Stories can both illuminate truth AS WELL AS create lies/conflict". Absolutely. Stories are so powerful they can be used to manipulate, confuse and control people. Look at Hitler. The story he created influenced a entire nation to participate in genocide.

This topic very much brings up issues around writing and responsiblity. As writers, the stories we shape influence people deeply. And this isn't just a hypothetical issue. It's one of the reasons I've expressed concerns about the growing darkness in YA recently - although that's just my perspective. But I think we need to take into account our responsibilty as writers.

Thanks so much for your deeply thought-provoking post, Nathan. :)

StoryTree Gal said...

And THIS is why I decided to study Narrative. The power of Narrative is outstanding. It creates self (psychology). It creates society (anthropology). It creates meaning, explains science, and provides a focus to life (religion). And, of course, there is a lot of theory printed out there as to WHY, from Herman's evaluation of Storyworld to Altman's work on a cognitive theory of narrative, to Turner's assertion that we do not think in images or sentences, but rather in PARABLE, or story. This is fascinating stuff, and if you want more reading and source material on this, google Project Narrative (out of Ohio State University). Their web site has a lot of great references for those interested in this sort of thing.

Lauren said...

So eloquently put, Nathan!

Guilie said...

Don't you just hate it when everyone agrees with you, Nathan? That's what happens when you have a gift of touching the nerve of the matter... Whatever matter.

Who was it that said "I write to find out what I know"? I came across that quote some time ago and I was blown away by it. Yes, it's true. We write to make sense of life, or in other words, to make sense of what we know. Everything that happens all around us -- war, natural disasters, people's attitudes & behavior, anything at all -- happens OUTSIDE of us. How we bring it inside us, how we choose to interpret it and make ourselves a participant, is precisely that: a choice. That choice is made based on who we are, on the values we have, on the things we consider important, on what life has "taught" us so far. Telling a story is, in its most basic essence, interpreting reality and putting it out there for someone else to assimilate. It's a powerful, powerful thing.

Bret wellman said...

Storie, the sixth seance!

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Great post. I suppose what makes us writers is that we write the stories down.

Tom Bentley said...

Once upon a time, a left-handed giant named Dustin went on strike. When his boss called, he ...

Gotcha! Stories, yes, both the filters and the coffee of our thoughts.

Thoughtful post, Nathan, matched by the thoughtful comments. Thank you.

Other Lisa said...

Wow. I have to chime in as well. Excellent post. Truly.

Other Lisa said...

And as a partial answer to some of the philosophical questions raised above, I think some people are able to synthesize/craft more complicated, nuanced and thoughtful narratives than others. It's like that in art—why would it be any different in life?

Marcia Richards said...

I like that you got a bit philosophical! I agree with your views. Great post!

Rick Fry said...

I think there are more reasons for stories than making sense of life.

The most electrifying stories don't make life more coherent for us, and they don't deconstruct coherence either. Rather, stories point to the edge of meaning- to a truth that we somehow intuit, but can't quite articulate. It's more about concealing something essential rather than coherence. Yet, it's precisely in the act of concealing that the story shows us that there is something infinitely important being concealed. It brings us to the breach of an ineffable knowledge, without allowing us to cross over. It's not that we catch a glimse of the dark abyss that was hidden because of the comforting stories we tell ourselves. Rather, it's the story itself that leads us to the brink of unknowable truths, without fully revealing them to us.

A great story will lead us to the edge of the abyss, but it won't let us leap.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Amen, Mr. Former Agent Man. Amen. That's why I claim all memory, and therefore memoirs, ultimately, are fiction.

It's exactly why Ernest Hemingway called "A Moveable Feast" a "fictional memoir." He never claimed every, or any, event or description of anyone in it was true. Just his truth.
"The only truth any man can ever know for sure," according to Orson Welles in "Citizen Kane."

That's why a great memory, and ability to recall things, is to me the curse and blessing of, hopefully, a fiction writer.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

I will be lost and unheard at the bottom, but like you said, we write to make sense of who we are and what life is.

