Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction

A local storyteller here in Vermont used to say, "Stories teach us to be human."  This piece from the New York Times backs up that statement using findings from psychology and neuroscience.

"Amid the squawks and pings of our digital devices, the old-fashioned virtues of reading novels can seem faded, even futile. But new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience."  Read the full article.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Princess Charming

In the article "5 Ways Modern Men are Trained to Hate Women," David Wong proposes that the stories we tell teach men that society owes them a hot chick.  He writes:
We were told this by every movie, TV show, novel, comic book, video game and song we encountered. When the Karate Kid wins the tournament, his prize is a trophy and Elisabeth Shue. Neo saves the world and is awarded Trinity. Marty McFly gets his dream girl, John McClane gets his ex-wife back, Keanu "Speed" Reeves gets Sandra Bullock, Shia LaBeouf gets Megan Fox in Transformers, Iron Man gets Pepper Potts, the hero in Avatar gets the hottest Na'vi, Shrek gets Fiona . . . and so on. . . .  From birth we're taught that we're owed a beautiful girl. We all think of ourselves as the hero of our own story, and we all (whether we admit it or not) think we're heroes for just getting through our day.
In the last few decades we (as a society) have spent a lot of time talking about how stories affect girls and women.  I've heard and said ad nauseum that, for example, Disney's princesses aren't the best role models for girls.  After all, waiting for a handsome prince to come rescue you isn't an effective plan of action.  But for the most part, we only pay lip service to the ways these stories affect boys and men:  We write three pages on how out-of-proportion Barbie is, and then tack on, "And guys shouldn't feel they have to look like G.I. Joe either."

Our laws and government consider women and men to be equal members of society but - in light of the recent spate of insulting and patronizing moves against women in both the media and legislative bodies around the country - it looks like we're still telling a lot of the same old stories.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Stories and Human Connection: Quotes from Brad Pitt and Beeban Kidron

A couple of quotes from the news recently:

"I just had this profound love for storytelling. I think it's just an amazing thing we get to do. We're so complex; we're mysteries to ourselves; we're difficult to each other. And then here's this storytelling that reminds us we're all the same. I consider it such a privilege." -Brad Pitt, speaking with Backstage (Read the full interview here.)

"I think that stories, and the telling of stories, are the foundations of human communication and understanding.  If children all over the country are watching films, asking questions and telling their stories, then the world will eventually be a better place."  -Beeban Kidron, co-founder and directory of Filmclub (Quoted here on The Guardian's Teacher Network Blog.)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Remembering the Gift

"Einstein's thinking somehow presaged this thing about the structure of the brain. He said, 'The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.' We have created a society that honors the servant, but has forgotten the gift." -Iain McGilchrist

Sunday, October 16, 2011

You Are What You Eat (A Blog Action Day Post)

Mundane details ground a story, making it feel real and vivid.  Food is one of the most versatile and fun of these mundane details to include.  Here are a few things that descriptions of food can accomplish in your story:
  • Pleasure:  Just reading about good food can be mouthwateringly entertaining.  When I was a kid, I thought the author of Heidi made goat's milk and cheese sound like the best food in the world.  I still get hungry just at the mention of these foods!
  • Health:  What your character eats can indicate how healthy they are - or even foreshadow a medical emergency later in the story.
  • Values:  Vegetarian? Localvore? Survivalist? Organic or conventional?  In contemporary stories, what your character chooses to eat reflects his values as well as his palate.
  • Aesthetics:  What's her style?  Does she chow down straight from the garden, or prepare an artful plate before digging in?
  • Bonding:  Sharing a meal is as much a social function as a physical one.  Do your characters share their sustenance willingly?
  • Status:  Maybe your characters don't share their food at all, or one grants it as a reward to another.  Perhaps the mayor visits and your character feels self-conscious because she only has some broth to offer.
  • Meta-meals:  What does your character think about food?  What does she think about what others eat?
I recently came across a passage in Suzanne Collins' dystopian novel The Hunger Games that accomplishes a lot of these things all at once.  Katniss, a girl who's fed her family by hunting and gathering since she was twelve, has just gotten to the wealthy Capital where she will be forced to take part in a reality tv show where the teenage contestants must kill each other until only one is left standing.  At her first meeting with her costume designer, Cinna:
He pushes a button on the side of the table.  The top splits and from below rises a second table that holds our lunch.  Chicken and chunks of oranges cooked in a creamy sauce laid on a bed of pearly white grain, tiny green peas and onions, rolls shaped like flowers, and for dessert, a pudding the color of honey.
I try to imagine assembling this meal myself back home.  Chickens are too expensive, but I could make due with wild turkey.  I'd need to shoot a second turkey to trade for an orange.  Goat's milk would have to substitute for cream.  We can grow peas in the garden.  I'd have to get wild onions from the woods.  I don't recognize the grain, our own...cooks down to an unattractive brown mush.  Fancy rolls would mean another trade with the baker, perhaps for two or three squirrels.  As for the pudding, I can't even guess what's in it.  Days of hunting and gathering for this one meal and even then it would be a poor substitution for the Capitol version.
What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button?  How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?
I look up and find Cinna's eyes trained on mine.  "How despicable we must seem to you," he says.
In just this page, the author tells you that Katniss is capable, resourceful, and, while possibly underfed, must be physically tough.  She's also observant and not at all taken in by the Capital's show of riches.  While Katniss understands exactly where her food comes from, the people of the Capital prefer to have it rise clean, pretty, and fully-made from the table itself.  By serving her such a fine meal, the Capital is indicating that Katniss has achieved a certain status (for now, anyway), but is also lording its wealth over her.  Since Cinna is the one who presses the button, he is the one in control of this meal and this meeting.  But we also see that Cinna has been observing Katniss, and that he reaches out to her over this meal that both of them understand is the result of, essentially, slave labor.  For the people of the Capital, food is just another form of lavish entertainment, but for Katniss it has meant (and will mean) the difference between life and death.

If you have a story going, collect all of your major characters around a meal.  Who cooks?  Where does the food come from?  How do the other characters like the food, or feel about its origins?  Who goes back for seconds and thirds?  Do the characters share freely or hoard?  What does food mean to them: survival, entertainment, comfort, fellowship?  Has anyone come to the table really hungry?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Relevance of Storytelling in Your Job Search

This article proposes that job seekers can make themselves more memorable and compelling by forming a (true-to-life) story out of their experiences.

I suspect this holds true, but I would add that it's crucial to make the company you're applying for integral to the story, as in:  I've studied and gained experience and it's all leading up to this position.  Or maybe: I've worked hard to feed my family; I'm dependable and my work is important to me, so if you hire me I'll be grateful to have the job and I'll do my best. 

If I were job-hunting at the moment, I'd try to show the prospective employer that, if she hires me, the story will come to a positive close and everyone will live happily (and successfully) ever after.

What do you think?  Have you found that good storytelling (on purpose or just by habit) has helped you get jobs?

Monday, September 12, 2011

"We Are a Storytelling Species"

In this article on, Roy Peter Clark discusses 9/11/2001 as the inciting incident in the story America is currently acting out.