Wired for stories

One of my earliest memories is me lying on the bed while my dad was reading me a story. It is so early I’m not even sure if it is a real memory, or rather something I’ve picked up along the way and made it mine. I don’t remember what the story was. But I do remember how it felt to be told a story.

Stories are ways of telling one another things that matter. Telling them without simply describing them, without lecturing about them, and without forcing our moral conclusions on the audience.

I’m not only talking about popular tales, short stories, novels and the like. We are storytelling creatures and we structure our experiences and our past along narrative lines. The way we see ourselves becomes our story. One that we rewrite and redefine as we go along.

Dia de Muertos in Brussels (2019). This Mexican holiday is associated with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (1st and 2nd of November). What sets it apart is the atmosphere of celebration rather than mourning.

Long before we set out to tell a story, we listen to or read countless other stories. From grandma’s tales to the latest psychological thriller, we live among narratives. Many of them become part of us. We learn, consciously or not, about different story patterns and plots. About how good storytelling feels.

Dia de Muertos in Brussels (2019). Three women prepare themselves as the procession is about to start.

When telling stories or listening to them, we rely on this implicit knowledge of what a story is and how it should be told. We don’t need to know about narrative arc, plot and conflict in order to feel that some stories feel right and others not so much.

We are wired to look for stories, understand them as stories and extract personal meaning from them.

That’s why good stories are at the same time personal and universal. They speak to us directly, as if they were written for us. And they do the same with countless other people.

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Out of color

The photos are slowly turning to black and white before my eyes. It’s a cold and windy January. I’ve made it so far.

It’s not until we isolate that we realize how much we depend on the others, and how much we are connected to the rest of life.

Some activities are obviously social simply because we cannot do them on our own. But even apparently individual activities, such as taking a coffee in the neighborhood coffeeshop, or taking a solo daytrip to get away from it all, depend on many others. They depend on employees, public services, infrastructure and, often, on the kindness of strangers.

As there are so many things we used to do and cannot do anymore, I guess it’s a good time to ask ourselves what are the things we could go without.

And what are the things we really need, the ones we couldn’t or wouldn’t want to live without.

Reflected (Belgian Ardennes, December 2020)
Frozen dead leaves (Forêt de Soignes, early January 2021)
The ghost of the pine forest (Hautes Fagnes, Belgium, December 2020)

Tombstones and wild flowers

The garden looks as if the gardener has left and never came back, but things have continued to grow according to his plans for a while. Then everything started to fade into the unregulated beauty of natural growth.

I’m in the back garden of a small church.

Fallen fruits mingle with wild flowers. Here and there, old tombstones rise from the tall grass as if they’ve grown out of the earth.

Transylvania, the high plateau in the Western part of Romania, is where you can find many wooden churches built from the XVIIth to the XIXth century. They were built as small village churches. However, there is something about them that goes beyond their functional role. Maybe it’s their modesty, despite the disproportionately long, thin towers. Maybe it’s the way they fit into the landscape.

Some of them are still used by the locals, although it tends to be for special occasions.

I am not writing about churches as religious symbols. What I’m interested in is how things created by other people, in different ages, speak to us irrespective of our beliefs. I’m also interested in how human creation interacts with natural landscape, to the point where there’s no clear line of demarcation between the two anymore.

The construction techniques for these churches have evolved to deal with the limitations of the time and context they were built in. Metal was scarce and wood was plentiful, thus the construction was made using as little metal as possible. Sometimes, no metal at all.

If from the outside these churches look like they are about to take off, with their long thin towers pointing towards the sky, the interior looks and feels more like the inside on a villager’s house. Hand-made carpets, sheep furs and a narrow passage towards the altar, as if crossing through the family rooms towards the “good room”, reserved for guests.

But it’s the gardens that attract me the most. Part old cemetery, part orchard, part flower garden, they are full of life. The names on the tombstones are almost erased by rain, wind and the passage of time. The grass grows wild.

In spring and summer, these gardens are full of flowers, some of them cultivated but most of them wild. You cannot really tell where the cultivated part fades into wilderness. Old apple and plum trees punctuate the landscape with their weird shapes, like humpback witches. Their roots reaching deep into the ground, into the ancient tombs and further still.

