Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

03 MAY, 2012

The Storytelling Animal: The Science of How We Came to Live and Breathe Stories


Where a third of our entire life goes, or what professional wrestling has to do with War and Peace.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser memorably asserted, and Harvard sociobiologist E. O. Wilson recently pointed to the similarity between innovators in art and science, both of whom he called “dreamers and storytellers.” Stories aren’t merely essential to how we understand the world — they are how we understand the world. We weave and seek stories everywhere, from data visualization to children’s illustration to cultural hegemony. In The Storytelling Animal, educator and science writer Jonathan Gottschall traces the roots, both evolutionary and sociocultural, of the transfixing grip storytelling has on our hearts and minds, individually and collectively. What emerges is a kind of “unified theory of storytelling,” revealing not only our gift for manufacturing truthiness in the narratives we tell ourselves and others, but also the remarkable capacity of stories — the right kinds of them — to change our shared experience for the better.

Gottschall articulates a familiar mesmerism:

Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.

Joining these favorite book trailers is a wonderful short black-and-white teaser animation:

One particularly important aspect of storytelling Gottschall touches on is the osmotic balance between the writer’s intention and the reader’s interpretation, something Mortimer Adler argued for decades ago in his eloquent case for marginalia. Gottschall writes:

The writer is not … an all-powerful architect of our reading experience. The writer guides the way we imagine but does not determine it. A film begins with a writer producing a screenplay. But it is the director who brings the screenplay to life, filling in most of the details. So it is with any story. A writer lays down words, but they are inert. They need a catalyst to come to life. The catalyst is the reader’s imagination.

In discussing the extent to which we live in stories, Gottschall puts in concrete terms something most of us suspect — fear, perhaps — on an abstract, intuitive level: the astounding amount of time we spend daydreaming.

Clever scientific studies involving beepers and diaries suggest that an average daydream is about fourteen seconds long and that we have about two thousand of them per day. In other words, we spend about half of our waking hours — one-third of our lives on earth — spinning fantasies. We daydream about the past: things we should have said or done, working through our victories and failures. We daydream about mundane stuff such as imagining different ways of handling conflict at work. But we also daydream in a much more intense, storylike way. We screen films with happy endings in our minds, where all our wishes — vain, aggressive, dirty — come true. And we screen little horror films, too, in which our worst fears are realized.

From War and Peace to pro wrestling, from REM sleep to the “fictional screen media” of commercials, from our small serialized personal stories on Facebook and Twitter to the large cultural stories of religious traditions, The Storytelling Animal dives into what science knows — and what it’s still trying to find out — about our propensity for storytelling to reveal not only the science of story but also its seemingly mystical yet palpably present power.

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27 FEBRUARY, 2012

This Is My Home: Inside Anthony’s Parlor of Curiosities


On letting the light of life shine through the stories of genuine human connection.

Several months ago, a friend and I were strolling down a street in the East Village when we stumbled upon a whimsical place — a kind of curiosities parlor that stretched, narrow and full of unusual objects and private memories, from the street site of the building to the backyard. Inside it was Anthony Pisano, a smiling elderly gentleman who lived there with his cat and his grand piano, squeezed into the back of the parlor amidst vintage jazz records that played on an antique gramophone. Anthony invited us into his sanctuary of stories and we chatted with him for quite a while, enthralled by his tales of trinkets and treasures he had collected over the decades from all over the world. As we were leaving, he reached towards the ceiling above the inner doorway, where a cluster of crystals hung and caught the candlelight. He took a couple off and handed one to each of us, instructing us to let the light of life catch in them.

We, it turns out, we not the only ones mesmerized by Anthony’s curiosities and unusual lens on the world. This Is My Home by filmmakers Kelsey Holtaway and Mark Cersosimo is a beautiful short film, in the vein of This Must Be The Place, that captures Anthony’s singular character through the contents of his home and his heart.

A lot of senior citizen feel that they’ve been discarded. But when people stop in front of my place, they bring life to me… A lot of people pass, they have these earphones on. They’ll see me, but they’ll just go by, they never question — as if people are afraid to talk one-on-one. And that doesn’t give me any satisfaction as far as life is… cause life is, you talk to people, you touch them, in a sense.”

If you ever find yourself in the East Village on a warm spring night, take a stroll down the southern sidewalk of East 7th Street, between 1st Avenue and Avenue A — you might just find Anthony smiling on his stoop, waving you in. Take your headphones off and go in.

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06 JANUARY, 2012

Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots


The art of mechanized storytelling, or what a cardboard robot has to do with melodrama and Law & Order.

You are an author about write a story. How shall it begin? Perhaps there is a single, basic plot: a conflict that needs to be resolved. Perhaps there are two questions to be answered: will my story have a happy ending or a sad ending? Perhaps the conflict has one of several distinct oppositions: man vs nature, man vs. technology, man vs. god or man vs. self.

In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster. In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462.

Original copies of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots are very rare, with an asking price of more than $250.

Plotto, reissued last month by Tin House, was a manual that aimed to mechanize the entire narrative trade. In his introduction, Paul Collins recognizes that Cook was something of a plot machine himself, once writing fifty-four novels in a year, more than one a week. Cook’s methods were developed into a Plotto Studio of Authorship in New York City, his book hailed as “an invention which reduces literature to an exact science.”

