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Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Here’s a taste of economist and New York Times columnist Tyler Cowen’s remarks about storytelling at something called TEDxMidAtlantic (evidently the future is moving too fast for the spacebar to keep up).
I was told to come here and tell you all stories, but what I'd like to do is instead tell you why I'm suspicious of stories, why stories make me nervous. In fact, the more inspired a story makes me feel, very often the more nervous I get. So the best stories are often the trickiest ones.

The good and bad things about stories is they're a kind of filter. They take a lot of information, and they leave some of it out, and they keep some of it in. But the thing about this filter, it always leaves the same things in. You're always left with the same few stories. . . . There's monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth. You don't have to agree with that list exactly, but the point is this: if you think in terms of stories, you're telling yourself the same things over and over again.

There was a study done, we asked some people to describe their lives. And when asked to describe their lives, what's interesting is how few people said, "mess". It's probably the best answer; I don't mean that in a bad way. "Mess" can be liberating, "mess" can be empowering, "mess" can be a way of drawing upon multiple strengths.

But what people wanted to say was, "My life is a journey." 51% wanted to turn his or her life into a story. 11% said, "My life is a battle." Again, that's a kind of story. 8% said, "My life is a novel," 5% "My life is a play." I don't think anyone said, "My life is a reality TV show." Again, we're imposing order on the mess we observe, and it's taking the same patterns, and when something is in the form of a story, often we remember it when we shouldn't.

So how many of you know the story about George Washington and the cherry tree? It's not obvious that's exactly what happened. The story of Paul Revere, it's not obvious that that's exactly the way it happened. So again, we should be suspicious of stories. We're biologically programmed to respond to them. They contain a lot of information. They have social power. They connect us to other people. So they're like a kind of candy that we're fed when we consume political information, when we read novels. When we read nonfiction books, we're really being fed stories. Nonfiction is, in a sense, the new fiction. The book may happen to say true things, but everything's taking the same form of these stories.

So what are the problems of relying too heavily on stories? You view your life like "this" instead of the mess that it is or it ought to be. But more specifically, I think of a few major problems when we think too much in terms of narrative. First, narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip it way, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it's a story about your own life or a story about politics.
Even if we avoid the pitfall of assigning good and evil, we still face the other fallacies of seeking a well-constructed narrative: that things don’t just happen randomly, but for a reason already established in the story; that we as characters affect the outcome of events through our efforts (or fail because of lack of effort); that there’s a lesson or insight to be learned. In writing fiction, I’m eager to create good narratives. In studying history, I’m suspicious of them, yet it’s the natural way I lay out information.

Cowen’s whole talk can also be viewed as a video.

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