I Don’t Trust Stories

Whenever anybody ever tells me a story, I know right away I’m being lied to, at least a little bit.

It’s not that the person speaking to me is intentionally misrepresenting the truth or conveying a falsehood: it’s that all stories are lies.

Stories want us to believe that human lives follow graceful character arcs; that new truths are slowly revealed, actions taken in response to those truths, conflicts encountered, and new insight either gained or not in response to those conflicts.

That isn’t, I’m sure you’ll agree, what a lived life is like.

Stories (mis)represent lives in idealized, smoothed-out forms. Most stories, anyway. Life is a great deal more impenetrable and rough than stories are.

The one thing stories get right is that characters in stories have no free will. They have to do the same thing, over and over again, every time, or it’s not the same story. Characters have no free will, and as science is continually suggesting, neither do we. (It sure is a pleasing fiction, though, isn’t it? The notion that we can make independent choices, I mean. Thankfully, at the very least, there are so many variables in life that it’s impossible to calculate what a person will be impelled to do in any given situation, so it really LOOKS like free will. Also looks like the earth is flat, if you stare at the horizon, but I promise you, it’s not.)

This is all even for true stories, only more so, because they actually pretend to be true.

I believe it’s incumbent upon all human beings living in the 21st century to maintain a healthy distrust of stories. Question them. Pick them apart. Challenge them. Don’t expect them to be perfect. Expect them to have meanings unintended by their authors and tellers. Expect to peel back their false surfaces to find the confusion beneath them.

I would also add: the more you like a story, the more you should ask yourself what sort of lie you’re invested in believing.

What does it mean to be a playwright who doesn’t trust storytelling? If I claim that I’ve figured that out, you’d be smart to doubt me. I’d very much be telling you a story.

Perhaps I am, even now.

But I will say this: I am trying to figure out how to make my stories more messy, like life. I’m trying to figure out how I can integrate non-fiction into my plays, a la Herman Melville — not to lend the story the veneer of accuracy, mind you, but to say to my audiences “See? I know. There’s truth and then there’s truth, and you should really do your own research.” I’m trying to figure out how to make them less “nice.”

I’m afraid, of course, that this will mean people will like them less, and want to produce them less. For the moment, however, I feel a bit vive la révolution about it. (Now, there’s a story!)

How does it strike you?

5 thoughts on “I Don’t Trust Stories”

  1. Like I cannot wait til we have time to get to work.

    But also, part of the reason that we tell stories is to try to process, understand, make sense of, learn from and grow. In order to do that, it is probably useful and maybe essential to streamline a little so that we don’t get distracted. If he had a few hairs out of place, the statue of Lincoln at his memorial might be diminished.

    1. I know. ME, TOO.

      We do indeed tell stories for those reasons — also, I would suggest, to create meaning in an inherently meaningless universe, but that’s neither here nor there. I agree that it’s useful to streamline, too, not only to avoid distraction, but to choose what we’re going to focus on. A few hairs out of place, here and there, and a rumpled waist-coat, make the statue life-like. Too many deviations and we only see the chaos, not the story. But a story, properly told in the modern era, should (I think) always exist against a backdrop of disorder.

      What do I mean by that? I think I’ll need to devote a few more years to figuring that out.

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