The Day the Stories Fail

I’ve been binge-watching Game of Thrones for the who-knows-how-manyieth time. And in the process, mainly while the credits roll or I’m fast forwarding through the parts that I don’t enjoy as much, I have been wondering why I watch this, why it is so enthralling, and why I can watch it for the who-knows-how-manyieth time and still find it enthralling.

In the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge wrote about the willing suspension of disbelief:

“My endeavours” he wrote, “should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

But I don’t think that’s it. It’s not a suspension of disbelief. And it is not willing. There is nothing of choice about it. We are enthralled - or we have enthralled ourselves. But it is not magic - it is neurology that captures us.

I believe stories work because of the imperative of belief. Deep down in the animal brain (which, let’s be honest, is almost all of it), there is an inability to understand that stories, whether on the page or on the screen, are not real. In some small part of the brain, we know, but we can’t overcome the other part. Or we forget about it as the story unfolds.

Yet there is a difference between stories and reality, if that exists anymore. There is some understanding that stories, real or not we can’t say, are not happening to us. This gives us the safety to enjoy, to experience the terror and heartbreak and grandeur without the need to run to safety.

One day, far in the future, I imagine, we or our descendants, or the descendants of whatever species are left, will lose this disability, this imperative to believe will disappear. Brains will automatically distinguish between what is real and what is not. Stories, all of them, will fail.

These lucky creatures, unable to see the world other than it is, will not understand the power our stories held over us. And they will wonder in disbelief why we writers spent our lives creating them.

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Ash Wednesday

Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.

Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam.

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea: et a peccato meo munda me.

 

The voices gently rise to the stone vaults and fill the 12th-century church, one of London's oldest.  The congregation forms a queue.  Slowly, everybody advances towards the altar steps.  

 

Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco: et peccatum meum contra me est semper.

Tibi soli peccavi, et malum coram te feci: ut justificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas cum judicaris.

Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum: et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.

Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti: incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.

 

The rector's expression is stern, menacing almost.  I think I am supposed to look down in humility.  Instead, I stare straight into his eyes, searching for an echo to my thought.  "Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return,"  he says as his thumb traces a black cross of ash on my forehead.

 

I am thinking of the phoenix.  Of what happens after the return to dust.

 

Asperges me hysopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam: et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.

Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis: et omnes iniquitates meas dele.

Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.

Ne proiicias me a facie tua: et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.

 

The soprano pierces through the semi-darkness, and lingers high up before fluttering downwards, graceful, having made her plea for us all.

 

I return to the wooden pew, kneel, close my eyes and breathe in the frankincense.  Yesterday, Shrove Tuesday, I ate pancakes.  I realise that I haven't decided on what I will give up for Lent.  I remember those friends who will probably give up chocolate, or alcohol, or both.  Not eating chocolate is easy for me, and, since I hardly drink, renouncing alcohol would hardly constitute a sacrifice.  Now cheese, on the other hand... Could I manage a whole forty days without cheese?

 

The futility of my thoughts suddenly makes me sad.

 

Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui: et spiritu principali confirma me.

Docebo iniquos vias tuas: et impii ad te convertentur.

Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae: et exsultabit lingua mea justitiam tuam.

Domine, labia mea aperies: et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam.

What's the point of giving something up that you know you will go back to on Easter Sunday? Doesn't knowing a privation is temporary make it too easy? Easy and pointless? Isn't the true purpose of Lent to cleanse your soul for Easter? Will my soul really be purer without cheese or olives or whatever other anodyne habit I decide to break? 

 

For Lent, why don't we give up something less tangible and yet destructive to us and to others? Something we would work on eradicating from our minds and washing from our souls?

 

Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.

Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.

How about we pledge to give up resentment?

We could train ourselves, little by little, to replace resentment with responsibility and forgiveness.  Turn the other cheek.  No, not to ask for another slap, but to remove whoever has struck us from our field of vision, from our thoughts, from our world.  To set ourselves free.

When someone upsets us, we could indulge in making up a story about something that just might have happened to this person that would explain his or her unpleasant attitude.  It doesn't have to be true, only plausible.  And the self-storytelling might make us feel better.

 

How about we give up gossiping? 

We could try never speaking of a third person except to praise at least one aspect of him or her.  Is there nothing good to say about him or her? There must be something, however small.  We could avoid divulging personal information about others.  Instead of using what we know about them as social currency, we could cherish it as a secret treasure.

 

How about giving up sadness?

