The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling

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When an English archaeologist named George Smith was 31 years old, he became enchanted with an ancient tablet in the British Museum. Years earlier, in 1845, when Smith was only a five-year-old boy, Austen Henry Layard, Henry Rawlinson, and Hormuzd Rassam began excavations across what is now Syria and Iraq. In the subsequent years they discovered thousands of stone fragments, which they later discovered made up 12 ancient tablets. But even after the tablet fragments had been pieced together, little had been translated. The 3,000-year-old tablets remained nearly as mysterious as when they had been buried in the ruins of Mesopotamian palaces.

An alphabet, not a language, cuneiform is incredibly difficult to translate, especially when it is on tablets that have been hidden in Middle Eastern sands for three millennia. The script is shaped triangularly (cuneus means “wedge” in Latin) and the alphabet consists of more than 100 letters. It is used to write in Sumerian, Akkadian, Urartian, or Hittite, depending on where, when, and by whom it was written. It is also an alphabet void of vowels, punctuation, and spaces between words.

Even so, Smith decided he would be the man to crack the code. Propelled by his interests in Assyriology and biblical archaeology, Smith, who was employed as a classifier by the British Museum, taught himself Sumerian and literary Akkadian.

In 1872, after the tablets had been sitting in the British Museum’s storage for nearly two decades, Smith had a breakthrough: The complex symbols were describing a story. Upon translating the 11th tablet, now widely regarded as the most important part of the story, Smith told a coworker, “I am the first person to read that after 2000 years of oblivion.” The U.K. Prime Minister at the time, William Gladstone, even showed up to a lecture Smith later gave on the tablets, whereupon an audience member commented, “This must be the only occasion on which the British Prime Minister in office has attended a lecture on Babylonian literature.”

Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives, a form of existential problem-solving.

The story on the 11th tablet that Smith had cracked was in fact the oldest story in the world: The Epic of GilgameshGilgamesh has all the trappings of a modern story: a protagonist who goes on an arduous journey, a romance with a seductive woman, a redemptive arc, and a full cast of supporting characters.

Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years, sharing them orally even before the invention of writing. In one way or another, much of people’s lives are spent telling stories – often about other people. In her paper “Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective,” evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar found stories’ direct relevance to humans: Social topics, especially gossip, account for 65 percent of all human conversations in public places.

Stories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness. Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives – a form of existential problem-solving. In a 1944 study conducted by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel at Smith College, 34 college students were shown a short film in which two triangles and a circle moved across the screen and a rectangle remained stationary on one side of the screen. When asked what they saw, 33 of the 34 students anthropomorphized the shapes and created a narrative: The circle was “worried,” the “little triangle” was an “innocent young thing,” the big triangle was “blinded by rage and frustration.” Only one student recorded that all he saw were geometric shapes on a screen.

Stories can also inform people’s emotional lives. Storytelling, especially in novels, allows people to peek into someone’s conscience to see how other people think. This can affirm our own beliefs and perceptions, but more often, it challenges them. Psychology researcher Dan Johnson recently published a study in Basic and Applied Social Psychology that found reading fiction significantly increased empathy towards others, especially people the readers initially perceived as “outsiders” (e.g. foreigners, people of a different race, skin color, or religion).

Interestingly, the more absorbed in the story the readers were, the more empathetic they behaved in real life. Johnson tested this by “accidentally” dropping a handful of pens when participants did not think they were being assessed. Those who had previously reported being “highly absorbed” in the story were about twice as likely to help pick up the pens.

A recent study in Science magazine adds more support to the idea that stories can help people understand others, determining that literary fiction “uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences.” That’s to say, if you read novels, you can probably read emotions.

But why start telling stories in the first place? Their usefulness in understanding others is one reason, but another theory is that storytelling could be an evolutionary mechanism that helped keep our ancestors alive.

Storytelling could be an evolutionary mechanism that helped keep our ancestors alive.

