A Widget By Any Other Name … What is a story?

What is a story? What are these widgets that we are making anyway? And, you know something? We don’t have any exclusive right to widget making. No trademark. No copyright. No patent. Anyone in the world can make one of these widgets, any where at any time and claim it as their own. We’re in a free market system. Highly competitive. But that’s the point.

The difference is, that you and I are trying to make world-class widgets. We want to make the BMW or Mercedes Benz of stories. And there will always be K-Mart and Yugo versions. These will look like the same widgets but sold to the hungry public at bargain rates. They may not last as long. But for the uniformed, uneducated and less discerning, they will suffice. Maybe it has already happened but someone should open a 99-cent store for Story Widgets.

But there are those of us who are aiming to make first-class widgets, widgets that will last, widgets that will demand the attention and respect of the multitudes.

Okay, I am avoiding the question – what is a story? – I get it. I keep allowing my widget producing ADD brain to get distracted. I was at Venice Beach the other day, walking the boardwalk, sharing personal stories with my friend. Heart felt stories. Of course there are hundreds of T-shirts hanging in the tourist trap shops along the boardwalk. (A boardwalk with no boards, by the way. Just thought I’d make that point.) My friend is in the midst of a passionate diatribe on the inequities of male/female relationships when one T-shirt catches my eye, captures my imagination, speaks to me personally, finds a corner in my mind that it claims as its own and refuses to leave the neighborhood. It reads: “It’s not my ADD that’s the problem. It’s just that … Hey, look … a squirrel … “ Cute. Clever. To the point. I didn’t buy the T-shirt. Thought about it for a second and then found myself listening to some Hare Krishna devotee talking about the power of yoga. Now I have a book on yoga that I’ll never read.

Let’s see if we can focus a sufficient number of neurons on this question to at least come up with something resembling a coherent answer. A story is a depiction of a journey. In a story we follow a character or a series of characters on a journey as they pursue something. Okay, that’s a start. Let’s see how simple and basic we can make this.

What does the dictionary say?
1. a factual or fictional narrative
2. a short fictional prose piece
3. a plot of fiction or drama
4. an account of facts
5. a falsehood
6. a news report
7. a legend or romance

Okay, not bad. Perhaps something to work with there.

I don’t want to get into all the genres, styles, delivery systems, etc. That can all wait until later. But not now. Not yet. It’s as if we were going to make and perhaps sell donuts. We better know what goes into making a donut. A donut is not a bagel, and I think it would be a good idea if we understood that too.

A story is a telling of an event, either true or fictional, in such a way that the listener experiences or learns something just by the fact that he heard the story. A story is a means of transferring information, experience, attitude or point of view. Every story has a teller and a listener. No matter the medium, there has to be the one telling the story and the one receiving the story. That seems to be essential. “If a tree falls in the forest …” “If I story is told and there is no one there to receive it, does it make a sound?”

We tell stories every day. We are telling stories every minute of every day – mostly to ourselves. We are both the teller and the listener. We tell ourselves stories to make a point, to imagine a possible future, to remind ourselves, to reprimand ourselves, to comfort ourselves. Inside each and every one of us is a complex system of storytelling that is active, rich in content, and, I believe, very necessary to the health and well being of each of us.

This is where stories start, where they are conceived, gestate and are eventually born. Consequently, the story’s first teller is our self and the first listener is our self. And we’re telling this story because we need to be both the teller and the listener.

A story is a series of events depicting the journey of a character, or characters, in the pursuit of something. A story is a series of events we either create or remember or imagine which we tell ourselves because we want or need to hear it. Perhaps we create stories because we want or need to know something, learn something or answer a question. Perhaps it is the listener within us that demands the story and the teller within us that does its best to accommodate. Maybe the creative urge we feel is meant primarily to feed our selves, nourish ourselves, take care of, comfort and protect ourselves. We think we tell stories for others, to inform or entertain. But what if we are initially doing this for ourselves? What if our storytelling is such an essential tool to keep the human psyche in balance that it has become as important as food, air and sleep?

Oliver Sachs (in “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat”) said that he felt that the ‘telling of life stories is perhaps one of the most powerful therapeutic tools available to man.’ (That’s not a direct quote, that’s a remembered quote. I’ll find the specific wording at another time. If I look for it now, you know what will happen. “Hey look … a squirrel …”) What if the telling of our stories, to others, once we have harvested most of the nutritional value for ourselves, is necessary so that we can move the story out of our system, release our clutch on the life raft it has become, and make way for new stories, new life rafts?

The essentials of life (food, water, air, sleep) pass through us. Nothing remains. We take them in, absorb their essence and them let them out. Maybe it’s the same way with story. Maybe that’s what story is. Story is part of my life-sustaining and life-nurturing system that first serves its purpose within me and then needs to be shared with others. It needs to be shared with others because if I hold onto it too dearly or desperately or selfishly – out of greed or fear – It will eventually become toxic and turn to poison within my system. I need to create my stories. I need to allow them to grow inside me. I need to feed them knowing they will feed me. And then I need to let them go. I need to share them. In the sharing every story will generate or stimulate more stories, more nourishment. And life stays in balance.

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One Response to A Widget By Any Other Name … What is a story?

  1. Elsha Bohnert says:

    Hi dear Mark,
    Elsha here. Xavier (remember him?) reminds us that the universe is constantly nourishing us, but we forget; we think we have to eat. What if it’s stories that the universe is feeding us? Stories for courage, stories for grieving, for laughing, all kinds of stories that our bodies need, like food and medicine. This in turn, it reminds me of a story I once heard about a woman who had been in a traumatic car accident. Her therapist asked what she remembered of the moment of impact. She said, the sound of metal crashing into metal. The therapist then had her re-enact the sound by banging pots and pans against each other, because that was apparently the sound that she needed to hear and that the universe provided for her.

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