At last Wednesday’s “Wildcard” session, after we’d covered the “assigned” topic for the evening (publication, updated, new thoughts, etc.), Nicole asked “Before it gets told, is it a story?”
We had about fifteen minutes worth of fun with that, including the obligatory “Well if it isn’t, what is it?” some neuro-psychological musings, and the literary equivalent of “Ok if Big Bang, where did whatever blew up come from?” But as often happens with the mind riding (or lurking) in my brain (or wherever) the question lingered in the background of all the tasking and tinkering of chores and projects in the days since. It may have been acting up while I was asleep as well but I have no idea about that.
Looking for a new tagline quote for the blog this morning, I came across this from Ursula K. LeGuin:
The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.
– Ursula K. Le Guin
And that’s fine and dandy but it ignores the fact that before it’s little black marks on wood pulp (or whatever alternative appropriately updated to accommodate the technological advances (one hopes) since UKL wrote that) it was something else. Something in a writer’s mind that drove the recording of the little marks. And if it wasn’t a story, then what was it? Is “the writer” the analog to the “reader” when it comes to the transformation of “whatever” precedes the “little black marks” into those marks? Or into the psycho-linguistic elements that those marks represent?
Back in my undergrad days I had to take a 100-level Intro to Communications class, and at the time thought it worse than boring. I was really angry at the time that I was forced to waste tuition on something like this. It reminded me of an anthropology professor’s assessment of sociology: “A painful elaboration of the obvious.” At one point in the course the prof ventured into Philosophy territory, the classic “If a tree falls in the forest but there is no one nearby to hear it….” They defined communication as the interaction between a message/information sender and a receiver (or multiple receivers). By this definition, the Arecibo message is a message, but not communication — not until it’s been received by somebody/something. (And I guess “received” here implies understood as well, not just physically intercepting the message.)
So is a story subject to the same criteria? Does it require a receiver? Due to the events of the past week, I’ve had a steady flood of memories flowing through my brain, with neither rhyme nor reason – just a constant flow of past events, out of order, random, and in various stages of decayed recall. Together, they do comprise, I think, a story — maybe even an interesting one; I’m not sure what to do with them yet — but for now, only within the four walls of my skull. If I could mentally barf them unedited into a computer program that could replay them for all of you, I don’t think there would be much meaning — and that for me is the key word: meaning. It would be up to a writer (like me in this case) to thread these things together into a coherent story. I feel like that connection is not ultimately complete until someone somewhere reads the story. This isn’t just my ego speaking, but a real sense that the finished, completed story is achieved only when it is engaged by someone else.
To Dean’s point, where in the process of formulation does the story become a story? It’s like trying to identify at which stage in its metamorphosis the butterfly crosses the line from larvae to butterfly — at precisely what point does it become a butterfly? Functionally, I would say that for whatever happens inside, it can only start * being * a butterfly when it emerges from the chrysalis/cocoon. So I guess I agree with LeGuin.
Per Jennifer’s point about oral history and storytelling, I think it’s still subject to the same reality, that until shared in some respect with an audience, a story is not really fully a story — it’s a message in a bottle. Yes, oral traditions are handed down from generation to generation, and with each telling they change a bit, and that is what makes them stories. But until the first person formulated the story and then shared it around the proverbial campfire, it wasn’t a story yet (or so think I).
What about oral storytelling? That’s been around far longer than written language. Is it only a story when it’s being told? It has no tangible form, but at any moment when it’s not being told, it still exists in people’s brains.
There’s an interesting time element to this as well. Is it only a story some of the time, those times when it’s being read or told? Will it shift between being a story and not a story? Le Guin seems to be saying that a story needs to be alive and active. So we can define a story by whether it’s being engaged with or not. If someone is engaging with a narrative it becomes a story, if not then it’s….. ? Would writing a story count as engaging with it? After all, stories are very alive when they’re being written. They change fluidly and they keep growing.
I like the sentiment of Le Guin’s quote, but she’s left it wide open for philosophical debate and defined “story” in extremely narrow terms.