Alone in the puppet theatre

I wake up suddenly in a place I don’t recognize. As I lie on my back, I look up and I see colors. Like an unfocused lens, I see blurry patterns before I can make out objects. And then it dawns on me. I am still in the puppet theatre where I’ve come last night for the performance.

I cannot remember what happened after the show or how I got to spend the night here. The colors above me are the puppets hanging on the walls of the small theatre room. These are the old puppets, retired after having served in so many plays over the decades. Now they are facing the scene just like the rest of the audience. In fact, they are part of the audience. They can watch the new puppets performing in exactly the same plays they used to do.

Am I dreaming? Did I black out? It’s simply not possible that I’m still there.

I’ve dreamt of this room so many times. Its old wooden beams. Its long wooden benches. Its small scene covered by painted wooden boards. The smell of old wood and dust. The little funny speech of the master puppeteer at the start of the play. The moment when the lights go out. When the wooden boards move to the side and reveal the scene. People slowly settling down and stopping their whispering.

And then it starts.

It’s funny, you know. You enter this room and you look around and there’s a cynical voice inside wondering if you’ll be able to make it through the play. If your adult mind will still be able to access that state of grace. To enjoy the show. I’m not talking about putting yourself in the shoes of a child. I’m talking about letting yourself be swept over. Looking at what’s happening in that spot of light in front of you with total openness and wonder.

When the play is over, as people go out, the master puppeteer is always there, thanking each of them. He is still using his puppeteer voice when he tells them, with a smile: “If you loved the play, go tell your friends about it. If you didn’t love the play, it stays between us.”

Am I locked in here? Did they simply forget about me at the end of the play?

It’s all so real. I can feel the hard wooden bench I’m lying on. I see the puppets just above. I feel the amazement of being here. It’s dark outside. And there’s that unmistakable smell of old wood and dust.

I close my eyes. I am here, whether it’s in my dream or not. What will be will be.

The story is more than the storyteller

We listen to stories and tell stories as a way of dealing with change, impermanence, fragility and trauma.

Scene from Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Stories connect us with the world by showing what brings us together. They show us that our experience, no matter how particular or bizarre it seems, is part of the broader human experience. That our suffering is not only our own.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

James Baldwin

Stories are also a way of learning, or relearning, the difference between what is essential and what is not, between what happens on the stage and what really matters, happening backstage.

There are anonymous stories, as most folk tales and fairy tales are, and stories with a known author. But, irrespective of whether the author is known or not, good stories are going beyond the storyteller. They are telling more that the narrator intended to say.

Stories are simultaneously particular and universal. They are about a particular course of events, but they can speak to many people from different circumstances and walks of life. We can relate to them personally. This is not because we recognize ourselves in the concrete elements of the story. It’s because the story tells something that goes beyond its specific plot and context.

The moral of the story may be explicit or not. The story may reward some of its characters for being virtuous or for having proven themselves worthy – or it may not. Regardless, no good story comes with a fixed frame of interpretation. No good story is reducible to a moral message. The possibility of interpreting it and making it part of your own experience, as a reader or a listener, is what makes stories meaningful for so many people.

Take “Seven Samurai”, Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 movie. You may or may not have seen the movie, but it’s very unlikely that you haven’t seen a remake or at least an allusion to it in some other piece of work. From The Magnificant Seven (1960) to Star Wars (1977) to various episodes from recent series such as The Mandalorian, there there have been many ways of retelling this story or building on it.

Kurosawa’s movie is about a band of rōnin (masterless samurai) who are hired to defend a village of poor farmers from bandits. It is deceivingly simple. What is beautiful about it, apart from Kurosawa’s unique way of framing the scenes and building the plot, is the underlying story. A story of unplanned human kindness and cooperation in the face of adversity.

These samurai are not pictured as superheroes coming to the rescue. One of them is actually lying about being a samurai just to get hired. Others have their strengths, but also their flaws. They seem like a weird bunch at first.

However, they manage to do, as a group, what none of them could have achieved on his own. I don’t just mean victory against the bandits. They manage to be better together. Braver, more accepting, less selfish. They manage to somehow pool their strengths so that they are mutually reinforcing. To accept each other’s weaknesses so that they don’t undermine their collective quest.

