• How We Shape Our Stories

    Kurt Vonnegut, one of the greatest writers of our time, had a theory that stories had actual physical shape to them.

    In 1985, Vonnegut gave a lecture based on his theory. The premise of it is that all stories boil down to six basic plot points and that “stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper”. He accompanies his talk with actual chalk drawings to prove his point.

    One of the plot lines he illustrates is “Man In Hole”. It’s the narrative of a character getting into trouble and then getting out of trouble.

    Here’s my version of Kurt’s “Man In Hole” chalk drawing, which I call “Girl In Hole”.

    Ally in story line hole with Vonnegut’s “Man In Hole” graph written over the top.

    Vonnegut says this about the “Man In Hole” plot line: “People love that story. They never get sick of it.”

    It’s true. We love to watch characters in this story arc fall into major shit and then find their way back home, often a little better off than they started out. The harder the struggle, the more satisfied we feel when they make it out alive.

    I think having someone relatable to root for gives us a sense of purpose. Like we can imagine ourselves as the hero, living the dangerous, adventurous, epic life we might sometimes dream about.

    We tell stories about our own lives too.

    Let’s pretend for a moment that life is a movie and we are its actors, as Shakespeare writes about in his play, As You Like It. I feel like a phony referring to Shakespeare, because I’ve never read that book and only just read a summary of it on Wikipedia. I don’t, however, feel like a phony if I quote my dad. He told me this earlier in the year:

    “We’re the stars in our own movie. And the camera never stops filming.”
    —Dad, secretly a rock star poet.

    It’s not a difficult stretch to make ourselves believe this. We as humans are so obviously addicted to the telling of stories that it’s not hard to wonder if perhaps our own individual lives we meant to play out like a story too.

    Unfortunately, it seems as though the stories we live aren’t nearly as exciting or fulfilling or climactic as the ones we pay to consume. A lot of them are quite boring, in fact. The same level of excitement as hearing someone retell the “weird and crazy” dream they had last night.

    Why is that? We’re like a movie character who feels the call toward adventure or excitement or the unknown but then shrugs off the feeling for a practical normal safe story arc instead.

    Or maybe we say yes and take a couple steps forward but then hit a patch a loose gravel and slide into a giant pit.

    When we watch a movie and our hero falls into trouble, we root for them to climb out, no matter how hard or painful it is. We don’t want them to give up. We believe in them and urge them on, knowing that there are better things ahead if only they could climb out.

    However, when we are the characters in the story, there is no outsider perspective to show that the hole actually curves upward in a little bit. The only visible thing is dirt.

    (Spoiler alert: my illustration is going to make several appearances in this blog post, very poorly disguised with crappy editing to make it appear as if it’s a new drawing each time.)

    Ally in story line pit looking at dirt.

    Orange dirt with the caption “this is dirt”.

    When we are living the plot line of falling into a hole and struggling to get out, we would give anything for an instant solution, even though we know from all the movies and books that there is no easy way out.

    We must struggle upward in the messy loose dirt and try to find some grip.

    I was really into the show Lost in my mid-teens (I never watched the sixth season, so I’m still blissfully unaware of the supposedly unsatisfying ending). One of my favorite episodes is called The Moth. Charlie is going through withdrawals and wants his drugs back, and John Locke is trying to help him give them up. He shows him a moth struggling to get out of its thick cocoon.

    “I could help it,” Locke says, pointing at the cocoon, “take my knife and gently widen the opening, and the moth would be free. But it would be too weak to survive. Struggle is nature’s way of strengthening it.”

    Essentially, the struggle you’re going through right now is what’s going to give you the strength to tackle something harder and better later on. Life never gets easier the more we invest into it, but it does become more fulfilling.

    We can either struggle in the pit and keep trying until we climb out, going further up and further in to the epic story that awaits—or we can crawl back the way we came and give up. Settle for a less strenuous path.

    Stories can save us.

    The trick to getting out is to keep hope alive while everything is dark and dusty. Since we cannot know the future or see our own story arc, we must use our imaginations. There’s a quote I like by Oscar Wilde, which I initially read in John Green’s Looking For Alaska: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

    To me these words allude to the stars as not being an unattainable celestial thing but rather something to reach for.

    Ally in story line pit looking at birds.

    Birds against green sky with the caption “these are birds”.

    Ally in story line pit looking at stars.

    Stars against dark green background with the caption “but at night, they’re stars”.

    It’s hard to keep going. To keep moving forward when all you see is the dirt you fell into. When there’s no proof at all that you can climb out. But to me, that’s worth the risk to keep going. Look at the shape of the “Man In Hole” plot line again and claim it as proof that what goes down must someday go back up.

    1. If Vonnegut drew that graph based on the shapes of stories we tell

    2. and the stories we tell are based off the shapes of stories our own lives were meant to live.

    3. then we must conclude that the struggle means something and we’re supposed to go somewhere.

    The reason I originally drew this concept was because I wanted a way to express how my current existence feels. This whole year has felt as though every time I think I’m going to start climbing out of the pit, the loose dirt slides beneath my feet and brings me back down.

    It’s hard not to feel like a complete failure.

    We must change the stories we tell ourselves.

    Seth Godin said in a blog post a couple years ago:

    “After it (whatever that thing you remember) happened, you started telling yourself a story about that event.

    Over time, the story is rehearsed. Over time, the story becomes completely different from what a videotape would show us, but it doesn’t matter, because the rehearsed story is far more vivid than the video ever could be.

    And so the story becomes our memory, the story gets rehearsed ever more, and the story becomes the thing we tell ourselves the next time we need to make a choice.

    If your story isn’t helping you, work to rehearse a new story instead.

    Because it’s our narrative that determines who we will become.”

    Personally, I want to stop being “the girl who keeps getting stuck living in Nevada at her parents’ house”.

    When my parents sold my childhood home in Idaho and moved to Nevada, I was a confused-about-life nineteen year old. The only thing I had clarity on was where I didn’t want to live.

    So I would whipser a mantra to myself. “Anywhere but Nevada, anywhere but Nevada.”

    This is what the inside of my brain started looking like:

    confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion NEVADA confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion NEVADA confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion NEVADA confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion NEVADA confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion confusion

    If that’s the story I’m rehearsing to myself, it’s clearly not going to take me anywhere but to Nevada. Which is exactly what has happened for the last four years, no matter how many times I’ve struggled to get out.

    But what would happen if I told myself a new story? Whispered to myself day and night the places I was going to go and the things I was going to do. Can we pretend our lives are scripts? Can we plot our own stories? Could we become the fictional heroes we so shamelessly adore?

    If the answer is yes, then it doesn’t matter how many times we fall back into the gutter/pit.

    What matters is never losing sight of the stars (or birds).

    Ally in story line pit looking at the sky with speech bubble that says “someday i’ll grow tall enough to reach the top and climb out”.