On the Origin of Story
Updated: Jul 25, 2021
Note: This was originally published and is still housed at StoryGrid.com, where I am a certified editor and content contributor. Double posted at the encouragement of Shawn Coyne and the SG crew.
Parenting young and middle-grade children during and just after the 2016 US presidential election was tricky. I felt a jerky, awkward tug-of-war happening internally, with warring philosophies about what my kids should see and hear and know and understand. Plopped on top of it all like The Blob but for awkward social awareness was this gnawing understanding that the war of what-to-share was itself a privilege. That my immediate cishet-presenting white family were largely sheltered from the more serious political and ideological ramifications of the election, and I was free to choose how much to shelter or share since the world wouldn’t decide those things for me.
The Blob gobbled up all of the deeper issues I was wrestling through and spat out one hodgepodge concern that could serve as a scapegoat for all the rest: my kids just watched a bully get exactly what he wanted.
Regardless of how one has or has not been affected by this administration’s policies, it’s difficult to dispute the fact that the narrative at center stage since 2015 has been less than kind. Or direct. Or honest.
And yet—their wins have kept coming.
Just this week [as of this writing], Stephen Colbert hit trending status on Twitter for directly asking former security advisor John Bolton how he, a longstanding intelligence official, could be naïve about this presidency. At the intersection of comedy and journalism, Colbert pulled no punches speaking to a man who’s under fire for making millions on a tell-all but refusing to testify in an official capacity.
But there was one question he asked that we all need to sit with: “What’s more dangerous—no philosophy, or a philosophy that you disagree with?”
It occurs to me that we only view the ability to remain apolitical as a privilege not because it actually affords us any advantages in this life, but because it’s the most comfortable option—and our brains are wired to prefer the path of least resistance. Change threatens homeostasis, and the body will make great sacrifices to return back to a sense of normal. The same is true for social structures—our established sense of power dynamics, institutions, and definitions of normal are encoded into our understanding of survival, and threats to that order feel like threats to our very survival.
The bully didn’t win because he had better policies, but precisely because he was a bully, blustering and bowing up against change, in service of homeostasis.
The weapon of our time is not a spear or a bow or a gun. It is narrative. It is story. It is facing the philosophy we disagree with directly, untangling its structure and getting right to the heart of it, rather than retreating to the comfort of ambiguity and assumption.
Understanding story is not just entertainment or a way to gain deeper fulfillment. Understanding story is how we unite, how we fight, how we defend, how we attack.
Story is how we survive.
Throwing Stones and Shooting Arrows
At the first Story Grid Nonfiction event, I furiously scribbled in my bright blue notebook as Shawn zoomed out from direct story structure to discuss the nature of story itself. Let me rephrase: Shawn zoomed all the way out from story structure, and gave us a detailed lesson in the history of human evolution.
The timeline tracked across what most of us were taught (unless you grew up in a young earth Creationism bubble, which is a whole other topic about story that I won’t get into here). The Homo genus emerges, makes tools, forms families, hunts to survive, and so on. Then the year 75,000 B.C.E. pops up, which is a relatively recent date, all things considered. At that time, an apocalyptic super-volcano erupted and wiped out all but about 10,000 of us.
“Every single one of us in this room is descended from those 10,000—and genetic theory is that those things sit in our DNA,” he explained. And in the wake of the apocalypse, our ancestors began to express themselves with story. Sculptures, paintings, music, lore…The passage of time, the development of patterns, the transfer of knowledge from one Homo genus to another took the form of story in the wake of great threat, loss, and change.
These are the very fibers we are made from. The sapiens who survived did so because they faced great change and used story not only to cope with it, but to help others adapt as well.
Fast forward about ten minutes into this rediscovery of human history and some several thousand years down the timeline, and another evolutionary advantage takes the stage: projectile weaponry.
Before we began lobbing things at each other, our bones were riddled with the scars of blunt force trauma. We bludgeoned our way through life, meeting conflict with force and winning or losing in direct proportion to our inherent strength.
When projectile weapons came online—one wonders if it emerged from shared hunting stories or prehistoric white-boarding on the side of a cave—all of that changed. Now, you could win if you could craft the right tool. You could win if you measured the arc just right. You could win if you learned from the last throw, or the throw from someone in your family tribe, or the missed throw that proved to be fatal.
This, too, is embedded in our DNA. This deep understanding that our advantage against more powerful forces is not in brute force or anything we were structurally and inherently shaped by—but through the arc of a projectile weapon. The beginning point, middle build, and landed end.
Story, the theory then goes, is the great equalizer. An adaptive advantage that allows us to lob truth at power in a way that disrupts the very trajectory of human history.
The Arc and the Target
My fear in 2016 was that the powerful brutes had also picked up spears, and my inclination was to slip into protective mode. Retreat into a cave until the apocalypse had ended.
But something incredible happened: the artists came through.
We sat in the theater and watched Star Wars reimagined as a collective hero’s journey, with new faces representing the wins. We saw a new vision of A Wrinkle In Time, where the protagonist didn’t have to look like my blonde-haired-blue-eyed daughter, in a story that asked us to embrace what others call our faults. We cried together over The Hate U Give as our neurons fired as fast as they could in an attempt to make sense of this alternate, parallel reality that our friends and neighbors inhabit.