The theory is that if I tell you a story about how to survive, you’ll be more likely to actually survive than if I just give you facts. For instance, if I were to say, “There’s an animal near that tree, so don’t go over there,” it would not be as effective as if I were to tell you, “My cousin was eaten by a malicious, scary creature that lurks around that tree, so don’t go over there.” A narrative works off of both data and emotions, which is significantly more effective in engaging a listener than data alone. In fact, Jennifer Aaker, a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says that people remember information when it is weaved into narratives “up to 22 times more than facts alone.”

The value humans place on narrative is made clear in the high esteem given to storytellers. Authors, actors, directors – people who spin narratives for a living are some of the most famous people in the world. Stories are a form of escapism, one that can sometimes make us better people while entertaining, but there seems to be something more at play.

Perhaps the real reason that we tell stories again and again – and endlessly praise our greatest storytellers – is because humans want to be a part of a shared history. What Smith discovered on that 11th tablet is the story of a great flood. On the 11th tablet – or the “deluge tablet” – of Gilgamesh, a character named Uta-napishtim is told by the Sumerian god Enki to abandon his worldly possessions and build a boat. He is told to bring his wife, his family, the craftsmen in his village, baby animals, and foodstuffs. It is almost the same story as Noah’s Ark, as told in both the Book of Genesis and in the Quran’s Suran 71.

Humans have been telling the same stories for millennia. Author Christopher Booker claims there are only seven basic plots, which are repeated over and over in film, in television, and in novels with just slight tweaks. There is the “overcoming the monster” plot (BeowulfWar of the Worlds); “rags to riches” (Cinderella, Jane Eyre); “the quest” (Illiad, The Lord of the Rings); “voyage and return” (OdysseyAlice in Wonderland); “rebirth” (Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol); “comedy” (ends in marriage); and “tragedy” (ends in death).

Helpful as stories can be for understanding the real world, they aren’t themselves real. Is there such a thing as too much fiction? In Don Quixote, Cervantes writes of main character Alonso Quixano, “He read all night from sundown to dawn, and all day from sunup to dusk, until with virtually no sleep and so much reading he dried out his brain and lost his sanity …”

The next morning, however, Alonso Quixano decided to turn himself into a knight. He changed himself into Don Quixote, deciding he would pave his own journey. Then he went off, “seeking adventures and doing everything that, according to his books, earlier knights had done.”

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Via: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/the-psychological-comforts-of-storytelling/381964/

Short Stories: The Top 10 Classics

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Continuing on with our Writer’s Blog Short Story Week, Writer’s Edit put together a reading list of top ten classic short story recommendations. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the short story emerged as a recognised and respected literary genre throughout the 19th century. What better way to celebrate this literary form than by returning to some of the great tales and classic authors who helped shape this genre into the literary gem it is today.

Here is the pick of the top ten ‘must-read’ short story classics!:

10. ‘The Signal-Man

Author: Charles Dickens Year: 1866

Written by one of England’s greatest novelists, ‘The Signal-Man’ is an eerie ghost story about a railway signal-man who is haunted by foreboding, spectral visions.

Favourite Line: “So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.”

No doubt the best aspect of ‘The Signal-Man’ is the way Dickens establishes atmosphere. An example of this can be seen in the quotation above. Here, Dickens succeeds in creating a haunting, supernatural atmosphere by not only suggesting the narrator has “left the natural world”, but also by describing the setting much like a graveyard.

9. ‘The Happy Prince’

Author: Oscar Wilde Year: 1888

‘The Happy Prince’ is a melancholy tale, reflecting the style of a fairy-tale or fable – which is, after all, where short stories found their roots as a genre. The story looks at themes of love and sacrifice, wealth and poverty, and the nature of true beauty.

Favourite Line: At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if something had broken. The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two. It certainly was a dreadfully hard frost.”

