Manipulating Story

What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens. – Robert McKee

via Pinterest

I’ve been focusing a lot lately on the idea that our lives are constant stories that we tell ourselves, with plot twists and “little did he know…” and sweeping arcs that span generations. At the same time, there’s the knowledge that we are also nothing more than animated hunks of carbon spinning on a rock out on a spiral arm of yet another galaxy merrily whizzing it’s way towards the inevitable heat death of the universe.

Kinda puts a perspective on your monthly budget shortfall, eh? Sometimes a hard dose of “reality” can be a useful thing. Manipulating the story we tell is one of the most powerful tools we have for shaping our lives. Thinking of yourself as a winner, as a loser, as a victim, as a predator…all of these have their uses (and yes, I included the last one because there are times when thinking of yourself as the one who takes can help you get past obstacles, as the motivational poster to the right indicates.

 Masters of Manipulation

It follows, then, that the more we learn about the craft of storytelling, the more effective we can be in manipulating our own stories. That’s basically what the whole technique of “affirmations” is all about. I personally don’t like that technique too much (reminds me too much of Stuart Smalley) but there is definitely some power in the repetition of an idea.

“We all think that an exception is going to be made in our case and we’re going to live forever. Being a human is actually arriving at the understanding that that’s not going to be. Story is there to remind us that it’s just OK.”  — Ken Burns

I tend to prefer the longer narratives, though that also has its own danger. You reach a point where instead of being the author of your story, you become the audience. Instead of being the one who decides when to make the audience laugh or cry, you let yourself just react to the plot points (the facts, as Robert McKee called them) instead of interpreting them as you choose and letting that be the story that takes place.

Zen Buddhism (at least, the Soto variety that I practice) would have you try and sit with reality as it unfolds and let what happens be nothing more than that – what happened. I happen to agree that can be a very useful tool for managing your life, but at the same time, even Zen masters tend to point out that it is just another story we are telling ourselves. The idea that “things are just things” is no more true than “things are really important.” Truth is not just what we believe about a thing, but also what others believe. The beliefs around a stretch of land in Israel, for example, have resulted in deaths and injuries and more; meanwhile, beliefs about light refracting through moisture in the atmosphere has resulted in everything from signs of God’s approval to myths of treasure to rallying flags for equal rights.

Yet, it’s just a rainbow.

Don’t Get Complicated

When I latched onto this idea for today, one of the thoughts that came to mind was “Wait, will it be long enough?” Thinking about it, I realized that was the wrong question. I’m not writing Oliver Twist; I don’t get paid by the word (more’s the pity). Instead of worrying about the length of the story I am telling today, I needed to worry about the right words, just enough of them to get the point that I am trying to make across. If I can do that in a haiku, then that’s one damn fine haiku.

I’m not quite that good – it’s taking me about 630 words – but it occurs to me: if it’s not so much the length of a story that matters as much as the story you tell, and stories are the metaphor-du-jour for life…




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