:pops in dentures: STORY TIME!
When I was a young kid in the late 80s/early 90s, we didn’t have cable or dial up internet. Instead, we had books and a piece of furniture that could be most accurately referred to as a table with good local reception.
Our old wooden-bodied television had a McGuyvered set of coat hangers taped to its antennae. When my brother sat cross-legged on the floor and I held my jaw just right on the couch, it picked up a spotty version of TBS. Reruns, and mostly Star Trek. And so, accidentally, a fierce little trekkie was born.
My favorite episode was Darmok. (For the uninitiated: the plot is about an alien race, the Tamarians, who speak a language composed of short phrases from cultural story-references. For instance, the phrase “Shaka when the walls fell” communicated a general sense of defeat. ) This story tugged at something deep in my bones, and I began noticing how people often use story quotes for quick, common emotional shorthand during otherwise difficult conversations.
Fast forward a couple of decades. It seems that now, even cultural shorthand has been abbreviated to GIFs, texts, or tweets to communicate empathy or frustration over our collective daily grind. These snippets boost morale and connect us. They keep us chugging along in a difficult world without stealing too much mental bandwidth.
Language is a metamorphic and fluid creature, with countless dialects and mediums. It evolves alongside us. It ensures we won’t be lonely, and that we can build and grow things together, and that we won’t starve.
But it takes up so much energy for most people to “out” their inner workings; putting complicated experiences and feelings into words can be exhausting. And, the faster-paced our society becomes, the more important clear shorthand for complex ideas becomes. Hence, “Shaka when the walls fell”, memes, geek references, book quotes, inspirational posters, GIFs, and pithy fandom tshirts.
I’ll illustrate with our most common Gen X/millennial tongue, savvy?
Harry Potter wasn’t gifted at putting his complex feelings into language. (In fact, mostly, he was terrible at it.) But Harry’s story gave us a common tongue as children. When a friend feels down, expressing all the empathy that bubbles up in that moment can feel a bit daunting for many people. “I, too, feel alone and misunderstood, and despite the demoralizing nature society, I hope you won’t succumb to the pain and give up, friend” seems a little heavy to reach for.
Instead, people can thumb through GIFs, send a meme, or purchase a coffee cup. Or simply say the words: Don’t let the muggles get you down.
“Shaka when the walls fell.” We’re all Tamarians, borrowing snippets of tales to convey our thoughts. But someone has to write the bedtime stories.
There are dozens of quotes by writers, all communicating that every story has already been told, but that the way we tell it is unique. The two things that keep our stories fascinating, as far as I can tell, are split evenly between writer and reader:
- The writer’s unique personal experiences and inner life.
- The writer’s intimate understanding of their reader/culture, for translation purposes.
See what I’m driving at? You, writer, must translate your own complex internal emotional experience into an accessible language for the whole of humanity. No pressure, right? But it’s important. Stories keep us working together, hammering away at our own proverbial tower of Babel. Language gives us empathy, and empathy facilitates change. That’s what you do.
You’re a wizard, Harry.
Now go write.