While still a young director in England, Alfred Hitchcock requested the book from America, and the creator of the courtroom drama Perry Mason claimed he had learned a great deal from it. The success of Plotto inspired other write-for-pay miracle workers. In 1931, screenwriter Wycliffe Hill declared that he had invented a “Plot Robot,” which turned out to be nothing more than cardboard wheel of options that would help you choose a plot in the same way you might choose a color for your living room.

Wycliffe Hill, inventor of the Plot Robot, from Popular Mechanics, 1931.

Plotto was far more complex, and despite its careful categorization, still exceedingly hard to understand. It’s a narrative Dewey Decimal System of sorts, where each character-type is given a letter: the man is A, the woman is B, their relatives, such as a father or mother, would be F-A or M-B, and anything mysterious, be it a stranger or a strange object, is given the designation X, that ultimate letter of mystery. Conflicts have their own groupings, such as Love and Courtship, Married Life, Mystery, Misfortune, Idealism, Personal Limitations, Revelation, Helpfulness, Craftiness Stimulation, Mistaken Judgement, and Deliverance.

Each narrative in Plotto begins with “Masterplots” which are made up of several beginning, middle, and end clauses (e.g. “A person in love > Falling in love when certain obligations forbid love > Pays a grim penalty in an unfortunate undertaking.”) These permutations, which can number in the hundreds, are subdivided once again according to character and conflict into specific situations, the more than 1,462 individual plots that make up the bulk of Plotto.

In a record twenty years on television, Law & Order served up 465 somewhat distinct plots. Had the writers used Plotto, they could have provided the police procedural with at least sixty years of dramatic tension.

The plots of Plotto, each handily numbered, can range from the simple acts of love and deception…

1a. A, of humble birth, in love with aristocratic B, pretends to be a man of high social standing.”

…to more elaborate and melodramatic schemes:

9b. B’s cattle ranch was left to her by her father, and every man B hires as foreman makes love to her sooner or later, and is discharged. B hires A as a foreman on her ranch, and he promises to keep his place and not to make love to her, but B falls in love with him, and it present glad to learn that A’s sole purpose in taking the job of foreman was to win her love.”

Some plots might sound familiar:

61. B [the female hero], in male attire, is suddenly revealed to A, the man she loves, in her true sex.”

Others, less than familiar:

1282. A, a crook, commits a robbery and escapes in woman’s clothes. A had local fame as a female impersonator and A-6, a detective, makes use of this fact as a clue in apprehending A for his transgression.”

Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots is a reference guide that is at once dense, artful, and hilarious. Crack open the book at any page and you’ll find conflicts you never knew existed, between character A and character B, whose individual quirks manage to shine through. But while the handbook might take a mechanical approach to its subject, Cook recognized in the introduction that what he was providing was still a skeleton of a story, and it was the writer who must provide the art:

The plot in itself is purely mechanical… This machinery must not creak or complain as the story advances… And therein lies the art of the storyteller. Plotto, at least, holds this to be true, and as a corollary to the position thus taken, exalts the imagination as the greatest force in the world.”

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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05 JANUARY, 2012

Three Classic Fairy Tales Examined Through the Lens of Architecture


What Rapunzel’s braid-to-tree connection has to do with the rotational circumference of Baba Yaga’s house.

As a lover of classic fairy tales and longtime fan of Kate Bernheimer’s modernist ones, I was delighted to come across Design Observer’s threepart series, in which Kate and Andrew Bernheimer reimagine the magical homes from three beloved fairy tales — Baba Yaga, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel — through the lens of architecture. In each installment, a different architecture firm selects a favorite fairy tale and examines its pivotal structure through a new kind of imaginative architectural storytelling.

Houses in fairy tales are never just houses; they always contain secrets and dreams. This project presents a new path of inquiry, a new line of flight into architecture as a fantastic, literary realm of becoming. We welcome you to these fairy-tale places.” ~ Kate Bernheimer & Andrew Bernheimer

As a child of Eastern European folklore, I’m partial to the first installment, in which Bernheimer Architecture examine Baba Yaga through its most important structure — the chicken legs, of course — and consider “how one might make a structure or an architecture ‘chicken-like,’ both externally and internally.”

In part two, Leven Betts Studio take a curious paradox of Jack and the Beanstalk — that the vehicle for the story’s magic, adventure and triumph is the beanstalk, yet it’s rarely described — and use it as the focal point of their architectural explorations.

Fairy tales are exemplified by spare and abstract detail, leaving enormous space — big as the sky — for the reader to wonder.”

In the third and final installment, Guy Nordenson and Associates bring their masterful structural engineering to Rapunzel’s tower, blending the original vision of the Brothers Grimm with their own pre-existing design for The Seven Stems Broadcast and Telecommunications Tower .

Rapunzel’s tower has come to symbolize both an enchanted, magical home and a dreadful prison from which to escape. Inside, one’s heart is full of desire and longing; and one must always also get out. The complicated emotional valence of this space is part of its longstanding appeal.”

For more modernist fairy tale magic, don’t miss Kate Bernheimer’s My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales — a wonderful anthology of stories by some of today’s greatest fiction writers, including Neil Gaiman, Michael Cunningham, Aimee Bender and Lydia Millet. And for a classical take, look no further than the best illustrations from 130 years of the Brothers Grimm.

via It’s Okay To Be Smart

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