The rōnin are successful in defending the village and getting rid of the bandits once and for all. But this succes comes with a heavy price. Four of them die in the final battle. “We have lost this battle too”, remarks one of the remaining three. “It’s the villagers who have won.”

You could draw some straightforward moral message from all this if you really wanted to. But the story is richer than any possible message or conclusion.

Is this about confronting adversity and managing to hold your ground? Yes. Is it about spontaneous generosity and kindness towards strangers? Yes. Is it about facing your own limits? Sure. It’s about all this and many other things. This is what makes it so powerful. This is what makes it speak to so many people that have never found themselves in those particular circumstances, but recognize themselves in the basic human experiences underlying all this.

A lone tree has fallen

These two photos are separated by more than two years and a half. I’ve taken the first one in the spring of 2019 because I was struck by the image of the lone tree against the moody sky.

It was a cold, humid and moody day. The tree looked like it had been dead for some time. But it stood tall, its branches reaching out for something. Reaching out with no expectation of receiving. The stone wall to the right belongs to a medieval chapel.

I came back in December 2020 and I saw the tree fallen. It hadn’t been cut. It had simply collapsed under its own weight. It fell towards the stone wall, its highest branches reaching over into the chapel courtyard. Its branches are still reaching out, like the human casts of unfortunate citizens of Pompeii, caught by the lava with their hands reaching out for an escape. Just like the first time, it was cold and cloudy.

There is a Romanian folk tale in which the hero goes through all sorts of trials in order to achieve his dream – immortality. When he finally gets back home, victorious from all the battles but jaded and without having achieved his goal, he stumbles upon his own death. The grim reaper had been there all the time, waiting for him – for him and nobody else.

I don’t know why this tree reminded me of this folk tale. Maybe because, in its dry stillness, the tree offered an impression of endurance beyond life, until it collapsed. It projected an image of immortality and it met its own death there, in the field.

“The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem, then a living trunk, and then dead timber. The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The place beyond the forests

Imagine a place where you feel completely at ease. Where you feel alive. Where you can be yourself – including that part of yourself that you ignored for so long.

Is that place your home? Your back garden? Your secret childhood place by the river? That cozy table in your favorite coffee shop? A remote place deep in the wild?

Each of us may have more than one such place. For me, one of them is hidden somewhere in Transylvania, the place beyond the forests.

“Beyond the green swelling hills of the Mittel Land rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered, with the afternoon sun falling full upon them and bringing out all the glorious colours of this beautiful range, deep blue and purple in the shadows of the peaks, green and brown where grass and rock mingled, and an endless perspective of jagged rock and pointed crags, till these were themselves lost in the distance, where the snowy peaks rose grandly. Here and there seemed mighty rifts in the mountains, through which, as the sun began to sink, we saw now and again the white gleam of falling water.”

This is how Jonathan, Bram Stoker’s protagonist, describes his voyage through Transylvania as he approaches Count Dracula’s castle.

Stoker’s description sounds flattering, but for me it is painfully clear it’s written by somebody who hasn’t actually been there and does not have any personal connection to the place. It is like a cheap painting of an imagined exotic landscape. Bright colors, clear waters, and snow-capped mountain peaks. Of course, for him the landscape was just a makeshift background for his vampire story.

For me it’s different. It is not a postcard. It’s a permanent mark, a solid ground, a wound, a reason for hope, a concentrated solution of life, bitter-sweet. It’s something I always carry in me.

It’s lying in the sun, listening to the distant sound of the sheep bells as the animals move slowly, eating their way through the high planes.

Taking time among free-range horses, waiting for them to trust me and get closer. Petting their neck and watching the vapour of their breath in the crisp morning air.

Taking a break after a long climb through the dense pine forest, to enjoy the view that suddenly opens in front of me. From up here, I can visually retrace my steps through the wild river valley below me.

Standing at the entrance of a cave, feeling the cold breath of the inside of the mountain. Watching the vapors of the ice-cold river as it disappears into the darkness. This river doesn’t look like much, but it has managed to slowly carve its way through hard rock.