This line is extremely effective and moving due to the dramatic irony of the narrator’s suggestion that it was merely the frost that had broken the prince’s heart. In contrast, the reader is able to recognise that it is the prince’s sorrow, and love for the poor, little swallow that has caused the “leaden heart” to snap in two.

8. ‘The Magic Shop

Author: H.G. Wells Year: 1903

The Magic Shop is a curious tale that follows a father and son’s experience of visiting a ‘genuine magic shop’. While the little boy explores the shop, seeing only joy and wonder, his father is confronted with much more sinister visions. The story therefore examines how we experience the world as children versus how we experience the world as adults. In doing so, ‘The Magic Shop’ forces the reader to consider whether innocence and evil truly exist in the outer world, or whether these are merely determined by our own perceptions.

Favourite Line: I felt him pull at something that clung to my coat-sleeve, and then I saw he held a little, wriggling red demon by the tail – the little creature bit and fought and tried to get at his hand – and in a moment he tossed it carelessly behind a counter… ‘Astonishing what people will carry about with them unawares!’”

The symbolic implication of this line seems to sum up the overall purpose of the story. The narrator, of course, believes the demon belongs to the magic shop, yet the shop owner claims that the narrator has been carrying the little devil around himself. This therefore begs the question – is evil born of our own perceptions?

7. ‘The Gift of the Magi

Author: O. Henry Year: 1906

‘The Gift of the Magi’ is a simple story about a young, married couple’s quest to find each other the perfect Christmas gift. In securing these ‘perfect gifts’, however, each partner is forced to give up something highly valuable, and precious to them, resulting in a rather unfortunate twist.

Favourite Line: But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.”

This line is made all the more wonderful by the contradiction of the line immediately preceding it, which suggests that the couple were extremely “unwise” for giving up their greatest treasures. The delightful contradiction forces the reader to consider how the couple could be considered both “unwise” and yet also the “wisest of all”. In doing so, O. Henry invites the reader to recognise that, although the valuable sacrifices the couple make for each other ultimately reduce their gifts to irrelevance, their sacrifices were made out of love, and are therefore the most valuable gifts of all.

6. ‘Rip Van Winkle’

Author: Washington Irving Year: 1819

After falling asleep in the woods, the ‘henpecked’ Rip Van Winkle awakes to find his village deeply changed, and is startled to discover twenty years have passed. One of the greatest, classic short stories to emerge in America, ‘Rip Van Winkle’ takes a metaphorical look at the changing American Identity following the event of the Revolutionary War.

Favourite Line: I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and they’ve changed my gun, and everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!”

Through this exclamation, uttered by Rip Van Winkle, Irving perfectly captures the crisis of identity he aims to represent. Through this line, more than any other, Irving portrays America as a nation that must struggle to map out its own, unique identity, after severing its ties from the previous monarch (much like Rip, after finding himself free of Dame Van Winkle).

5. ‘Désirée’s Baby

Author: Kate Chopin Year: 1893

Set in Louisiana, prior to the American Civil War (a time when slavery was still considered ‘lawful’), ‘Désirée’s Baby’ examines the injustices of racism and gender discrimination.

Favourite Line: “But above all,” she wrote, “night and day, I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.”

The sense of karmic justice in this final line leaves the reader feeling smugly satisfied. After expelling his wife and child from their home, merely for their mixed heritage, the reader takes great delight in discovering that it is Armand himself who is not entirely of white descent. Within this ending, Chopin highlights that all people are ultimately the same, and that not one of us, for any reason whatsoever, have the right to treat another person as less human than ourselves.

4. The Body Snatcher

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson Year: 1884

Inspired by the Burke and Hare murders of 1828, ‘The Body Snatcher’ is a gothic tale that follows two med students, involved in crimes of grave robbing, in order to keep their anatomy professor supplied with instructional cadavers.

Favourite Line: We were all startled by the transformation, as if a man had risen from the dead.”

