I love stories and storytelling. I’ve known since I was 8 or 9 years old that storytelling would be my life. And it has. For most of my working life, I’ve been paid to create stories. And when I’m not doing it for pay, I’m doing it for love.
The great storyteller Ray Bradbury (whose home of 51 years is getting torn down as I write) once advised me, as he did so many young writers and filmmakers, to “Name your loves and prove your loves.” Stories and their telling have always been proof of my love.
And yet…and yet…and yet…
I have learned that the telling of stories can do as much harm as good. Thom Mayne, the rockstar architect, and his wife, who are tearing down Ray Bradbury’s house, probably claim that they are proving their love of architecture by tearing down a ho-hum design and building a showcase. At the same time, I’m surprised that Mayne does not take into account how many stories he’s destroying along with that house. No one is arguing with his right to tear down the house. People, myself included, are arguing with the appropriateness of doing it without any regard to the the community of Bradbury fans, and the sacredness of The Place Where Ray Bradbury Lived and Wrote.
When I heard they were tearing down Ray’s house, I posted this in my Facebook status:
How dare those people tear down Ray Bradbury’s house without salvaging the stories that live there. And I don’t mean stories he wrote. I mean the stories he lived, and the lives he touched. That house belonged to a community of people, not just to the current owners of the property on which it sat.
By telling one story (theirs) that demolishes another, (Bradbury’s) Mayne and his wife are creating a divisive situation. And herein lies a problem. Stories can divide every bit as much as they unite. They can destroy as much as they grow. They can conceal every bit as much as they reveal. Let’s examine how:
Unlike Western notions of story, which are rooted to time, and a chronology of events, Native Americans believe that stories are rooted to place. Stories live in the earth and elements–we call it the materiality–where events transpire. In his presentation at the 2013 Quantum Storytelling Conference, Leroy Little Bear, a Native American scholar, physicist, and elder in the Blood tribe of the Blackfoot nation, put it this way:
“A Western mind believes that if you tell a [story that is a] lie, that lie will diminish over time until it is forgotten. Indigenous people believe that the lie stays in that place forever, and whoever visits that place will be touched by the lie.”
Do I need to go deeply into how Colin Powell told the world a story about yellow cake uranium shipped from Niger to Iraq for use in weapons of mass destruction, and the aftermath of that story, to remind us of how destructive a story can be? Of how the lie doesn’t go away because it’s “on the clock?”
In demolishing Bradbury’s old house, the new owners are counting on a Western relationship between time and story. The classic public relations mindset is: “People are pissed off about it now, but in time, they’ll get over it.” This way of thinking about story gins up all sorts of trouble, because chronological time is not the only type of time frame in which stories live. Stories not only exist in chronological time, they exist in opportune time (what the Greeks called kairos), biological (cycles of birth-death-rebirth) time, and are also affected by tempo (the intensity of time).
Unwarranted arrogance settles on a storyteller who believes that the only version of reality is the version he or she is describing, and that anything in the story that doesn’t match the audience’s world view is an inconvenience that can be managed and marginalized until it evaporates with time, or until the audience accepts the teller’s world view as their own. Ask the soldiers who’ve come home with permanent scars to their bodies and minds if the story told by Colin Powell has diminished with time. Not for them, it hasn’t.
When a storyteller tears down Ray Bradbury’s house, he divides us instead of creating unity, which I believe is why stories exist. To create unity between epistemology (what we know) and ontology (how we live). Between people, communities and tribes. Divisive tellings typically create an “other,” a population away and apart from those privy to the storyteller, who have a different world view and therefore must themselves be different. Divisive stories serve the purpose of the politician, but ultimately do not serve the polis itself, the society in which people with different world views must co-exist.
Stories can be lightning rods for all types of human intolerance. Divisive stories are the speciality of control freaks, zealots, fearmongers and psychopaths the world over. In tearing down Ray Bradbury’s old house the new owners are telling a story with all kinds of with-us-or-against-us cuts built into it. Modernity vs. Posterity. Bradbury Fans vs. Non-fans. Architects vs. Everyone Else. The owners are telling us they belong to a religion whose belief system is different from that of Ray Bradbury fans. And then we fight.