We could choose an image, a tune or a thought that makes us smile and summon it whenever we feel the clouds gathering in our minds.

 

How about giving up fear?

We could try to imagine that we are safe.  Just making believe at first, until it becomes reality.  After all, we can't make it real if we don't imagine it first.  And if we can imagine it, then perhaps we can create it.

 

Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.

Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.

 

How about we monitor the words that leave our lips and give up using them irresponsibly?

We could replace "Filthy weather, today" with the more accurate "It's cold" or "It's very wet" or "It's very grey".

When someone asks us how we are, we could discard "Not too bad" in favour of "Very well, thank you".  It may not be true at the time, but people mostly don't ask because they really want to know.  And "well" might make us feel better.

 

How about we give up believing we can't and, at least for a while, try to imagine we can?

 

How about we give up the familiar comfort of darkness? There is a lot of darkness, I know.

Just one candle.  It's surprising how much light just one little flame gives.

 

ScribeDoll

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A Visitor to your Planet: A One-Minute Play

At Rise:    A man is doing something. An alien enters and watches him.

Alien:       Why are you doing that?

Man:        Needs doing.

Alien:       How do you know?

Man:        It’s my work.

Alien:       What is work?

Man:        What needs doing.

Alien:       I’m asking you.

Man:        I’m telling you.

Alien:       What is my work?

Man:        Asking questions.

Alien:       That is my work!

Man:        You’re good at your job.

                (Long pause)

Alien:       I am a visitor to your planet.

                (Long pause)

Man         Aren’t we all.

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A Writers' Social

The Scene: A bar.

The Players: Novelists, children's writers, academics, translators, journalists, biographers, and other assorted literary intellectuals.

*

"Hi! Nice to see you! Which way did you come?"

"Oh, it was bloody awful.  I drove down the [name of motorway] but there was so much traffic.  I guess because of the football... I didn't realise [name of team] were playing at home."

"I know, I know, it's awful.  The other day it took me hours to get into town.  They were digging the road, you know the one..."

*

"Did you find that wallpaper you were after?"

"Yes! But then when I tried a sample it didn't look right with the curtains.  You know my curtains with the lilies.  So I really don't know what to do now.  I'm losing my sleep over it."

*

"Where are you from?"

"–"

"Is your accent French?"

"–"

"What is it I hear?"

"I can't possibly tell you what it is you h–"

"Are you South African?"

"No, Armenian."

"Oh, how interesting! Armenian... that's like Sephardic, isn't it?"

"–"

"Or am I thinking Coptic? What is it I'm thinking?"

"I've absolutely no idea what you're –"

"Armenian... Is it like... It's on  the tip of my tongue..."

*

"It took me hours to find somewhere to park! [Name of city] is getting worse and worse!

"Where did you park, in the end?"

"You know the Arts Centre? Well, there's that street right on the side of it... What's it called? St-Something Lane..."

"Oh, yes.  You should try behind the cinema, next time.  I generally find a space there..."

*

"Will you have another?"

"Oooh, I shouldn't... Well, all right, I'll have another red.  A bit rough but it's alcohol, it does the trick.  Aren't you finishing your drink?"

"I don't like it."

"What is it, whisky? Are you going to just leave it? Such a waste.  Do you mind if I have it?"

*

"Oh, and you know, I saw him the other day.  His wife's left him."

"Oh, no! I hadn't heard..." 

"Just walked out.  To be honest, between you and me, I've always thought she was a bit difficult."

"We must ask him over for supper.  Poor thing.  He's having to fend for himself now so can't concentrate on his book."

"Oh, poor man."

*

"And I saw their daughter the other day – I don't think you've met her, have you?"

"No.  I knew they had a daughter." 

 "Nice girl but had a drug problem in her teens.  Her husband's got this promotion at work so they've bought this house in Yorkshire.  They're knocking down half the walls and rebuilding it."

*

"How's your back?"

"Still really bad.  Living on Ibuprofen."

"That's not very good for you."

"I know! Painkillers aren't good for you in general, are they? The GP's put me on this new painkiller.  Let's hope it works.  My neighbour says she was on it.  Apparently, it really helped except that she then got so addicted..."

"Have you considered acupuncture?"

"Oh, they say it's brilliant.  Yes, I must get around to it.  It's on my list but there's always so much to do, there just aren't enough hours in the day! You know what it's like... The other day, I had to drive into town to sort out my watch.  The battery died after only three months.  That took half the morning.  And then I had to rush to get a birthday present for..."

 

Scribe Doll

 

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