Category: art

Why Do We Tell Stories?

A bunch of stories.

In thinking about the type of writer I want to be, I’ve begun to consider what attracts people to stories. Obviously, there are a lot of different genres, each with its own audience expectations to be fulfilled. Beyond that, there is high-brow and low-brow entertainment, right? Your WAR AND PEACE and your TWILIGHT. I’m not talking about either of these things, as those are just a matter of preference. What, at a fundamental, elemental, atomic level attracts us to storytelling? What are we searching for in stories?

To be clear, there’s probably no universal answer. Just like genre or high-brow / low-brow art, different people search for different things in their stories. So, I can really only speak to what I want in a story, and what all the writing advice I’ve consumed tells me most other people want in their stories. Things like story structure, the “Hero’s Journey,” and other classic storytelling traditions aren’t accidents. They work.

In my opinion, people like me, MR(S). EVERY(WO)MAN, seek out things that reflect us and give us resolution. Let’s talk it out.

REFLECTION

People are vain, self-absorbed creatures, which is why we only ever tell stories about ourselves. Even stories with non-human characters assign them human traits. Emotions that are not natural to an animal, for example, like envy. When there is a purposefully inhuman character, it’s more of a contrast than a true other. Spock, for example, is an alien character whose primary trait is a lack of emotion.

There are lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is that stories are told by people. In that fact alone we’re limited by our experiences. If, somehow, we came across a story that showed truly alien things we probably wouldn’t even be able to recognize it as a story.

But reflection is more than a limitation on our experience. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. We tell stories that reflect us because they help us to understand ourselves. As far as we know, we’re the only creatures in the Universe that are consciousness of our consciousness. That’s confusing! We understand our own mortality, we have notions of abstractions like “justice” and seek order in an inherently chaotic world.

Reflecting our emotions, our social structures, our politics, our dynamics, our everything back to ourselves through art and storytelling helps us to make sense of it. To pull it apart a little bit and put it back together in a different, perhaps better way. We want stories to reflect ourselves not only because we relate to it, but because we want to better understand ourselves.

RESOLUTION

I don’t believe we only want to better understand ourselves. In some sense, I think story helps us to enact some control over things we inherently have little to no control over.

Every day new mysteries come and go, in our personal lives and in whole societies. The sock that goes missing. The serial killer that goes uncaught. The $5 bill you found in jeans that you don’t remember wearing. The thought-extinct fish that suddenly shows up on shore.

It’s rare we get answers to these things. Our lives are an increasingly silly machine we’re building piece-by-piece, with little insight into its inner-workings. Stories give us the opportunity to step inside the machine and swap out its parts so that all the pieces fit.

In that sense, I think stories are about resolution. The happy ending. The mystery solved. The family gaining closure, either through understanding or not. In life things are rarely explained, and things rarely end conclusively. Storytelling gives us that satisfaction.

***

These are the conclusions I’ve come to as I’ve thought about the type of stories I want to tell, and the types of stories I think people want to hear. It may sound obvious (because it is), but I firmly believe that sometimes in order to make progress you have to start with the absolute basics and then let those principles guide you.

Birdman or the Irony of Established Filmmakers Perfecting Movies About Failure

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) almost made me want to give up trying to become a writer, artist, or creator. Not because of the story’s content, although it did give me a lot to chew on.

No, the reason it made me want to give up is because, like when I read Fitzgerald or Bradbury, I can’t imagine ever being able to create something so perfectly realized. It’s like Alejandro Inaritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo (the four credited writers of Birdman) reached into my head, took all of the thoughts I’ve had about fame and artistic success, and told a better story with that inspiration than I ever could. It encapsulated a lot of my thoughts and feelings about one’s ambition to be an artist. Like Inside Llewyn Davis before it, established, successful filmmakers communicated the plight of the fledgling artist better than the fledging artist himself can.

In my estimation, the film picks apart art and artists through three separate characters. There is Riggan, the main character; Mike, Riggan’s foil for much of the film; and Sam, Riggan’s daughter. Let’s take a look at the ideas they embody one by one.

Riggan: Riggan represents the commercial, aging, soulless artist that may or may not have pursued acting for the right reasons but, as he’s gotten older, becomes obsessed with leaving a legacy behind. This resonates with me because part of the reason I want to be a writer is a vague attempt at leaving something behind that might allow me to be remembered.

Mike: Mike is pure artistry, only able to be his true self when he’s on stage. Renowned for his talent, he rejects all attempts at commercialism. I think the majority of those who are serious about writing feel this way. They look at what makes money in Hollywood, compare that with their idea of what makes a good movie, and notice a pretty huge discrepancy. Neither Riggan nor Mike understand the idea of a balance between art and accessibility.

Sam: The uncaring world. At one point, Sam has a great monologue about what motivates Riggan to put on the play at the center of the story. She explains that the only person whom the play’s success or failure matters for is him. No one else cares about his art. It’s a great point: How self-involved do we have to believe that the things we create matters to anyone but us? I tell myself I write stories and screenplays because I want to make people feel joy/inspiration/terror/thoughtfulness/whatever else I tell myself matters at any particular moment, but why should I assume they care?

Those three characters represent the extremes of every debate about art and its place in the world that I can think of. I’ve struggled with all three of those thoughts more than once while writing and thinking about why I want to write.

I think that Mike is what artists, whether writers, musicians, or painters, prefer to see themselves as. It’s what Riggan strives to be. But it’s not necessarily what any of us are, especially if we’re successful (not that I’d know what that’s like). There is a certain loftiness we all ascribe to our arts, but that loftiness also makes us inaccessible and pretentious. Riggan, on the other hand, is affable. He’s spent a career giving people what they want and being rewarded for it. This, I think, is ultimately the path we’re all on. Does something exist if no one acknowledges it? Popularity is the only sign of success that means anything.

That’s where Sam comes in. She is indifferent to everything and everyone for the most part, only coming to life when there is something more substantial beyond the “art” everyone is peddling. Her character, and what her character represents, is something I think about constantly. Why should anyone care what I think? Why should anyone care that I’m trying to do this thing over here when they can see that thing over there? The other characters need to justify their existence to her, just as any artist needs to justify their existence to the world at large.

There were some lofty ideas in Birdman that were wrapped up in a beautiful technical package and delivered by excellent performances. I just hate that the ideas that I spend my time obsessing over have already been stated in such an elegant way.

Damn you, Inaritu.

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