On the Roundtable, our editors listened to the stories told in Get Out, Selma, and If Beale Street Could Talk, unwinding not only the projects but their arcs—how are narratives used to span history, time, space, experience, differences, and inequality to speak truth to the very heart of power?
Story is the closest thing to a shared lived experience that we can create—the brain literally attempts to experience what it reads and imagines. In this way, when Black and Indigenous and queer and disabled storytellers pour out their lived experience onto the page, it is a generous and vulnerable offering to understand. To be understood. To be heard. To be seen. To lob truth at power and, in so doing, equalize our entrenched power dynamics. When the projected weapon hits its target, it wounds the brute in all of us that just wants to maintain homeostasis.
And yes, the unapologetic brutes do have that same access to story as everyone else. A ripple of concern moved through the Nonfiction Seminar when this realization took hold.
What does this mean for people who work in story? As editors and publishers, do we censor our authors? Do we silence the powerful and flawed? What is the responsibility of other “story” platforms, like social media and education and policy and media and…What happens when we are flawed? How do we make sure only the “right” weapons are lobbed? How do we know what the right weapons even are?
It’s true. The bullies are always going to bluster. They will find their platform, their $2 million book deals, and their big wins. That’s the nature of aligning yourself to established power. You get rewarded by said powers. You get the privilege of safety, at least as long as the dynamics are uneven and you’re still on structural high ground.
Most of us aren’t in a position to disarm the establishment, and a strong argument can be made that we don’t even want to. Let them announce themselves. Maya Angelou knew this:
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
The power of Story, and the tools of Story Grid in particular, is the ability to make the most problematic of those weaponized stories dissipate on contact.
Identifying Narrative Devices
Story Grid Certified Editor Leslie Watts has worked to unpack the power of narrative device to home in on point of view and tell a more direct, impactful story. She writes, “The narrative device is a fictional lens the writer chooses and through which you present the story events.
The lens gives us the who, what, how, and why of the storytelling (as opposed to the story).”
If you haven’t read that post yet, open it in another tab and take some time to sit with it. Because the same structures that help us tighten our fictional narratives point to the stories being told all around us.
While fiction is arguably the most powerful way to create the most direct message for the broadest audience, nonfiction sources of story bombard us every second of every day. Vaguebooking is a narrative device. Social media outrage is a narrative device. Political bullying is a narrative device. Fake news is a narrative device. Claiming something is fake news is a narrative device. Propaganda, media spins, rally chants, protestor demands, movement principles, and the stories we tell our children are all narrative devices that we use, see, and interpret both consciously and unconsciously, usually through the lens of our own biases.
The same tools we use to level up our craft can be used to level up our understanding of each other and the world around us.
When story analysis becomes instinct, the core DNA of the storyteller wakes up inside of us.
We begin to look for the who, what, how, and why of the storytelling as opposed to the story. We listen for the wisdom of shared experience rather than the safety of confirmation bias and alignment with the brute force power of the status quo.
If story is a projectile weapon, story analysis is our shield—not emblazoned with political alliances, but with curiosity and intellectual empathy.
The most powerful and those who align with power will always find their platform and their weapons. We don’t have to offer it to them or take it away. Instead, we can meet their narratives with analysis and watch as it falls apart.
And then, when we’re ready to, we can pick up our own stories and start lobbing them back.
Taking the Arrows
In the middle of what could be one of the most physically isolated moments in history, we have more access to communication than ever before. We live in a world of projectile weapons, tossing stories at each other through text and tweet and headline alike, not to mention the novel everyone swears they’re going to finish. The greater our physical distance, the more frantically we toss stories—sometimes more like lifelines than weapons.
Can you catch this? Will you hold it for me while I can’t? Can it hurt my enemy the way I’ve been hurt? Is anyone out there? Am I heard? Am I strong? Do I matter at all?
Our ability to pen and project story in this moment in history is what will shape history itself. Entire memoirs, society stories, and war epics can reside in a single hashtag.
We desperately reach out to each other not because we are individually powerless, but because together we are infinitely powerful.
Even more remarkably, a story that’s well-crafted can hit targets we never intend to. Just ask JK Rowling and the queer, trans, and allied fandom who found truth and beauty and community in her work, in spite of her ongoing, outspoken intention to exclude. We’ve gathered up trans women like McGonnagal shielding Trewlany, while the author stands aside in her pink dress and air of superiority, wondering why her most recent arrows aren’t hitting their marks. As a good friend and 2020 debut author wrote this week, we loved the Potterverse not because of the author, but because “it had always been us, speaking truth to ourselves, within that framework.”
It’s now 2020, and another election season is upon us. A recurring ritual in American society where we expect politicians to lie to us, but to lie in a way that connects to us. We now expect the bullying to come from both sides, because that’s how victories seem to happen. Depending on where you look, the stories coming at us are more polarized and volatile or unifying and generous than ever.
And I’m not sheltering my kids from a bit of it. We’re taking the arrows that we should have taken all along.
Whatever stands up to analysis is meant to cut deep, and we allow it to pierce where we’d been intellectually calloused. Whatever falls apart under the lens of a selfish, shortsighted, and dangerous device is deflected and dispelled. We name the bullies and analyze why they win. We seek out other Homo narrans and sit with their stories. We connect to them, embracing our shared lineage without dismissing our very different realities. And when we have truth to share, we craft it well, measure the arc, and let it fly.