Once upon a time, I wrote a journal entry with a pen and paper about something that had happened to me a long time ago. For a while, the writing was all recollection and memory. The truth, as I saw it. But at some point a narrative voice took over, a voice that was part me now and part me then. That voice began telling their story. The writing turned from fact to fiction without pausing for breath.
This seems to me to be a common transformation. It’s the truth in the story which makes it believable. It’s the truth that helps the reader suspend their disbelief and become complicit in the telling. It’s the alchemy of remembering to imagination, from language to muscle movements, from the printed word, via the eyes to the brain, and hopefully understanding.
The stories are always there, in all of us. We are immersed in story from an early age: in the books and fairy tales; in the cartoons, television and films; in our families retelling of our own histories. We cannot escape them.
But if we could? If we were free from all that heritage, but kept our language, would we make stories of our own anyway?
The answer is easy.
Think back. Remember when we were in the caves, or further, in the trees? Remember how we learned to communicate, to make ourselves known and to know others? Remember how we tried to make sense of the world?
Without even trying we told stories. Oral traditions started about how to find things to eat, what to hunt and what to run from, what was good and safe, what was bad and dangerous. These stories endowed us with an immense survival advantage – and so, of course, the stories were propogated.
As time passed, our languages became sophisticated with the slow accretion of new words, phrases and meanings. Embellishments and nuances were added to our tales. These edits made the stories more useful, and hence, more powerful. The information contained within each story was communicated more effectively and became more memorable. And therefore easier to communicate in turn.
Civilisation’s memes travelled across the world.
Had all the original stories already been told by the time we dispersed out of Africa? Did these stories become hard-wired into our evolving brains? Is this the origin of Jung’s Collective Unconscious? If you were denied all such story telling, would you still hold these images in your head? Would you feel the need to re-invent them for yourself?
We tell ourselves stories all the time, in our attempts to make sense of everything around us. It is a natural consequence of being self-aware: a function of language and cognition.
What came first? The chicken or the egg, or the story of the chicken and the egg?
What actually came first was being able to express the idea of ‘what came first?’. What came first was the ability to reason, or in other words, the ability to tell ourselves stories about how we thought and, crucially, how we imagined the world to work.
Without the ability to imagine, reason, and tell stories we would still be in those trees, in those caves.
And I would still be writing about my memories of things that happened to me instead of imagining something new.