Stories create and lose unimaginable wealth. Stories start, fight, win, and lose wars. Stories build and destroy whole cultures. Stories inspire, and stories heal. How can I learn the art of story?
Copy The Pros
In James Mitchener’s book “Poland” he recounts that nation’s birth. Births are necessarily painful, in all forms.
In a few simple sentence strokes he paints such a scene of pity and despair that little else can enter the mind. It’s panic on terror; nothing sensational; just “this happened then that.” But redemption lurks in the darkness, just before dawn.
When it comes to story telling, Hemingway had a saying: “Don’t say it, make it.” But what could be harder?
In the novel, Poland is the product of Eastern hammer swings against the anvil of the West. The result is unrecognizable through any average western cultural lens.
Its where medieval castles and Knights collided with Mongol warriors and unspeakable cruelty.
These are not fairy tales. Maybe western culture fashioned such notions as post-traumatic stress therapy to deal with the horror.
I’ll never know. But, as with every story worth telling, there are pockets of redemption where light batters back at the dark.
The best stories are found where salvation of any kind, whether of morals or of life itself, seems least likely.
In this story, a nation in it’s infancy, lurches towards it’s authentic self, though throttled by repeated and savage attack from afar.
The Price Of Authenticity
What’s unique is the victims are not portrayed as happy and content prior to the terror they face. They are shown through a realistic lens, as tired, hungry, poor peasants with little chance of long life.
And the Knights who protect them are, in their own way, as desperate as the peasants. They pine for stature and relevance. But, things can always get worse.
Suddenly, one morning from the east, like a Tsunami, waves of miniature horsemen explode from the dense, black forests separating the hard monotony of western agricultural survival from the even harder frozen steppes of Asia.
Terror of terrors befalls the poor peasants. “Inherited” fear sends many scrambling from their beds careening into the forest without even alerting their families. It’s not easy to convey the quandary of certain extinction but Mitchener is game for page upon page.
Zero quarter is given. It’s a picture of widespread, systemic rape and horror on earth.
Of course, any modern reader of this narrative can’t really comprehend the cruelty. You have to accept a different reality. Reading these stories is a form of acceptance of narrative. How could they be so cruel?
These warriors must have believed that dying from disease, or hunger, or exposure, or lighting, or old age, or bears, or the swords in their hands were all one and the same. They must not have seen the morality of it.
They were hard on themselves as well. They slept in the frozen air for months with little more than a blanket. A piece of dried meat the size of your thumb would last three days on campaign.
Do we suppose we are superior? Or are we simply the recipients of a different story? Of a different history and morals? These are difficult questions that a novel like Mitchener’s hurls you upon.
What comes out of these stories of survival is the authenticity of those that lived through those trials. In this sense, an entire nation.
The Meaning Of Authenticity?
I believe we are all seeking our authentic selves. The irony is that when we find them we aren’t around to celebrate. We are changed. I remember, as a child, desperately wanting to be authentically someone or something else. Cowboys or Indians. Civil war heroes. Pioneers.
Then it was time to go to school, and daydreaming only gets you bad conduct. But if you survive school you get to start dreaming again.
Then enough things happen that you wake up mid-life and realize you’re not pretending anymore. You’re living the life you always wanted. But you learn that doesn’t remotely look like anything you always dreamed of.
And it has nothing to do with status, or possessions, or relationships. It has to do with what is inside your chest. What do you carry around with you all the time? That is your authenticity.
You’re just vaguely aware that all that trial and error and all the experimentation resulted in the man or woman the world needs right now. Then you have a choice. Be that person or pretend you never learned those lessons.
Decision points come when you learn there is no backup and there is no second lap around the track. Fashion says tattoos are forever. But, a friend taught me he gets tattoos to remind him that nothing is forever, not even tattoos.
The Buck Stops Here
It starts gradually throughout life.
It’s the marine commander who tells his troops there is no one coming behind them, and turns around to look at the empty desert to emphasize the point. His young troops eyes dazzle at the prospect and the chilly reality, somehow exhilarating.
Then you start to remember the aphorisms. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” And when you are very much not that change you catch yourself. Its self-awareness rather than self-consciousness now.
You learn that people are not thinking about you. They are thinking about themselves. But you can be aware of your own thoughts.
The Faustian Dream
When we finally become our authentic selves, we don’t get to enjoy the fruit directly. Because being authentic is not to enjoy the thrill of being authentic. It’s liberating but something is lost at the same time. To learn to be comfortable with that loss is the redemption.
Every story of redemption has a villain. Usually that villain is our past selves that live dormant in every tendency we currently have or resist.
And all this from the opening chapters of the book. Maybe that’s why he sold 75 million books and didn’t publish his first until he was 40 years old.
The next chapter after authenticity starts now. Just when we feel beaten, we have achieved that coveted state. That’s the story of Poland.
We can’t take any of this with us. Least of all money or possessions. But what can we leave behind? Money yes. But money is green. That means its replaceable and comes from many quarters.
What can’t be replicated from my life? What is unique about the random set of experiences only you, in the history of the world, experienced. Once you embrace that fully, and are least aware of it, you have become your authentic self.
Like no other.