Here at the entrance, facing the darkness of the cave, I feel my heart beating faster. Everything is raw and untamed, like this river being furiously sucked inside the mountain. All my senses are awake and I feel fully alive.

What overwhelms me is not the intensity of emotions, the excitement, the adrenaline. It’s the feeling of being completely present with everything that happens, and accepting it.

It’s like standing in front of my own darkness and finally being able to say that I accept everything as it is.

Stories that leave you cheated

Three elements that set good writing apart — and how they are all rooted in honesty.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Neil Gaiman says in his Masterclass course that a story is anything fictional that keeps you turning the pages and doesn’t leave you feeling cheated at the end. It’s a brief but surprisingly comprehensive definition.

The first part — writing that makes you turn the pages — is about what happens. About characters, conflict, resolution — all the things that bring life into the story and make it move forward. Everything that makes the reader ask what every storyteller wants to hear:

And then what happened?

But it is the second part that I’d like to focus on. What does it mean for a story not to leave you feeling cheated at the end?

As a reader and writer, my answer is this:

First, it is a story that does not promise things that it doesn’t deliver. It doesn’t promise fireworks only to leave you with burnt matchsticks. 

It does not start with engaging dialogues that do not go anywhere. It does not develop complex characters that, for the rest of the text, feel like puppets manipulated by a skillful puppeteer. It does not promise a fascinating adventure only to end up lecturing the reader and moralizing.

As a reader, I would expect a story that lives up to what it (implicitly) promised it would do, no matter how modest that promise. I would prefer an understated start that slowly builds up in strange, unexpected ways, rather than a spectacular intro that gradually grows out of breath and lifeless.

Second, it is a story that does not pray on your readers’ psychological needs just to keep them going through the text. It does not play with the characters in order to create artificial drama and conflict. It does not twist the plot unnaturally, just to satisfy the reader’s need for closure. 

Obviously, stories often develop in unexpected ways, just as life does. But they can do so convincingly, in ways that are consistent with the internal flow and logic of the story. Or they can do so in ways that are transparently doctored to elicit certain reactions and emotions. It’s not the story that leads naturally to this or that course of events. It’s the author messing with the flow of the story.

Referring to how he develops characters and dialogue, Neil Gaiman speaks about the importance of listening to your own characters and paying attention to what they would say or do. Do they sound genuine? Are they believable? Or are you constantly trying to impose yourself on them?

Isn’t this what sets great stories apart — the feeling that they take on a life of their own and carry you along with them? This is the flow of the story. Once you’ve set it in motion, it becomes larger than you.

Third, it is a story that you, the author, care about. You are personally invested in telling the story — and telling it honestly.

If you’re going to write… you have to be willing to do the equivalent of walking down a street naked. You have to be able to show too much of yourself. You have to be just a little bit more honest than you’re comfortable with…”

Neil Gaiman

If the story does not talk about something that is important for you, as a writer and as a human being, no amount of technical skill will turn in into an interesting piece.

If the story is not written truthfully, it will show up sooner or later. Writing in honesty may be or may not be a moral principle for you as an author, but it is also a pragmatic principle. Before we can cast a spell on others and invite them into the story, we need to make that story credible and engaging for ourselves. Writing truthfully is the simplest, most direct way of doing that. It not only provides an intrinsic motivation to keep writing, but it also ensures consistency of approach.

Don’t promise what you cannot deliver, don’t twist the story to score cheap points, write truthfully about what matters to you.

At the end of the day, all three points are about honesty. Honesty towards yourself, your own writing, and the reader.

Alone in a room

As parts of the world are going into a new period of isolation to fight the pandemic, I look at how life has changed and the upside of isolation.

As we withdraw from each other in the flesh, we may begin to appreciate better what we had until so recently: friendship and love made manifest by being together, simple gifts like a shared joint, a head resting on your shoulder, a hand squeezed, a toast raised. And in this sudden stop, we will also hear the sounds of nature — as our economic machine pauses for a moment and the contest for status or fame or money is canceled for just a while. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Pascal said. Well, we’ll be able to test that now, won’t we?

Andrew Sullivan – How to Survive a Plague

What are the things we cannot live without?

Well, we may be forced to redefine that list. And maybe realize that some things we thought we need are dispensable. Or even that we are better off without them.

