Since we planned to be out of town for Halloween this year, we produced our annual Haunted House last night, a bit before official trick-or-treat night. “We” means myself and my volunteer crew, of which, this year, there were thirteen members. What an appropriate number for a Haunted House!
As usual, It took several weeks back in September for me to get psyched. First, I had to stop thinking about my other projects. I had to come up with a theme, decide on characters, scenes, and devices, and develop a story line in my mind, imagining the experience our visitors would have, before I could nail the first nail. As I created the structure that defined the maze-like path to be followed, as I shot each staple into the black plastic walls intended to keep visitors’ footsteps and focus in the right direction, as I adjusted the angle and dimness of each tea light to reveal only what I wanted to reveal, eventually, the construction of the house drew me into the scenes and characters I was imagining. And as usual, now that “the day after” has arrived, I’ve awoken before the sun rises, my mind crawling with memories of last night’s screams and laughter. I try to go back to much-needed sleep, but the thoughts of next year’s possibilities get in the way. It’s the same old story. Once my mind gets psyched for the Haunted House, it starts to wear a groove in a horrific path; now, it will take something powerful to lift it out of that groove.
I wish I’d done more theater in my life. I suppose some of my elaborate practical jokes might lay claim to theater. I’ve even tried my hand at a few crude movies of the narrative, “artsy” sort. But mostly, its been novels and haunted houses. I suppose I’ve wanted to tell stories with pictures and words ever since I was a kid. It’s how I’ve always imagined who I am.
In my efforts to be a better writer, I’ve read much on the craft of writing, from popular books like Stephen King’s On Writing to academic tomes like Mieke Bal’s‘s Narratology. But among the ghouls and monsters on my mind this dark morning comes the memory of a book on writing I read a few years back, one by Lisa Cron called Wired for Story. That book makes the point that human brains have evolved to give us a highly developed capacity – indeed, a need – to think in terms of stories, and that we’re now hard-wired to do so.
The opening words of Ms. Cron’s book set the neurological stage:
“In the second it takes you to read this sentence, your senses are showering you with over 11,000,000 pieces of information. Your conscious mind is capable of registering about forty of them. And when it comes to actually paying attention? On a good day, you can process seven bits of data at a time…”
Cron’s book goes on to describe how the very success of our species depends on our capacity to translate overwhelming experience into simple stories. I don’t know the source, or even if it’s true – maybe from The Agony and the Ecstasy? — but Michelangelo is said to have observed that when he sculpted, he didn’t create art, he just removed everything that wasn’t art. In my own writing, I’ve come to realize how true that is. Research produces so many pieces of data, and because I find it fascinating, my temptation is to share it all with my readers. But thorough research is a little bit like real life, which is to say, like Cron’s 11,000,000 pieces of information. That much information simply doesn’t make a story, any more than the slab of marble Michelangelo started with makes art.
Our brains are not wired to deal with such overloads, but to ensure our survival, which they do by “imagining” ourselves in hypothetical situations, scoping out what “might” happen to us if we eat the apple, smell the flower, or step in front of the oncoming bus. Every memory we have is similarly a story – not a photographic reproduction of reality, but an over-simplified construct designed to make sense of our experience. Think of what you were doing a minute before you started reading this post. What do you remember? Certainly not every smell, every sound, every thought that crossed your mind, every pixel of your peripheral vision. What you remember of that moment is a microcosm of what you remember about your entire life. Sure, you can remember what you were doing September 11, 2001, but how many details of your own life on that infamous day could you recall, if you devoted every second of tomorrow to the task? And that was a very memorable day. What do you recall of September 11, 1997? Chances are you have no idea of the details of your experience that day. The fact is, we don’t remember 99.99% of our lives. All we remember are the pieces of the narrative stories we tell ourselves about who we are, which is to say, what our experiences have been.
The same holds true about our thoughts of the future. As we drive down the road, we don’t forecast whether the next vehicle we pass will be a blue Toyota or a green Chevy. We do, however, forecast whether our boss will be angry when we ask for a raise, or whatever might happen that’s important to us when we arrive at our destination (which is, usually, a function of why we’re going there). Whether we’re thinking about the past, the present, or the future, we see ourselves as the protagonist in a narrative story defined by the very narrow story-view we’ve shaped to date, which includes our developing notions of what’s important to us. Our proficiency at doing this is what has helped us flourish as a species. This is why photographers tend to see more sources of light in the world, and painters more color, while novelists see more words and doctors see more symptoms of illness. The more entrenched we are in who we’ve become, the more different is the way we perceive reality.
Understanding ourselves as hard-wired for dealing with simple, limited stories rather than the totality of our actual experience – not to mention the totality of universal experience – has important ramifications for self-awareness. As the psychologist Jean Piaget taught us, from our earliest years, we take our experiences and form conclusions about the patterns they appear to represent. As long as new experiences are consistent with these constructs, we continue interpreting the world on the basis of them. When a new experience presents itself that may not fit neatly into the pattern, we either reject it or (often with some angst) we begrudgingly modify our construct of reality to incorporate it. From that point forward, we continue to interpret new experiences in accordance with our existing constructs, seeing them as consistent with our understanding of “reality” (as previously decided-on) whenever we can make it fit.
And so, from earliest childhood, we form notions of reality based on personal experience. The results are the stories we tell of ourselves and of our worlds, stories which have a past and which continue to unfold before us. As Cron points out, we are the protagonists in these stories. And I’d like to make an additional point: that in the stories we tell ourselves, we are sometimes the heroes. We are sometimes the victims. But unless we are psychopathic, we are rarely, if ever, the villains.
