: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. There were books, and also, a piece of furniture that could be more accurately referred to as a table and more imaginatively considered a T.V.
Our old WOODEN-bodied (or was it wooly mammoth ivory?) 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, we could pick up a spotty version of TBS. Mostly reruns. LOTS of Star Trek reruns. And so, accidentally, a fierce little trekkie was born.
My favorite episode was Darmok. (For the uninitiated: it’s about an alien race, the Tamarians, who speak a language composed of short phrases from cultural story-references. “Shaka when the walls fell” communicates general defeat. ) It tugged at something deep in my bones, and I started noticing how people used story quotes for quick, common emotional shorthand in difficult conversations.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and now this has even been shortened to GIFs, texts, or tweets to communicate empathy or frustration over the collective daily grind. These snippets boost morale. 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. Because, mostly, language is an idea, and that idea is threading minds and hearts together into a shared experience. So we won’t be lonely. So we can build and grow things together. So we won’t starve, basically.
But it takes up so much energy for most people to “out” their innards; putting complicated experiences and feelings into words can be exhausting. 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 sucked at it.) But Harry’s story gave us a common tongue as children. In moments when a friend is down, expressing all the feelings that bubble up in that moment can feel a bit daunting for many. “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:
“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, saying every story has already been told, but the way we tell it is unique. The two things that keep them 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 decode 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.