What makes this line so intriguing is the way it seems to strongly foreshadow Stevenson’s grotesque, gothic ending.

3. The Yellow Wallpaper’

Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman Year: 1892

Flying the flag for feminism in this story, Charlotte Perkins Gilman provides an interesting and unsettling exploration of the oppression of women in nineteenth century society.

Favourite Line: At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.”

The rich symbolism of the emerging wallpaper pattern as we witness the narrator’s gradual descent into madness is definitely what makes this story so memorable and effective. It is clear to the reader that, just like the woman in the wallpaper, the narrator is being held prisoner by her husband, and is desperate to break free.

2. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’

Author: Edgar Allan Poe Year: 1843

Of course, we couldn’t have a Classic Short Story list without including the ‘Father of the Short Story’ himself, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. It is always difficult to choose only one story from such a prolific writer, but in our opinion, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ serves as an excellent example of Poe’s prowess in the Short Story genre.

Favourite Line: “True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”

What makes this story so memorable is Poe’s brilliant use of the unreliable narrator. From the very opening line (included above), the reader is given the strong sense that the narrator is not to be entirely trusted. The structure of the introductory line is erratic and disjointed, creating the impression of mad ramblings. In addition to this, the narrator plants the seed in the reader’s mind himself that he is, in fact, ‘mad’. Of course, the wonderful irony of this is that the narrator is attempting to convince the reader of his sanity, and yet with every sentence, the reader only becomes more and more certain of the opposite.

1. B24

Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Year: 1899

Anyone who has heard the name Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would know he is most famous for his hugely popular Sherlock Holmes stories. But perhaps not everyone realises what a talented, and prolific writer he truly was – particularly in the genre of the short story. The Sherlock Holmes stories themselves are, of course, exemplary of this. Of the sixty stories, chronicling the adventures of the consulting detective, fifty-six of them are short (and all sixty are well worth the read, if ever you get the chance). But for anyone who has ever wondered what this author can do outside of the Holmes stories, ‘B24’ is excellent in highlighting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a master of the short story.

Favourite Line: “I have only you to look to, sir, and if you will clear my name of this false accusation, then I will worship you as one man never yet worshipped another. But if you fail me, then I give you my solemn promise that I will rope myself up, this day month, to the bar of my windows, and from that time on I will come to plague you in your dreams if ever yet one man was able to come back and to haunt another.”

Spoken directly from the narrator to the reader at the end of the story, this line is extraordinary in a number of ways. By addressing the reader in this way (both here, and in the opening) Doyle personally drags the reader into the story and places a great deal of responsibility on his/her shoulders. In doing so, Doyle establishes an acute sense of realism in the tale, allowing the reader to feel as though the narrator can, in fact, extend beyond the page and come back to haunt them as promised. The line is also notable for the seed of doubt it places in the reader’s mind, that the narrator may be unreliable.

Written from the perspective of a thief, attempting to convince us he has been wrongly accused of murder, the assertion that he will hang himself if we, the reader, refuse to help him, makes us question the narrator’s sanity (much like the narrator in the Tell-Tale Heart). If the narrator is mad enough to hang himself if he is not listened to, perhaps the reader cannot trust his testimony after all? In this way, the reader is left wondering, do they really know who the killer is?

Keep an eye on Writer’s Blog for our upcoming third and final article, celebrating Short Story Week where we will cover how to write a short story of your own.

Via: http://writersedit.com/top-10-classic-short-stories/

 

Short Stories: Why You Should Write Them

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“Were I called upon, however, to designate that class of composition which… should best fulfil the demands and serve the purposes of ambitious genius, should offer it the most advantageous field of exertion, and afford it the fairest opportunity of display, I should speak at once of the brief prose tale.” – Edgar Allan Poe.

The lovely people at Writer’s Edit recently had a ‘Short Story Week’ – and so, here on Writer’s Blog, we shall also celebrate and examine the literary genre of the short, prose narrative.

