The narrative vein

Every time there is a crime, journalists seek the story.

Police talk about putting together the story of the perpetrator. The person’s story assists in determining motive. Motive can assist in solving a crime or prosecuting the perpetrator.

Stories require conflict. What is a drama or novel without plot? There is a whole world of plot for narratives, but they tend to need conflict somewhere.

The narrative vein in poetry follows the same story source, although in poetry much can be compressed. There are nonetheless implications of conflict, sometimes powerfully so.

I have posted before about human beings as “The story-telling animal.” Brian Boyd and Daniel Dennett and others note the ways in which stories help us to understand ourselves and others.

I begin to think that storytelling gives us not merely a method for examining cognition, but that perhaps telling stories=human sentience. That perhaps we would not be sentient if we were not aware of stories, able to invent them, or try to recall our own memories in a storytelling fashion. We could be human beings without them, but we could not be sentient.

This is just a story I’m creating for myself in this moment.

This is my own story about sentience, consciousness, and compassion through understanding of narrative persons, personas, and perspectives.

At the same time, I find I wonder:

Do we need better stories?



Art and “human intelligence”

I’ve gotten almost to the end of Brian Boyd’s intriguing and well-argued book On the Origin of Stories, which makes fairly large claims about sociality, cognition, theory of mind, art, and storytelling (ie, fiction) given an evolutionary perspective (art as adaptation). The first 200 pages lay the foundation for his claims; he provides evidence from the “hard” sciences, most often biology and neurology, and from archeology, anthropology, and psychology, to back up his theory that art is an evolutionary adaptation humans developed in order to live as social animals. And that art is necessary for human cognition in terms of further developing intelligence and the ability to communicate among our peers: it is cognitive play, practice and skill strengthening for mind and muscle.

Big claims, and occasionally hard to “prove” from the hard sciences. I believe he does a good job with that set of proofs, but I’m not a scientist. His claims based on social sciences—anthropology, sociology, psychology—are very convincing; but many people have arguments with those fields because they are so apparently subjective. Most exciting to me is the way Boyd synthesizes neurological findings with evolutionary developments.

Actually, most exciting to me are his chapters on the Odyssey, but that may be because I am a literature geek. He essentially writes a literary analysis of the Odyssey based upon the inferences and findings in the first half of this book (evolution) rather than the customary literary analysis grounded in, say, context or culture of style or theme, ad infinitum. The resulting analysis is, for me, a truly exciting way to look at Homer’s work and why it matters now, as well as why it mattered then.

Boyd comes close to making the assertion that Homer made Socrates possible, and hence all of Western civilization’s philosophy and social intelligence. Of course, he is careful not to go that far in his argument—he steers as far as he can from logical fallacies— but the thought certainly feels planted in the reader’s mind. His argument does suggest that metacognition in human beings is the definer that makes us human, and art as more-than-play separates human from not-human. He also demonstrates that the Odyssey offers great leaps beyond older epics and posits that the author(s) composed the epic for contemporary audiences that were capable of intelligent, sophisticated, “modern” thought processes; the piece is therefore not primitive literature, as some critics claim.

Boyd’s work has also turned my thoughts to how the attributes of attention, perspective and foreknowledge, overturned expectations, audience-sociality, false belief, cooperation and competition work in the poem as well as in narrative. Granted, many poems have a narrative framework, however thinly sketched, but not all of them do. When there is no narrative frame, these other aspects of storytelling (audience expectations in particular) take precedence and can be employed in almost infinite ways, bounded only by imagination and the willingness of the reader to pay attention as the writer earns that attention through a host of innovative or traditional skills.

A last thought…I spent the long weekend visiting octogenarian friends, both of whom are wonderful tellers of stories. The value of such people to human society is priceless:

“Story by its nature invites us to shift from our own perspective to that of another, and perhaps another and another.”  ~Brian Boyd

Creative reading

“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson


There’s a difference between simple literacy and genuine reading; that difference is partly discovery, partly imagination, partly hard work, and largely enthusiasm.

“To have great poets, there must be great audiences too,” said Walt Whitman.

