7 January 2021. Stories | Storytelling

#1: The trouble with stories

The ‘How to save the world’ blog had a recent post about the fact that although humans are story-telling creatures, the stories that we’re telling are not serving us well.

The post was topped by this memorable schematic showing the many ways in which the way we think about things leads to different types of bias.

(The Cognitive Bias Codex, designed by John Manoogian III, via Wikipedia.)

On the one hand, writes Dave Pollard,

We are highly vulnerable to the messages of stories because their point of view, and their bias, is rarely right in our face. When we listen to a story and ‘relate’ to it, we imagine we are free to draw our own conclusions. To this extent, stories are subversive.

But on the other hand,

stories can be and often are manipulative. A story is often a sales pitch — hence our attraction to testimonials and ‘independent’ ratings of products and services. We are already predisposed to buy, and are looking for confirmation… This manipulation employs, sometimes not even consciously, a whole bag of tricks that exploit our vulnerability to many cognitive biases… And these biases show up, in spades, in our stories.

Pollard isn’t sure why we’re drawn to stories that serve us badly, but he does have a list of reasons that might be offered that he thinks are wrong. It’s not because people are stupid, and it’s not because we’ve been conditioned by mass media that serves the interests of the rich and powerful (I paraphrase him here).

But at the same time, he acknowledges that in earlier years, when his blog was far more popular than it is now, it was filled with stories that didn’t really serve us well:

Why was I attracted to such stories as: 9/11 being “conceivably” an inside job, or the “dangerous” use of squalene in vaccines for the military simply because it was cheaper to use GIs as guinea pigs? Or business “management theories” based on “case studies” that were just fanciful inventions that had no more rigour or credibility than a slick PR piece?

Again, he’s not clear why his younger self did this stuff, although he suspects that it might be a combination of ego and boredom.

But the question is still there:

All I know is that we humans seem drawn to, and even addicted to, our stories, and the beliefs they instil and reinforce in us, even when those stories and beliefs lead us astray… Maybe our propensity to love and believe stories regardless of their truth or value, is just an evolved trait of the human animal that seems to have survived, even though it’s now a maladaptation that serves us badly, like our appendices or our fondness for sugars and salt.

And my thought, reading this piece, even with its lack of a clear conclusion, is that the analogy with sugar and salt is probably telling. Although one can think of exceptions, stories mostly served humans well when they worked at the right scale—when they were ways for groups and communities to share values’ lessons, and aspirations. (And less well when they were used to enforce norms and demonise outsiders).

We still need some sugar, and some salt. And we still need stories. But when these needs get aligned with commercial interests that operate at scale, together with a highly profitable business model, we all get manipulated.

h/t The Browser

#2: Learning about learning about writing

For whatever reason, the novelist and short story writer George Saunders joined Substack just before Christmas, with a newsletter called ‘Story Club’, and although some of his content is only for subscribers, there’s enough out in the wild to be interesting. He’s been using Substack to run a writing class, using a Hemingway short story as his text. He teaches writing at Syracuse during the day, as well as writing fiction.

So I found this interesting both in terms of form and content.

(Photo of George Saunders by David Shankbone, via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Hemingway short story is ‘Cat in the Rain’, which runs to only three pages.

And although I have no ambitions to write fiction, I was still engaged by how he approached the task—and the rules he set for students at the start. Actually, ‘rules’ isn’t quite right: these are more like guiding principles:

I like to start my class at Syracuse by asking my students to mentally open a set of parentheses, and precede the first one with the phrase, “According to George,” And, for the rest of the semester, I ask them to believe, or try to believe, or at least conditionally accept, my approach (my theories, my silly drawings on the board, my strained metaphors that don’t quite hold together under closer examination)…

Their part in this (your part in this) is to try to stay open—to temporarily accept my view, try it on, see what sticks. If something that I say makes sense or causes a positive reverberation or a little confidence-burst: perfect… So, teaching can be a form of permission-giving.

Saunders’ metaphors about writing and the learning process are also intriguing:

the writer is a person running through some winter woods, wearing ice skates. The creative writing program (or Story Club) is a frozen pond that suddenly appears: you are, of course, still using your own natural energy,… are still headed in “your” direction – only now, you’re moving faster. So, as in that metaphor, the writer doesn’t have to worry, or obsess, or get her ducks in a row, or plan – she just has to skate.

There’s also a certain amount of humility on Saunders’ part as to what teaching writing involves:

All a teacher of an art form has to offer, really, are metaphors (epigrams, wisdom-nuggets, scale models). None of these are true or correct or sufficient or all-inclusive or required or true-for-everyone. They’re just ways of seeing the thing… So, the essential work involves an offering (in a playful, exploratory spirit) on the teacher’s part, and an openness to receive on the student’s.

I’m not going to go into the discussion of ‘Cat in the Rain’—it unfolds over the first posts on Story Club—if you’re interested, start at the bottom, and work your way up. The posts are all clearly labelled, which is welcome.

But I was struck by the way he used the Comments feature in Substack as a way to have a fairly open discussion with participants, which was very much in keeping with the philosophy of teaching he’d set out at the beginning. The comments, hundreds of them, seem to be respectful of the whole process. Which is a pleasant change from most of the internet.

Of course, there’s barely a worse editing sin than opening a set of parentheses and then not closing them again. So let me just fix that:

(A)t the end of the semester, I ask them to close the parentheses and follow that second parenthesis with this phrase, “That was all just according to George, and I may now discard.”

Whatever has stuck, they keep; whatever didn’t speak to them, I urge them to brush aside.



This article is also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.