Why the short story?

Just what is the significance of the short story? Why is this literary form important? And why should emerging novelists be writing short stories? Perhaps these questions are best answered by returning to the opening quote.

At the beginning of this article we quote Edgar Allan Poe – often deemed the ‘Father of the Short Story’. At the time Poe was writing in 1847, the short story was just emerging as a recognised literary genre.  Clearly, Poe thought very highly of this new genre. After all, throughout the mid-19th century, he crafted some 69 short stories of his own. And indeed, the 19th century saw a boom of literary greats turn their talents to this format. Think Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, just to name a few.

What place does the short story hold in literature today?

Although most modern writers strive to find ultimate success via the novel, it could be argued that the short story is still the best medium to ‘serve the purpose of ambitious genius’ and ‘afford it the fairest opportunity of display’.

For instance, short stories can often act as an important stepping-stone in the career of a novelist. For a first-time novelist, it can be difficult to establish credibility, both with readers, and with publishers, due to a lack of previous, published work. By publishing short stories in literary magazines, a first-time novelist can build up their profile, establish a readership, and gain credibility as a writer.

What is it about the short story that serves the ambitious writer so well?

Once again, the answer to this can be found in the words of Poe.

As the novel cannot be read at one sitting, it cannot avail itself of the immense benefit of totality. Worldly interests, intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, counteract and annul the impressions intended… In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out his full design without interruption. During the hour of perusal, the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control.”

Here, Poe indicates that the short story’s greatest advantage is its ability to be read ‘in one sitting’ – claiming that this allows the author to create his/her desired effect on the reader without being interrupted from the distractions of everyday life.

Short stories in the NOW…

Over 150 years later, Poe’s point is more relevant than ever. In a world of smart phones, social media, and high-speed Internet, it seems society’s attention span is ever-shrinking. If a writer wants to make an impression on a reader, they must do so quickly. They must be able to grab and hold the reader’s attention before the lure of the likes of Twitter chirps in their ear, and calls them away.

However, it is not only the reader’s attention we writers must fight for, but also that of literary agents, editors, and publishers as well.

Before committing their time and energy to developing us as writers, these literary professionals often wish to see examples of what we can do, however, they are also extremely busy, and often pressed for time. They will not, therefore, wish to sift through an entire novel manuscript. Instead, they will more likely be interested in shorter examples of our prose. While excerpts of longer works may still be helpful, a short story will have the advantage of ‘totality’. A literary agent/editor/publisher will be able to read a short story and develop a proper understanding of our abilities to create a complete, and unified narrative.

So, now you know the benefits of a short story, why not try writing one of your own? And keep an eye on Writer’s Blog, as we delve further into our celebration of Short Story Week – tomorrow we look at the 10 Best Classic Short Stories.

This article is part one of three in an examination and celebration of the short story form. Stay tuned for parts two and three!

Via: http://writersedit.com/write-short-stories/

Top 10 Stories of Mothers and Daughters | Meike Ziervogel

Sons separate from their fathers to become men – many stories have focused on this challenge. But it’s also true that daughters have to break away from their mothers – and much less has been written on this subject.

The day after I graduated from high school, I boarded a train. I left my home town, my country, my language. For the next 10 years I believed I had truly found my own identity. It wasn’t until I gave birth to my first child, a daughter, that it dawned on me: I hadn’t even begun to separate from my mother. If I wanted to show my daughter how to become content as a woman, I had to look far more closely first at myself as a daughter before being able to become the mother – and the grownup daughter – I wanted to be.

I write to understand myself better. Each story is an exploration, a journey, a search for something I cannot express in any other way. Mother-daughter relationships have been my preoccupation over the past 20 years. So it is no surprise that my first two novellas – Magda and Clara’s Daughter – both deal with that subject.

Here are some of the books that have inspired me:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/top-10-stories-mothers-daughters