Yes, I know I have covered this ground in previous posts. What interests me, though, is the way working on my writing has made me a more active and imaginative reader than I once was. Which may seem an odd thing for a lifelong bookworm to say, but as Stephen King has observed, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” The implication here suggests these skills–or crafts, or tools, or processes–are conspecific. Conspecific is a science term meaning belonging to the same species, and I think it’s an apt word to describe what I am trying to say here. We can have stories without writing, but we cannot have writing without context, whether it is grocery lists or epic narratives; in the literate world, our texts provide us with practically boundless context if we use our imaginations to proceed beyond our physical, past, or immediate experiences into hitherto unknown worlds. When writing imaginatively, we have to engage with what we’ve learned through reading. The writer must be a reader.

Perhaps there are other forms of reading: listening, observation. But we are basically still within the taxa of story. My latest reading material is Brain Boyd’s immense and intriguing volume On the Origin of Stories. This book and Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie are producing quite an intellectual and creative mash-up in my mind and firing up some slower synapses that tend to lead to writing of one kind or another. I think there will be poems…sprung from luminous manifold allusions…because these authors have forced my mind into working while I explore the depths of their invention.

O, let us labor over our books with joy! For one never knows what will result.

Cognition and storytelling

Apparently, there has been considerable excitement in the humanities and literature worlds concerning new discoveries in neurology and cognition. And while I have been thinking and reading along these lines for years in my own auto-didactic way, I’ve only recently stumbled upon the texts that specifically explore this cross-fertilization of the arts and sciences.

AWP featured a standing-room-only panel on the topic of Cognitive Science and Stories that alerted me to the work of Brian Boyd (more books for the to-read pile), for example; and just this past week, Annie Murphy Paul contributed an opinion essay titled “Your Brain on Fiction” to the New York Times Sunday Review. Oliver Sacks has, of course, worked along this territory for many years, mostly from the neurological viewpoint with research that suggests we consider the relationship of brain science to art. Leonard Shlain has written intriguing books on the subject as well; though he focuses on gender and visual/textual creativity in his earlier work (see The Alphabet vs. the Goddess), his more recent Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light takes on the “rational” brain (physics) and the world and work of art.

The science, which encompasses both ‘hard science’ such as neurology and social science such as psychology, uses fMRI brain imaging and other forms of feedback measurement to record the brain’s responses to imagery, metaphor, descriptive writing, emotionally-evocative literary passages, and other stimuli to gauge how the human brain takes in such stimuli and which regions of the brain ‘fire’ when encountering the materials.

Associations rule. Reading is associative.  The word “coffee,” as it turns out, engages the olfactory regions; so does the word “cinnamon.” Tactile word cues (velvet, sandy, rough) arouse sensory regions, notes Paul. We associate meaning with senses. Or perhaps senses evoke, in the human mind, associated meanings. This is one reason poetry engages its readers; poetry works via a series of different types of arousals by association–allusions to previously-known information, metaphorical associations by means of sensory-related responses, stimulation of brain regions by word-association, and also cultural or social association (contextual cues, which may also be physical). All of this means that the act of reading is an embodied behavior–we are actively encoding physical settings and sensations while we read!

Human brains fill in the gaps in memory and in event-series that may or may not be related. Some of these neurological studies suggest human brains seek patterns…and construct narratives. Hence, story-making may be something that evolved along with the human cortex while we learned that a growl in the bushes is likely to equal a hidden predator and that if we convey this information by narrative (or metaphor) it will be recalled more quickly by our listener. If the listener is offspring, and the lesson is remembered and used appropriately, the genes survive another generation. That scenario sounds pretty scientific/Darwinian; but to a writer or artist, the scenario is lush with the possibility of story-myth-legend-fiction-poem-art.

Storytelling facilitates sociality, claims Tim Horvath, who explained to the attendees at the AWP conference that sociality is the biologist’s “reciprocal altruism.” Because fiction meta-represents life, it simulates possible life scenarios that can help to foster understanding and offers a way to test out possible social reactions to behavior in a way that is low-risk for the reader. The reader can imagine, or play along, with the rebellious heroine and through this adaptive play (reading can be a form of play) learn how others around her might react if she were to try a similar form of rebellion. Indeed, Marilynne Robinson agrees that “The great virtue of the best fiction is to teach compassion.”

I look forward to learning more about the cognitive side of human narrative. I love it when science and the humanities discourse with one another.