Monday 23 April 2012

How it Came to Me by Jonathan Gottschall

The initial idea for The Storytelling Animal came to me not from research but from a song. A few years ago, I was driving down the road on a beautiful day, cheerfully spinning the FM dial. A country music song filled the cab: Chuck Wick’s “Stealing Cinderella.” My usual response to this kind of catastrophe is to flail at the radio until the noise stops. But there was something heartfelt in the singer’s voice, so I leaned back and listened to Wicks sing a story about a little girl growing up to leave her father behind. Before I knew it I was blind from tears, and veering off the road to mourn the time—still more than a decade off—when my own little girls would fly the nest. I sat there for a long time feeling sheepish and wondering, “What just happened?”

Who hasn’t had a similar experience? When we submit to fiction--whether in novels, songs, or films—we allow ourselves to be invaded by the teller. Chuck Wicks was in my head, squatting there in the dark, milking glands and kindling neurons.

I wrote The Storytelling Animal in an effort to understand how fiction—the fake struggles of fake people—can have such tremendous power over us. The book is about the way explorers from the sciences and humanities are using new tools, new ways of thinking, to open up the vast terra incognita of the storytelling mind. It’s about the way that stories--from TV commercials to daydreams to religious myths—saturate our lives. It’s about deep patterns in the happy mayhem of children’s make-believe, and what they tell us about story’s prehistoric origins. It’s about the hidden ways that fiction shapes our beliefs, behaviors, ethics—how it powerfully modifies culture and history. It’s about the ancient riddle of the psychotically creative night stories we call dreams. It’s about a set of brain circuits--usually brilliant, sometimes buffoonish—that force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives. It’s also about fiction’s uncertain present and hopeful future. Above all, it’s about the deep mysteriousness of story. Why are humans addicted to stories? How did we become the storytelling animal?

Jonathan Gottschall (2012) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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