Friday, 5 September 2008
The stories we find compelling reveal something to us of the tensions in our lives. Perhaps even more revealing are the stories we ourselves tell. Think of the incidents that happen to us in the course of an ordinary day - there will be dozens and dozens of them. Most of these will pass into oblivion but some we will pass on to others in the form of the stories we tell when asked "how was your day?" We won't tell everything that happened to us, but a carefully selected sample. Why these few? And the incidents we choose to tell are never reported exactly as they happened: we select details, emphasising some parts and ignoring others. We minimise, or even omit entirely some of the characters present and play up others. We expand the timescale in parts of the story and contract it in others. Think for example of what is meant in the middle of a story by the phrase, "and then..." (or such similar phrases as "what happened next" or "next thing I knew". This can mean "instantly", or "soon afterwards" or even perhaps "a day or two later". The characters objects and events which make up a particular story can be visualised like so:
All the elements of the story have connections with all the other parts of the story, all exist more or less simultaneously, and no one has ascribed greater or less value to any of them. In telling the story, we emphasise some parts over others, and arrange the story into a "plot" - into a time sequence of our own devising, which may or may not roughly follow the temporal sequence of events as they unfolded to us. So our told story, constructed from the events will look like this:
The story like pattern of the anecdote we tell is our own construction. We are all writers and composers and artists as we recount the events of our day. The selection of the event and the way we construct the event into a narrative discourse will be extremely revealing of who we are and what our current concerns are.
This is not where the importance of narrative ends though. Our lives are narratives: they are a continuous story stretching back over the period we have been alive. And in remembering and telling the story of our own lives a similar process has taken place: we have selected, forgotten and shaped the events of our past and we have imposed a pattern ; shaped the multifarious incidents of our lives into a meaningful plot. What informs this shaping? And the history of humankind is a story. And the history of the planet is a story. And the history of the universe is a story. Who is imposing the pattern on these? Who is selecting, emphasising, forgetting, shaping what IS into a time bound pattern?