[commentary] Stories as 'Role Models' for Living


[commentary] Stories as 'Models' for Living

December 2016

This entry consists of two parts. The first is an excerpt that explains succinctly how stories and fiction function as templates for real life behavior. The second part, is a personal list of moments in my Life when stories (primarily non-fiction) deeply transformed my Life by providing alternative models of acceptable, “normal” behavior.

Part I.

An excerpt from the Art of Fiction by John Gardner.

“As we have seen, conventional fiction can be an instrument for examining the world; and like any humanly devised instrument, it can malfunction. Like a faulty microscope or telescope, it can persuade us of things that are not true. 

For example, the convention love-story ending as we find it in Jane Austen can subtly persuade the careless reader (thought Jane Austen never intended it) that for every woman there is some one perfect man… 

Human beings can hardly move without models for behavior, and from the beginning of time, in all probability, we have known no greater purveyor of models than story-telling.

 Put it this way: Say that, at a certain time in a certain country, some writer- perhaps imitating someone he admires- creates a hero whose life motto is “Never complain, never explain.” The motto has a certain ring to it; it’s the kind of thing one might consider putting up on the wall in the bathroom of one’s children. In one lifelike situation after another, we see this hero bearing up under adversity, scorned for things he is not guilty of, laughed at for things he would be praised for if the whole truth were known. Again and again ( in this same, thrilling book), we see our hero giving orders he secretly wishes he didn’t need to give, making painful decisions that, for certain lofty reasons, he cannot explain to his friends and loved ones. The effect on the reader of this lonely, lofty hero could be very great indeed- but not necessarily healthy. If such heroes occur in very many plays and novels, if the appeal of such a character becomes widespread, then democracy, even common decency, is undermined. We have been taught to admire, submit to, or behave like the well-meaning Nazi officer, the business-world tyrant, or the moral fanatic.

 Nothing in the world has greater power to enslave than does fiction. “

Part II.

I sometimes feel like we’re all trapped by a dearth of available scripts. I feel like we don’t reach our full human potential due to an inability to imagine alternatives.

I want to recount some memorable moments when books changed my Life by offering new ways of living through the validation of my feelings, and stoking my desire for alternatives.

-I’m reading the End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwabe and I’m falling in love because he’s validating how books can be this beautiful medium through which humans can explore each other and our worlds. As I read about Will and his mother meeting weekly and catching up on books and discussion, I receive this script for how a mother-son relationship could possibly look like (note, I love my mother and our relationship is the meeting of energy, silliness, and affection. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But sometimes we run out of things to talk about, or rather we have difficulties segueing into meaningful topics we both want to talk about, and so Schwabe inspires me to start our own little book club.) It helps me dare to envision how I want to fashion my Life and relationships. 

-I will always remember C.W. Mill’s biography because in it, the biographer recalls how in most of his meeting with friends, colleagues, and students- their conversations would always begin with a rapid interrogation of the books that they were currently reading or working on. I like exploring new ways of having conversations. I’m always searching for new questions that can allow us to explore fully the pleasures that conversation has to offer. Mill provided me with a new script for interacting. His symbolic capital offers legitimacy to an ‘uncommon’ behavior.

-I will always remember Malcolm X’s memoirs in which he discusses the beauty of solitude and how it is sometimes necessary to learning. He critiques how many college students don’t ever learn much because they are too busy spending time out and about. I struggled my freshman year with feeling so alone in my studies,  and and the allure of fraternity Life and the night scene was so strong. The strong voice of Malcolm encouraged me to strive to be an exceptional student who makes the most of his college experiences, balancing fellowship with a commitment to serious learning.

-I will always remember when Professor Burawoy shared how as a college freshman, he would wander the empty aisles of the Cambridge library, depressed and confused. He validated my experiences at a fragile moment of my Life. As such an exceptional figure with a spectacular career, his testimony was deeply soothing and encouraging. 

-I will long remember how Ted Turner’s memoirs taught me how one can balance both their artistic visions and their professional business inclinations. Turner worked for the first decade of his life building his father’s bill board business, and then after selling the company and accumulating capital- he set out to build a media outlet, a vision that he felt passionate about and allowed more creative expression. This script is an alternative to the one in which, coming out of college, one is immediately either a sell-out, or honest to their passions.  Turner reminds us that there are more complicating ways of balancing our different passions. A related story is that of the famous contemporary classical composer Charles Ives who worked at an insurance company by day (he loved it and was wildly successful in the industry), and worked on his musical pieces (which have entered the modern canon) by night.

-I will always remember Sotomayor’s memoir and her recollections of how as an undergraduate, she would write such impassioned polemics against society that her friends would be a little scared by her intensity. This encourages me to write honestly and without fear of standing out. Sotomayor provide me with a script for writing hard hitting pieces.

-I will always remember reading Obama’s memoirs and how he had a season in Life in which he retreated from company and of his own admission, was alone to an unhealthy degree. At that time of my Life, my sophomore year, knowing that a figure like Obama went through a similar season encouraged me and let me know that it was okay to feel the way I was feeling. The frantic fear I felt that somehow I was strange for not having the time of my life went away.  Looking back now, I recognize that during that period of my intellectual journey, I was kind overwhelmed by the presence of Structure in our lives, institutionalized forms of oppression, and crafting a new life narrative full of purpose (K-12, college is the goal and its fulfilling in many ways. Upon reaching college, the individual floats without any clear goal), and all that was depressing. It was only until the second semester of my sophomore year and my junior year that I begin to see the potential for human freedom and agency, and also find some sense of purpose. It was only then that a optimism and gaiety returned. It also helped that by my sophomore and junior year, deep friendships had finally started appearing in my Life. My first two years I was looking in the wrong places and still unsure as to who I was and what kind of people I wanted to be around. I don’t know why there are no scripts out there that validate the fact that friends sometimes take time to find, especially when you are working to understand who you yourself are.

We are always crafting our life story, and it is vitally important that we as a Society, keep available a wide variety of cultural scripts to accommodate the diversity of humans and the various unique experiences they will encounter.