13 Terror is a story infection

For 15 years, storywise.com, at the Center for Narrative Studies (CNS) where the Republic of Stories emanates from, has prided itself on being up to date on what comes out on storytelling and narrative in the popular media.  One new book recently caught our attention.  “Storytelling-Bewitching of the Modern Mind” by Christian Salmon. (Verso 2010)

This is a good general work for anyone new to the story world.  But reading it, we were struck by how old, how familiar,how yesterday it all sounded. Salmon’s newly discovered sense of story was ours more than a decade back and so much has changed since then. It was when we came to this long quote on page 5 that we suddenly realized why we might have heard it all before.

From cavemen to scholars, people have been drawn to fire pits, water coolers, theaters and grave sites to share stories…. But since the postmodern literary movement of the 1960s swept out of academia and into the wider culture, narrative thinking has seeped into other fields. Historians, lawyers, physicians, economists and psychologists have all rediscovered the power of stories to frame reality, and storytelling has come to rival logic as a way to understand legal cases, geography, illness or war. Stories have become so pervasive, critics fear they have become a dangerous replacement for facts and reasoned argument…

“We always knew stories are really powerful. They’ve probably never been treated before as if they mattered” in shaping our public and private lives, said Paul Costello, co-founder of the small Center for Narrative Studies in Washington, D.C., which was formed six years ago to track the spreading use and practice of narrative. “Before, it was always ‘That’s only a story, give me the facts.”‘ Now, he said, more people are realizing that “stories have real effects that have got to be looked at seriously.” (Lynn Smith LA Times, “Not the Same Old Story” 2001)

We were totally stunned to hear CNS being quoted back to us-some 9 years later. Lynn Smith’s article as we remembered, was  written in November 2001, as an early  post 9-11 diagnosis. It went on:

In these tale-telling times, the crisis ignited on Sept. 11 has been called a clash of narratives between the stories that terrorists use and those Westerners believe…

Our storywise business has been around for 15 years-that is hard to believe,  and what a decade and a half we have lived through.  Somehow, 9-11 was a watershed, a singular event that made us all wake up to the power of stories, but we still have much to learn.

The recent “Burning the Koran”  and “Ground Zero Mosque” epilogue nine years on from 9-11 all prove the original point, that 9-11 is like all great tragedies, a black hole of pain that keeps sparking stories that reflect our yearly attempt to make sense of the senseless. We have memorials to visit now, that is true, but what we need most is meaning, for it all to make some sense. We still need stories.

If we can blame Muslim radicals or the government or the CIA or some other equally implausible co-conspirator, we can at least console ourselves that we still live in a cause and effect world. But if 9-11 was as random and one-off as Hurricane Katrina, and as inexplicable as a Wall Street collapse or a Gulf oil spill, and we still don’t exactly know why or ‘what now?’ for any of them, then hysteria replaces history. The media of necessity becomes a megaphone for our fears.

When the tenth anniversary of 9-11 comes around, we can expect an annual return to this insanity as our only way to remind ourselves of a deeper truth, we still don’t get it.  Despite two wars, billions of dollars spent on Homeland Security, and despite no repeat terror attack on the nation, why are we still so scared? Because we still  don’t understand Terror… Because we still don’t understand story.

Terror is less a reality than a story infection called “dread” and we have caught the disease. We have allowed our leaders and  ourselves to choose a future more shaped by our fears than by our faith in our own resilience.  We badly need some new and better kinds of stories, and some new and better kinds of leaders. We badly need new story leadership.

And we are sure  the next 15 years of storywise will be even more urgent and necessary than the past 15 years. So stay tuned.