I had a friend from grade school, let’s call him Stover, whose father committed suicide. This was not the story Stover told the kids in our class. The story he told was that his father had died in a hunting accident. I imagine it was a necessary myth for his peace of mind. There was, however, one boy in the class, call him Wayne, who learned what had actually happened and began telling people in our class that Stover’s dad had shot himself. Stover responded by starting The Wayne Hating Club, whose purpose was to hate on Wayne for telling people about his dad’s suicide. Without asking me, he made me Vice-President of the club. Before our teachers found out about it and broke it up, club meetings consisted of dreaming up ways to hurt Wayne and avenge the honor of Stover’s father. One divisive story begets another. And if you want to join a hating club today, you have all sorts of options. YouTube comments? You’re a member. Neo Nazis? Look it up Religious fundamentalists? Choose your God and let’s hate.
Storytellers also cause trouble when the only science they practice is the cause-and-effect relationship with an audience. I tell you a story with the confidence you will respond a certain way. A funny story, you laugh. A sad story, you cry. A story with a compelling hook, you click. A promise to relieve your pain, you buy. Entire economies, including that of the entertainment business, are built on this Cartesian split, on the idea that a story stands alone as a thing, a product, independent of the people and the purpose behind it. What a lot of so-called leaders want from the telling of a story is the confidence that they will move bodies by moving minds. They spend their lives imposing their will on the bodies of others. They believe that concepts of mind and body are independent of one another, and causally related. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” is the prime example of this type of storytelling. The linear storytelling leader’s variation of this is, “I think, therefore you am.”
In reality, there is no split. Body and mind inform one another. The flow state of story creation is not linear. Who’s telling a story is bound up with the story itself. The audience moves the storyteller as the storyteller moves the audience. The relationships we have with stories are not solely cause and effect. We can live through a story, express our intentions, and play with the materiality of a story, without having to know what the story’s outcomes are going to be, or what kind of effect the story will have on an audience, a population, ourselves. We work from a realization that we can never know everything there is to know. We can have only partial perspective on any event or situation. We understand that our stories, whatever they are, exist to connect us to other stories and their tellers. We believe that the synthesis of our stories, what we call discursive practices–your story and my story coming together like two overlapping waves, to reveal a brand new story that neither of us could have told on our own–generates real meaning in the world.
This is why stories told by Leroy Little Bear and the indigenous people of the Americas are not designed to have a clear moral, teaching or outcome. They are not cause and effect, because they honor the discursive practices. A Native American storyteller does not share a story with the intention of prompting a particular outcome or realization by an audience, the way a comedian goes for laughs, or a tent preacher goes for donations. Instead, the storyteller uses a story to put ideas into play, and create a dialogue with the audience. The dialogue is not between the storyteller and the audience, but between the story and the individuals in the audience. The story is a way of posing questions that everyone in the audience must answer for him- or herself. The synthesis does not happen in the story, but in the interplay between the story and the listener. What does this story mean to me? What actions will I take as a result of it? What insights can I get from thinking about the story more deeply? How are my intentions affected by the story? Stories do not resolve our real world problems or answer our troubling questions. They are a mechanism for helping us realize how to resolve problems and answer questions.
The best response I’ve seen to the Tearing Down of Ray Bradbury’s House, has come from my friend, the actor Joel Murray, who lives in the neighborhood of the house. After I bemoaned the teardown today on Facebook, Joel wrote:
I’ve been walking my dogs by there every day. Today we walked up right when the taco truck pulled up. While the demolition crew took their break I grabbed a socket plate from his office and a black stone from his garden. Maybe there is writing energy in that socket plate, right? I’m putting it on the outlet under my desk.
Yes. And in the black stone, too. Leroy Little Bear lives!