Humans don’t have memories, just stories we’ve been told or told ourselves until words form prosthetic experience we carry inside in order to understand what happens outside of us. They form our experiences as our experiences form our next story.
Stories are our cipher, our codex, our record of what must be known and the tools we use to comprehend that record. Stories remember for us who we are and from where we come. But they are more than that. Stories are the air we breathe.
As a storyteller, I have a recurrent nightmare. Alzheimer’s disease. In broad terms, I can think of few potential terminal diagnoses more frightening than reaching the point at which my body continues on, in a biological sense, but my life ends, in the most practical sense of the words “life” and “ends.”
You see, without story there is no meaning, without meaning there is no hope, and without hope there is no life. This is not metaphorical. Hope extinguished is life’s cessation.
Note the discovery made of dolphins in captivity. At a certain point, some marine biologists contend, dolphins realize they are being held in a small tank rather than experiencing the freedom of the ocean. When they do, they just stop breathing. Respiration is a choice for dolphins, and, without hope, they choose to stop. Permanently.
I’d argue the same thing happens to humans when we cannot see a way for our story to continue. This is a massive claim, so let me reiterate: we live until our stories end.
And yet, we almost always take storytelling for granted. It’s a diversion or a pastime or, at most, something we do to communicate important information in a more accessible or entertaining form. But life-sustaining? That’s a bit much, right?
Here’s a challenge: turn to the nearest person and tell them about your childhood. The challenge? Do it without telling any stories. Really get them to understand where you came from and how it shaped you without painting a series of pictures that puts them there.
Better yet, try to clearly relay to that same person what it is to be human without resorting to narrative.
I am well aware that one may, via the means of scientific observation, make material claims as to the biological processes that comprise the collective meaning of the word “life” as applied to the human species. And yet that very word—life—is a story. Or, at present, more than seven billion stories intersecting and diverging every second of every day. The world is large, too large to know fully even with our best technological advances.
In the seminal 20th century novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez captures this dichotomy perfectly in the mystical gypsy elder Melquíades. Early in the story, he claims that, “Science has eliminated distance. In a short time, man will be able to see what is happening in any place in the world without leaving his house.” One might add that science may eventually make it possible to see what is going on inside anything in the world as well.
And yet, Melquíades then spends the rest of his life writing the story of the Buendía family, which the reader and even the characters of his story discover is really the process of writing the world of the novel into existence. Or, while science is murdering distance, that murder is merely a construct of the story being told about it.
In shorter form, meaning is the providence of story more than science. And in a fashion no data can replicate alone, stories convey the ways in which the parts of the world we will never experience personally are intimately similar to our own and the ways in which they could not be more different.
In essence, they allow us to live more than one life while simultaneously making the one life we are living fuller. Stories embed rather than explain, engage rather than instruct, influence rather than force change.
I understand freedom better because Frederick Douglass shared his slavery. Human bondage becomes experience through Alice Walker’s Celie. Golgotha’s footpath leads me to sacrifice. Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes reminds me of my desperate need for someone to make a sacrifice on my behalf. Neil Gaiman’s stories hold potential futures I may live to see. Joan Didion’s essays and memoirs remind me of the present I must fight to remember I’m living. Gay Talese’s exhaustive profiles make characters of real people I’d like to meet but likely won’t. Cormac McCarthy’s invented characters are more real than most people I know.
What I gain through all of these stories is the hope that humanity’s story, “the powerful play” as Walt Whitman referred to it, continues in such a way that I may not only understand it better, but contribute my own stories to the collection. For what is more hopeful than the thought that my stories—stories that in my head seem so particular to me and me alone—may actually create hope for others?
So I tell stories, to anyone who will listen. I commit them to paper and screen with ink and code. I encourage them in others by begging them to look at their lives, at their words and images and very breathing, as a story they are in the midst of authoring.
It is in the telling of these stories that I have found (written?) the best response to the nightmare I described earlier. In it, I may have been robbed of my memory, but not of my stories. Rather, I imagine myself sitting in a chair, one of my children or readers or former students telling me a story, not merely for my benefit, but for their own as well.
In this way, my memories are safe in that they don’t really belong to me. Rather, they become the property and shared experience of anyone who comes in contact with them.