Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Storytelling and Telling Stories

My grandmother always told me, “Now don’t you be telling no stories.”

But I always did.  I couldn’t resist a story, even if it meant making one up for no reason but the making.

My grandmother said these were lies.  My husband would agree.  He’s an engineer, suspicious of the frayed edge that all stories have, the place where facts start unraveling.  He says that fact and truth are the same thing.  He says that if he started writing equations based on my ideas of truth, planes would fall from the sky.

It’s a point.

And yet my brain can’t make sense of all the facts around me; it’s an impossibility.  Information overload.  My brain has to leave out certain things for me to make sense of the rest.  It edits my reality into something I can comprehend, leaving out this, focusing on that.  It connects my present experience to the other experiences folded and tucked in my gray matter, and by doing so, creates a chronology, a sense of past and future, effect and consequence.  The human brain is wired for stories, and it programs our consciousness accordingly.

Not facts.  Stories.

Memory is useful not for what it records, but for what it erases.  It takes out the extraneous -- however factual -- and leaves us with essence -- however slanted.  And it <em>is</em> slanted; it must be.  No true and perfectly accurate memory exists.  Certain details, by necessity, weren’t captured in the first place, and every subsequent time your consciousness touches the memory, it further alters it, even as it carves it deeper into your brain.  Jonah Lehrer explains it more eloquently than I can in his article "The Neuroscience of Proust" (from <em>Seed</em> magazine):<blockquote>
Every time we remember, the neuronal structure of the memory, no matter how constant it may feel, is delicately transformed.  If you prevent the memory from changing, it ceases to exist.  So the purely objective memory . . . is the one memory lost to you forever.</blockquote>

Our memory is a fallacy.  All we have are our stories.  All we <em>are</em> are our stories.

Which is why I write fiction -- because it's the only way I know to find something real.  And there isn't an equation in the world that can do that for me.