For all its disadvantages, isolation gives us the opportunity to pause and just notice. To see the aimless agitation, the moments when we’re simply not there.

We’re not there because we are too busy distracting ourselves.

The first step is to recognize that some of what passes for activity is just distraction. The second one is to ask what we’re trying to distract ourselves from. This may take a while, because it’s about facing things what we fought to keep away at all costs. It’s about facing one’s demons.

Is it loneliness? Anger? Shame? Old wounds that never healed? Lack of purpose and meaning? Whatever it is, it’s haunting us. Did we ever turn back to face it?

In one of her books, Pema Chodron talks about a friend of hers who had frequent nightmares. In her dreams, she was repeatedly chased by monsters. Often, in a desperate attempt to escape, she would enter a room and close the door behind her, only to hear the monsters break down the door and get closer. She was waking up screaming. This happened over and over again.

Pema asked her friend how these monsters looked like. To her own surprise, her friend realized that she could never bring herself to turn and look at the things chasing her. 

But this realisation stayed with her and it slowly permeated into her dreams. The next time she found herself trying to get away from the monsters, once she entered the room where monsters were usually following her she turned around. 

The monsters were there. For the first time, she could observe each of them. They were jumping up and down in front of her, but they were keeping distance as if held back by an invisible force field. They were scary but somehow not nearly as scary as they seemed before, when they were just a menacing presence without a face. In fact, the more she was looking at them, the less frightening they seemed. She remembers saying to herself in the dream that they look a bit like cartoon characters.

Then she woke up and the nightmares stopped.

The long black shadow

A trip in the dark in a cold December morning, to revisit a place of love and leave it behind.

“You cannot get rid of your shadow”, she thought while driving. It was 5:30 am. A chilly December morning. Definitely not the kind of morning when you’d jump out of bed at 5 and take a ride in the dark. And still, there she was.

What was she looking for? Behind the wheel, she was asking herself exactly this – and it was hard to find a good answer. It was more of a compulsion. When she woke up that morning, after few hours of sleep, she just couldn’t resist it anymore. She felt that she had to return to that place.

As if you’d been running for a long time, trying to leave your shadow behind, and now you finally give in and turn back. Your shadow is there all right, glued to your feet.

She had not been to that place in a while but she knew it well. In fact, it’s where most of her dreaming took place. It’s where he brought her for her birthday, in what now seemed like a different life. It’s where they laid down in the tall grass, watching the hypnotic shapes of the clouds backlit by the setting sun.

What was he saying back then? She could not quite remember. But his words were like flashes into the night, illuminating the sky for a split second. Burning her on the inside, one flash after another. She remembers feeling as if she was there, completely present with that moment, and at the same time watching the whole scene from outside. Watching his lips move in slow-motion and the tall grass dancing in the night wind. Telling herself “this moment will pass and never come back”.

That cold December morning, she felt compelled to return and look for that fleeting moment and the echo of his words. Look for him, knowing full well he won’t be there. Look for her, as she used to be back then.

Like being stuck in a dark room and searching for the door, where you know the door has always been. But the door is not there any longer. Everything you feel is uninterrupted wall on all sides. There’s no exit.

The wind picked up and brought her back to the present. She had been staring at the spot where, in a different geological time, they’ve set up the tent and listened to the sounds of the night. Owls, foxes, dogs and many others, impossible to identify.

Behind her, the long black shadow cast by the streetlight is pointing towards the place where the sun should have already appeared. It’s dark with just a hint of light on the horizon. An aborted sunrise. The thought that all this may well be a dream, one of the many dreams that took her back to that place, is strangely comforting.

As she is standing there, an invisible camera moves away from her and goes up for the final shot. She looks around as if she wants to take it all in. Then she slowly walks away, her shadow getting incredibly large, like a giant finger pointing towards something far away, across the fields.

She gets smaller and smaller into the picture. Just a spec, a pixel in a noise of pixels. And everything else – the places they shared, the forest, the muddy fields, the farm at the end of the road, the village nearby – is getting smaller and smaller. The world wakes up and all the colors, sounds and smells of life get into the picture as the camera moves away.

The girl dragging her feet glued to a long black shadow has disappeared completely.