My half-Lakota told me the old teaching tales of her People to lead me to walk wisely. She made up her own tales when I was deathly ill.

All that passed on the spark of the Lakota storyteller to my spirit. I write because I want to see my and her dreams put into print -- if only on the computer page. Which is why I put into a book the tales she made up of a bear with two shadows and the cub with no clue.

Have a great summer. Another great post, Roland

JennaQuentin said...

Thank you! My unexplicable need to write about everything in my "essai" try to explain my life! I'd love to quote this post, if that's ok.

wendy said...

Interesting perspective and a rather complex one. But it's true we do make up stories about ourselves, our past, our situations and the people we know. It made me think about the true nature of reality and perception. I have a way of simplifying what is real and what isn't. I corale every thought (and story) that is negative into the ficticious pile, and all thoughts and beliefs that are positive I believe have much more credence; or, at the very least have the potential to be true if I take the right actions. This simple gauge has never proven to be wrong - in my opinion.

The media (entertainment and news) tend to present a very negative view of the world and the people in it, so it's an uphill battle to try and focus on the positive. But I've discovered that perceiving others with a cynical attitude has always led me to make wrong assumptions, whereas giving others the benefit of the doubt, or striving to see the best in others, myself and situations has always provided a truer picture of the reality of human nature or any situation.

Linnette R Mullin said...

I get what Patrick is saying and I get what Nathan is saying.

I like how Patrick explained the way we highlight certain things about life to make a point. That whole post was excellent.

Don't hang up on me yet. I'm not finished.

The fact is, there is one truth.


I think Nathan is explaining how many people function or rationalize life. Whether Nathan realizes it or not, what he has just pointed out is that we all see truth differently. This is true. Why? Because we are flawed. We do make up stories to deal with life. That was a very poignant way to describe how the human mind works. We do this because we either don't understand enough truth or we refuse to see and accept truth. It scares us and we don't like to be scared. We like to be in control. We want to be comfortable.

I don't see this post as truth, but rather an explanation of how many people, probably all people to some extent, cope with life.

But, only the truth will set a person free. The stories we make up to cope with life may give us a sense of freedom, but is it true freedom or escape from reality?

Caleb said...

Stories are how we make sense of life... Man, that was good timing. My wife and I were driving from Saint Louis to Columbus, Ohio when I received an email from a professor that I respect a whole lot. He had all of the sudden discovered that I was a writer, (even though, when he gave me a questionnaire, I put my own book as my favorite book). He sent an email to me with links to my own book asking me what it was about and if somebody who was going into my profession should associate his name with such things even if it is only fiction.
I was bothered by his email. I had gotten it around the Ohio state line and it took me until well into the evening before I responded. Why did I write this story? Should somebody going into my profession be associated with such a thing? Of course he broke the cardinal rule of books; he judge it by the cover and did not attempt to read it.
I journal in fiction. It's how I cope with life. It is how I make sense of things. My characters are so alive because they are a part of my fiber and my creative energy.
When somebody judges my characters; my writing; my life; I take it personal, because it's me and it's who I am. (I don't mean if you critique my writing fairly. I love those.)
The most common comment that I receive for my first novel is that it is great, the character development is deep, the story line is superb and that the dialogue is top notch. But they all use the same word to describe it. "It's graphic," they say.
Life isn't Pleasantville. Life is graphic. Tell it. Retell it. Learn from it. Teach from it.

Fawn Neun said...

Storytelling is how we practice being human.

Let's face it, we're the only species where narrative is a survival mechanism. Our stories teach and emphasize values held by our pack, and we're pack animals and must cooperate to survive.

Our stories - the interpretation of events and worldviews - define and bind us together like the familiar smell of breath and behind define and bind a pack of wolves.

There is no tenuous connection - it IS reality. The mind can't discern between 'reality' and a vividly imagined experience. Storytelling, as a form of missionary work, spreads that reality, even if it's just vividly imagined. And the pack grows larger.

Ulysses said...

I don't think you can be a story teller without experiencing this revelation.

