Wednesday 21 March 2012

Why do we tell stories?

A question I've been asked from time to time is, Why do you write?

The first time I heard that question, my mind turned to the movie Shadowlands (1993), which deals with the life of C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books. Lewis was a prolific writer. His circle of literary friends (including J.R.R. Tolkien) formed a writers' group known as the "Inklings". (If you want to see writers discussing their ideas for stories in a learned, but passionate way, watch this movie.)

The Inklings discuss story ideas in an Oxford pub.
In Shadowlands, there is a scene where Lewis confronts a wayward student. The student becomes animated while talking about his love of books. Then he quotes his father as having said: "We read to know we're not alone." That rang true for me; true, but incomplete.

I answered the question—Why do you write?—by quoting from Shadowlands, "We read to know we're not alone," and adding: "We write in order to become known." Meaning, books and screenplays are a safe place for us to explore our inner turmoils, fears and pain, and to allow others to share in our examination. 

I was happy with my answer, until I read Brian McDonald's book, The Golden Theme. (I intend looking at that book in more detail later in the year, perhaps in discussion with Brian.)  It is a small book, overflowing with stories, which illustrate his many points. One of these is the idea that human beings tell stories to pass on survival information. He illustrates that with a story about the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, well-known to Australians, which inundated parts of South East Asia in 2004 and killed almost a quarter of a million people. 
But the Moken people, who live on the coastlands of Thailand and Burma, suffered no deaths at all because they believed in an ancient legend. A story saved their lives. When the ocean receded and a small wave rolled in, the Moken people knew that it meant a tsunami was coming, and they headed for higher ground.
   Their legend says that there will be seven waves before the big wave comes—the wave that eats people. It's called the Laboon and it is caused by the angry spirits of the ancestors. 
   When the spirit of the sea becomes hungry and wants to taste people again, it sends a wave to swallow them up.
What do you think? Does that story reflect reliable scientific fact? The people who knew the story to be unscientific ignored the warning and died in the tsunami. The 'ignorant' fled and survived. Story 1, Science nil.

Matsushima Bay
I was reminded of this when I read another story in the L.A. Times on March 11, 2012, called Japan's 1,000-year-old warning.n a refugee center on the island of Miyatojima, at the entrance to Matsushima Bay, when he stumbled on a story that taught him something unexpected: Collective memorystorycan save your life. A local man told him this story.

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