Going… going… but not yet gone

the image shows an edmontonia. a sort of dinosaur

edmontia, a species of dinosaur.

I remember when “to discriminate” meant to distinguish fine degrees of difference, as in “a person of discriminating tastes.”

I remember when “disrespect” was not a verb.

I remember when “to grow”, as in “to increase in size” was intransitive and the only transitive meaning for “grow” was “cultivate” – as in oranges or daffodils, or hair.

I remember when there was no internet, and when a computer was something that would fill a room. This means I also remember when a manuscript meant pen marks on paper because there was no such thing as a word processor – Gasp! Horrors!

Last week I bought my son a paperback copy of Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games at Vroman’s bookstore on Colorado Blvd in Pasadena. The store is more or less on the way when my husband and I make our weekly visit to his dad at the assisted living facility. It’s a store where Ray Bradbury still holds a book signing every year on the weekend that falls closest to Halloween. The store seems to be thriving… but I wonder whether it will continue to do so in the face of changing technology.

It makes me feel a little sad.

Sometimes I feel like a dinosaur, old and slow, lumbering down the dusty path to extinction. At other times I am a bird, a winged and feathered dinosaur-descendent, soaring above the world.

Perhaps I would be a heron. I like herons because they are patient hunters who get to stand picturesquely beside still water, participating in the art of reflection.

Herons also do a pretty good soar from time to time, without having to spend all day at it like eagles. (Why do eagles always get to be the metaphor for success? All they’re doing up there is shopping for mice, and from the mouse’s point of view it’s going to be really bad news.)

Two herons and a few turtles

heron participating in the art of reflection.

When I am being a soaring bird, I look down and see the whole world spread out below me, stretching into both past and future and connecting them into a meaningful continuum. Things become linked, as old skills are put to new uses. So the dinosaur survives by transforming itself in little ways and finding new occupations.

Why do we create fiction?

Lakota storyteller: painting.

Lakota storyteller: painting.

I strongly suspect that human beings have been telling stories for about as long as we have had language that was complex enough to make it possible.

(One of the defining characteristics of complex language is that it allows you to talk about things you and have not seen, and be understood by a listener who has never seen them either. “I never saw a purple cow. I never hope to see one. But I can tell you anyhow, I’d rather see than be one.”)

I picture our hunter-gather ancestors huddled around the campfire at night telling stories.  I’m sure it began with the simple recounting of the teller’s experiences. (“I crossed the stream, and went over the hill, and I met a…”) The first simple stories would not have been fiction. They would have been accurate accounts within the limits of the storyteller’s understanding. I imagine that storytelling would have conferred a selective advantage because the stories served a purpose: to convey information about the world – such as where to find food, or how to avoid danger. And I’m sure the information was more likely to be grasped and remembered if the stories were interesting – if they drew the listeners in and held their attention. In other words, these early stories were learning opportunities that would have been more effective as such if they were good stories to begin with, and also if they were well-told. Their power would have come partly from their realness – and I don’t mean the fact that they were true stories. I mean that they felt real to the listeners because the listeners could vividly imagine the storyteller’s experiences – even imagine themselves moving through the story in the storyteller’s place.

I believe we often learn better from stories than from dry recitations of facts because a good story makes the useful information it contains more concrete and more personal. The story creates a more real experience in the mind of the listener or reader because it engages his or her imagination.

These, then, are the three components that are essential to successful human learning-from-storytelling:

  • A good story (interesting content)
  • Good storytelling (language skills, dramatic sense, etc.)
  • Imagination (on the part of the listeners/readers)

Why is imagination important for the listeners? A really bad telling will ruin a good story, and even the best storyteller will be a flop without good material. But you could have a great story that was superbly told, and it would still be wasted if your listeners were unable to picture in their minds the people, places, and events of the story.

Well okay, you say, that explains the origin of narrative nonfiction – but, what about fiction? Your title sort of implies that you were going to talk about that. (Ahem!)

I’m getting there.

So the question is: when did our hunter-gather ancestors first start making things up?

I’m sure this happened pretty early, too. It would have started with simply embellishing an otherwise factual narrative. One obvious motivation would have been self-aggrandizement. If the storyteller were relating his own experiences, he might wish to make himself appear smarter, more competent, or more heroic. And if several other people sitting around that campfire had good stories to tell that night while his day had been dull and uneventful, he might just be inspired to concoct something out of whole cloth. Does that mean that fiction got its start from people lying?  Well, not really. Lying has the intent to deceive, and, while I’m sure there were some who tried to do that, they would have ultimately been caught in their lies and would have lost standing in their tribal groups as a result.  No, I’m sure a lot of those early spinners of fiction were motivated by a desire to entertain their listeners – because stories do definitely entertain.

Stories entertain because they offer vicarious experiences. Entertainment consists of experiences that we seek out because we  enjoy them, rather than for any obvious practical benefit – and vicarious ones seem to work almost as well as real ones. In the case of stories, the listener or reader can follow the adventures of the hero or heroine without having to actually face the dangers, or endure the hardships, and without having to possess the knowledge, skills, or prowess necessary to successfully deal with the problems encountered.  Through stories you can travel – via your imagination – to places you have never been, or could never go. You can witness wonders beyond anything the mundane world has to offer.  People do crave novel experiences, but they naturally (and sensibly) shy away from dangers and try to avoid hardships, and the mundane requirements of their lives tend to prevent them from traveling unnecessarily or going adventuring.  Stories conveniently get around these limitations.

Magazine cover of Imagination December 1952 issue.

magazine cover of Imagination, December 1952 issue.

The components essential  for the success of an entertaining story are the same as for an informative one: good story, good storytelling, and imagination. The difference, in the case of fiction, is that imagination is required on the part of the author as well as the listener/reader. And this is part of the reason why I believe fiction provides a positive benefit to human beings – why it isn’t just a byproduct of the fact that humans benefit from the telling of true stories.  Nothing exercises the imagination quite like the process of concocting a good piece of fiction. The rest of the reason is that this exercise-for-the-imagination benefit extends beyond the author to touch the readers/listeners as well. It’s this simple: True stories are limited by what is true, while fiction is limited only by the restrictions of one’s imagination.  And imagination is what takes us beyond what is concrete and visible, beyond what we already know. It is the basis of all future vision and all creative enterprise.  Without imagination, humans would not be human.

If you can imagine more elaborate imaginings, you can dream bigger dreams. And if you dream bigger dreams, you are likely to achieve greater achievements.