There are, of course, plenty of villains in these stories, but the villains are always other people. In your story, maybe the villains are big business, or big government; evil Nazis or evil communists; aggressive religious zealots, cold-blooded, soul-less atheists, or even Satan himself. It could be your heartless neighbor who lets his dog keep you up all night long with its barking, or the unfeeling cop who just gave you that unjust speeding ticket.
As you think of the current chapter of your life story, who are the biggest villains? And are you one of them? I doubt it. But I suggest asking ourselves, what are the stories the villains tell about themselves? What is it that makes them see themselves as the heroes of their stories, or the victims? Isn’t it reasonable to assume that their stories make as much sense to them as our stories make to us?
We have formed our ideas about reality based on our own experiences, because they make sense to us. Indeed, our stories make sense to us because they are the only way we can get our minds around a reality that’s throwing 11,000,000 pieces of information at us every second of our waking lives. We live in a reality of mountain ranges, full of granite and marble. Michelangelo finds meaning in it by chipping away everything that isn’t The Pieta, Auguste Rodin by chipping away everything that isn’t The Thinker. When they find meaning in such small samples of worldwide rock, is it any wonder they see reality differently?
Psychologists tell us that self-esteem is important to mental health, so it’s no wonder that in the stories we tell ourselves, we are the heroes on good days, the victims on bad ones, and the villains only every third leap year or so. Others are the normal villains. But if I’m your villain, and you’re mine, then we can’t both be right – or can we? An objective observer would say that your story makes excellent sense to you, for the same reasons my story makes excellent sense to me. Both are grounded in experience, and your experience is quite different from mine. Even more importantly, I think, your “story” represents about 7/11,000,000th of your life experiences while my story represents about 7/11,000,000th of mine.
But confirmation bias means that we fight like heck to conform new experience to our pre-existing stories. If a new experience doesn’t demand a complete re-write, we’ll find a way to fit it in. It’s like we’re watching a movie in a theater. If some prankster projectionist has spliced in a scene from another movie, the whole story we’re watching makes no sense to us and sometimes we want to start over, from the beginning. If our stories are wrong, our entire understanding of who we are and how we fit in becomes a heap of tangled film on the projection room floor.
One of the things I love about Halloween is how it lets us imagine ourselves as something different. I mean, Christmas puts our focus on Jesus or Santa Claus, role models to emulate, but their larger-than-life accomplishments and abilities are distinctly other than the selves we know. Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day encourage us to focus on other people. Halloween is the one holiday that encourages us to pretend to be something we’re not – to put aside our existing views of the world “as it really is” and become whatever our wildest imaginations might see us as. I think that’s why I like it so much. Obviously, I’m not really a vampire ghoul from Transylvania, but when my current worldview is based on a tiny, 7/11,000,000,000th slice of my own personal experience, how much less accurate can that new self-image be?
I think of “intelligence” as the ability to see things from multiple points of view. The most pig-headed dullards I know are those who seem so stuck in their convictions that they can’t even imagine the world as I or others see it. I tend to think that absent the ability to see things from multiple points of view, we’d have no basis for making comparisons, no basis for preferences, no basis for judgment, and therefore, no basis for wisdom.
Halloween is the one time of year I really get to celebrate my imagination, to change my story from one in which I’m hero or victim to one in which I’m a villain. As I try to see things from a weird, offbeat, or even seemingly evil point of view, I get practice in trying to see things as others see them. For me, it seems a very healthy habit to cultivate.
But I must end on a note of caution. As someone who tries to tell stories capable of captivating an audience, I am keenly aware of a conflict. As the dramatist, my goal is to channel your experience, your thoughts, your attention, along a path I’ve staked out, to an end I have in mind. When I’m successful, I create the groove. My audience follows it. In this respect, good story-telling, when directed toward others, is a form of mind control.
But what about story-telling to oneself? It’s probably good news that in real life, there isn’t just one Stephen King or Tom Clancy trying to capture your attention or lead you to some predetermined goal. Every book, movie, TV commercial, internet pop-up ad, billboard, preacher, politician, news reporter, self-help guru and next door neighbor has a story to tell, and wants you to follow it. The blessing of being exposed to 11,000,000 pieces of information every second is that we’re not in thrall to a single voice trying to control the way we see the world. But does this mean we’re free? The reduction of the world’s complexity into a single world-view is a story that IS told by a single voice — our own. All of our individual experiences to date have been shaped by our brains into a story, a story in which we are the heroes and victims. The most powerful things that seek to control our views of the world are those stories. We’ve been telling ourselves one since the day we began to experience reality. My own? Since early childhood, I have seen myself as a story-teller. Since September, the immanence of Halloween has forced me, almost unwillingly at first, to focus on my annual Haunted House. At first, it was hard. But in just a few weeks, the themes, characters, scenes, and devices of this story took such a hold on me, that I woke up this morning unable to think of anything else.
Such are the pathways of our minds. If my thoughts can be so channeled in just a few weeks, how deep are the grooves I’ve been cutting for over sixty years? Am I really free to change the story of my life, or am I the helpless victim of the story I’ve been telling?
This week, try imagining yourself as something very different. Something you’d normally find very weird, maybe even distasteful. But remember – don’t imagine yourself the villain. Imagine yourself, in this new role, as part hero, part victim. Get outside your prior self, and have a Happy Halloween.