Living in a Narrative Culture

Some days are like slogging through a desert.

Some days are like slogging through a desert.

During this last week while I’ve juggling several different aspects of my life and making myself exhausted and frustrated, I’ve been pulled by memories every which way. The stories of my life. Moments of clarity, moments of pure joy like stomping hard in a rain puddle. Exchanging moments of personal history with co-workers. Knowing failure intimately. A realization emerged from all of this: I am not the only one drawn to stories during times of high stress.

The Writer November 2016

The Writer November 2016

I read on the city bus commute to and from work. This week I was reading the newest issues of The Atlantic Monthly and The Writer.  The November 2016 issue of the latter is chock full of interesting ideas and information, especially about computers and blogging. Megan Kaplon interviewed the food blogger Elissa Altman about her blog Poor Man’s Feast and her recent memoirs.  One of Altman’s comments stuck out for me. She was talking about how we live in a “narrative culture,”  programmed to expect that all the loose threads of a story will be tied into a neat bow at the end. She continues:

“…life is not really this way: we don’t all live happily ever after. That’s fantasy; that’s fairy tale. Reality is steeped in the unknown, the discomfiting, the ambiguous.”

This comment slapped me flat on my forehead. Duh! I’ve been consuming novels lately like a starving woman and now I know the reason for my urgent reading. I’ve been trying to keep reality at bay! Even in our nonfiction, we want there to be a “happy ending.” But are stories for escape or for learning? Or both? And as a writer, am I a teacher or an entertainer? Providing the reader/escapist’s drug of choice?

Our world right now threatens us. The media each day bombards us with stories of destruction, death, discrimination, injustice, pain, and fear. It doesn’t help that America has a candidate for president who fuels all the fear and paranoia. No one individual, however, has control over it all. I don’t. You don’t. That sense of powerlessness leaves us fearful as well. We don’t know when the terrorism will stop, if it will stop, if we will be a victim, if someone we love will be a victim, if the hatred will increase and spread to consume us. We want to be safe, secure, and happy, and to be successful. We want good things not bad. So why have we ended up with such a frightening place to live?

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Photo: Marina Shemesh

In stories, we read a beginning, a middle full of conflict, obstacles and suspense, and an ending, usually one in which the protagonist achieves his or her goal, although sometimes not.  When we read this structure in a story, it creates a sense of control over a narrative that we do not have in real life. So, I read mysteries and thrillers, and these stories feel familiar to my real life, so their endings (where the protagonist prevails as well as justice) give me a sense of control I don’t have in my life. I learned a long time ago that I have control only over my own thoughts, feelings and behavior.

Change can be difficult and requires openness to learning and ease of adaptation. Change is the only constant in the universe. We will have it in every day of our lives, both tiny and massive. Reading books can anchor us so we can tolerate and embrace change in our lives. We share our stories, too, with friends and family every time we tell them about our experiences. We live in a narrative culture.

I think the human need for story, for narrative, is a little bit of genius to enable our survival.



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