The Stories We Tell

In Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, the reader is introduced to a unique system of magic. Rather than magic being a channeling of energy, or access to another dimension, or based on the manipulation of one or more artifacts—magic is a language. In order to do magic in Earthsea, one must learn the language of magic, and to speak the language of magic is to do magic. Language is magic. Words are power.

At first blush, this can seem merely interesting, just an imaginative detail, unique in fantasy, certainly, but perhaps not overly remarkable. Except that words have more power than we sometimes give them credit for.

Take, for example, the telling of stories. We tend to think of stories as contained within books, movies, television serials, and other media. Most people demand that stories entertain; some people demand that stories enrich us emotionally and intellectually as well. Most of us think of stories as confined to narratives transmitted to us through our conscious effort, but there is another way that stories get made.

Another thing we like to think these days is that data can solve all of our problems. Have enough data, and you can come up with “the right answer” to every conceivable problem. But there is a problem with this ideology. It is the reason why we still don’t have self-aware artificial intelligences and why very smart people can sometimes do and say very dumb things.

The path from data to action leads through interpretation.

Data does not exist in a void. In order to take action in the world, we must interpret the information we possess, and only then can we act. The act of forming an interpretation? How do we human beings do that? We tell ourselves stories. We give the data a telos, a raison d’être. We fill in the bits and bobs that are missing, make guesses, invent a history of its creation, and speculate on how the data interacts with all the other pieces of data we possess. This is story creation.

One of the best skills I learned as part of becoming a manager was the ability to identify my stories—not my novels’ and novellas’, but the unconscious interpretations I form about events as they happen, the why of others’ behaviors and the how of the current situation’s being. If you cannot dig into the stories you carry around with you, you run the risk of believing lies.

This can be true even if your facts are sound. If, for example, you tell yourself that you didn’t get that assignment you wanted because your lead hates you, it doesn’t matter how true it is that you didn’t get the assignment you wanted. What matters is that the part about your lead hating you is a story, one you invented to explain their behavior. Perhaps your lead has a completely different reason for giving that assignment to someone else. You won’t know until you gather more data. Knowing what data to seek out, when to search, and how to integrate it with other pieces of data is far, far more important than hording data, no matter how accurate each individual bit might be.

I will admit that I possess far from perfect mastery of this skill. Every now and again, I will have an experience where I step hesitantly or begrudgingly into some task, my own false stories already in full gear, only for me to discover as I progress that my story was wrong. Recently, at the encouragement of a friend, I have started reaching out more as a writer, checking in with friends and acquaintances who’ve read my work in the past and seeing if they’re interested in my newest novel. I’ve also started submitting it to book review blogs.

The story I had told myself was that no one cared about my writing, that I shouldn’t bother—this was born out of frustrating interactions I had had with certain bookstore event coordinators, certain writing groups, certain individuals. I started my new task thinking it would take me a few minutes (after all, no one cared, right?). I found a few people to reach out to. Then a few more. Then a few more. And it just kept going. “Oh, right. I met them at writing group. They wrote a really nice review, didn’t they? It was nice to read that again.” “Oh, I haven’t talked to this friend from high school in a while.” “Oh, I should reach out to my friend from when I was an English teacher in Japan.” And on and on. As more and more people said they would be glad to read my latest novel, I could not maintain the story. It crumbled to dust. The truer story, I realized with a fair amount of reproach, was that I had let myself get so hung up on my negative interactions that I’d neglected a significant number of the positive ones and let them languish.

A Wizard of Earthsea has a nice metaphor for this, also. The journey of the eponymous wizard is one of coming to terms with darkness, of recognizing that this brilliant, wonderful capacity for analysis, interrogation, and interpretation is not just the means to our enlightenment but is the same mechanism that leads to ignorance—unless we constantly keep it in check, unless we remind ourselves of what in our heads is data and what is story. If we can’t tell the difference, then the shadow will always win. So long as we can see the shadow for what it is, then there can be hope, the meager hope of approaching, grasping at, but never quite reaching that idea of perfection, of “truth.”