I believe there is an objective reality, but I've never seen it and I doubt any human has. Human consciousness creates this barrier of interpretation between objective reality and ourselves. "Story" is as good a name for it as any other. We don't percieve objects or events directly. We percieve them within the context of ourselves, and we can't do that without assigning them meaning, without interpreting them through the lens of our thoughts and feelings. We don't truly percieve the world. We percieve the stories we create about it. We need those stories to move the world into our minds where we can think about it, feel it and interpret it.

The world exists inside of us, a different version for each individual, the meaning of objects and events entirely subjective and personal. The stories that result, the beliefs and interpretations we extract from what we percieve, don't even need to map well onto objective reality. Insanity can be understood as reacting to stories about the world that diverge too far from what's real. From that point of view, for a given value of "too far," all of us are mad. So someone who observes an event fits it into their story of the world, which differs from everyone else's story by factors which have as much or more to do with what's inside them already than with what's actually going on.

The thing that's always struck me as remarkable about the stories we tell ourselves is the way we cut them into three pieces: beginning, middle and end; past, present and future. We are encompassed by these things. Human lives are finite, and so begin, continue and end, and they shape every single story we create about the world. We believe things are created, exist and are destroyed, but physics tells us otherwise. Everything changes, but nothing passes. Nothing is lost. When things change so much we no longer recognize them, then we say they're gone. How can they be? Every atom that made them up still exists (unless we force them to undergo fusion or fission... and even then we're just rearranging subatomic particles). Every story we ever created around our interaction still exists in our memories, and we could write new stories including them if only we could accept how the change in them must transform those stories.

In a very real sense, we are all just the sum of the stories we tell ourselves. Our lives have an overarching plot, from birth to death, with a myriad of subplots as small as our next conversation or as large as the quest to raise responsible children.

Isabella Amaris said...

@ Mira

Funnily enough, when I wrote what I did about stories creating lies/conflict, all I could think about was Hitler! Talk about a master (monster) storyteller who twisted truth to bits...

On a separate note, I wonder if anyone here has read Angela Carter's 'The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories'? It was a real eye-opener for me on the power of stories to expose narrative structures beneath our thinking. I've reviewed it here in case anyone is interested:

Cheers, and thank you for the thought-provoking post, Nathan.

Ellen Shriner said...

I love this essay/blog! As a memoir and journal writer, I write and tell stories to discover meaning. I think you've done a great job of articulating how stories our narratives shape our perception. Philosophize any time.

Christopher said...

When it comes writing, is it the same thing to say that "Making Sense of Life" is the same as "exploring emotions"? When I sit down to write something, my idea often starts with something like: "I wonder what it would feel like to..." or "I wonder what emotions cause...". I usually start with an emotion - and move on from there, making it as believable as possible.

Is that the same thing as "making sense of life"?

I feel like writing for therapeutic reasons or writing oral history, as others have discussed, misses how I approach it in some small ways. I want people to have an emotional connection to what I write, even if they don't learn anything from the story or don't understand life better because of it. I don't feel like I'm trying to make sense of anything, but sharing with others some "sense" that I already feel.

At the same time, understanding "why" we feel the way we feel, seems like one of the biggest parts of making sense of our lives.

Am I just repeating a minor part the article or is this something different altogether?

Leigh Ann said...

There is a Yiddish proverb that "God made humankind because God loves stories." If that's a reason for God to make something, it's a reason for me to write something.

Lia Keyes said...

One of your best posts ever. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

"We are nothing without stories."
Wendell Berry

Katie said...

I completely agree.

I'm reading _Tolstoy and the Purple Chair_ by Nina Sankovitch right now and it is about exactly this topic. She uses a year of reading one book a day to heal from the death of her sister. I'm really enjoying it because books have helped me heal and make sense of the tough parts of my life too.

Claude Nougat said...

As always, Nathan, you're spot on!

I would only add that HOW you do it is what makes the difference between GREAT literature who reveal to us the "meaning" of life and the others who don't - who just limit themselves to "entertain" us.

Sure, having a laugh is fun, but getting a glimpse into the human condition and beginning to understand what it is all about is COOL!

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