Tell Me a Story

I’ve started the process of writing my thesis paper for school. I’ve taken as my subject “the future of narrative,” except that, as a paper title, it will be capitalized.

When one starts out to talk about where something is going, what is the first thing one does? That’s right – talk about where it’s been. And it turns out that humans communicate primarily through storytelling, and always have. Think about your typical day. You get up, and maybe you turn on the radio or television to catch the news and traffic before heading out for work. Do the news and radio presenters give you long lists of undifferentiated information? Well, if it’s traffic, yes. Or weather. And sports scores. But all that other stuff? It’s all stories. Narratives about something that happened to somebody, and sometimes what that somebody did about it. Then you go to work or school and talk to your friends or co-workers. How do you talk to them? You tell them stories about things you’ve done or seen or thought about since you saw them last. Then you get home, and if you live with someone, you tell them the story about how your day went. If you don’t, you might call up a friend or two and the whole tribe of you will exchange stories. Or you might watch television – the non-literary narrative device. And, if you’re like me, before you go to sleep, you read a book. My entire day, from beginning to end, is steeped in story.

Now that I think about it, there’s a feature in our tiny town’s local paper that both intrigues and infuriates me – you probably have something similar in your local paper. It’s the police blotter, a place where all the calls to law enforcement are catalogued without any editorial. While it’s interesting to know whether my neighbors have also gotten their mail stolen, I want to know the stories behind these calls.

Here’s a sample:

Jan. 1

1:35 a.m.: A Boulder Creek resident reported that her live-in boyfriend had covered her mouth with one hand and used the other to try to choke her during an argument. The boyfriend had fled by the time deputies arrived at the scene.

What were they arguing about? How long had they lived together? Is this the first time they’ve called the police? How old are they? What happened after the police left?

I need story so much that when I’m bored out in public, I make up stories about the people around me. People at restaurants, people attending the same meeting I’m in, nobody’s safe. And, if asked, I’ll certainly share those stories, even if they’re about you.

Narrative is certainly changing. As technology moves ahead, it enables humans to offload some of the intellectual work of remembering a given story thread, so that stories can be told over longer periods of time. First writing made it possible to save stories for later, kind of like raisins are grapes someone saved for later, which makes the written word the raisin of narrative. Just go with it. Scrolls meant that we could have stories of any length – just start a fresh scroll when you get to the end of the one you’re on now. And whoever uses up the end of a scroll had better get out a new one, because no one likes to sit down at the writing desk and find they’re without a scroll. Not cool. Then books allowed for longer narratives in less space. Then, eons later, electronic media allowed books to take up almost no room at all.

Just wait. Next time, I’ll tell you more about where narrative is going. First, I have to go talk to some of my neighbors. Someone owes me a story.

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