The old great stories, which really could change people’s lives, were not authored by individuals the way stories are today but were evolved naturally and instinctively by unconscious processes in oral traditions. And even if they started out as made-up or true stories, revelations or dreams, they still ended up for long periods of time in oral traditions and that became the principal dynamic behind their creation.
The process goes something like this: It begins with a real or imagined incident or event that is worth repeating, something so intriguing that we’re compelled to repeat it. It is passed along by word of mouth, from person to person and from generation to generation until it’s been told and retold millions of times and exists in a hundred different versions around the world.
Each time the story is retold it changes. This is due to certain natural but curious tendencies of the mind — the tendency, for instance, to remember things that make a strong impression and to forget things that don’t impress us very strongly. There is also a tendency to exaggerate or minimize, to glorify or ennoble, to idealize or vilify. Beyond that, there’s a natural, unconscious tendency to analyze things, to take them apart and put them back together in different combinations (recombination), and a natural tendency to simplify or edit. The tendency to conserve energy in nature is very strong in everything we do, including how we organize and store our thoughts and memories. These are all things we’re very aware of.
We’ve all heard about the three foot long fish someone caught that was, in reality, barely twelve inches, or seen someone make a minor problem seem like the end of the world, or recall something that was truly horrendous as being no big deal. Or we become convinced that someone we knew back then was a genius, a world class athlete, the most beautiful girl in the world. I had a distant relative pass away who was, in reality, something of a bastard. But after his death, only the good things were being remembered and everyone began to believe he was one of the nicest guys that ever lived. Shakespeare reminds us that the opposite is also true. In Julius Caesar he tells us: “The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” Hitler would be an obvious example. If he ever did a decent thing in his life, you’re never going to hear about it. He’s been completely and justifiably vilified.
We experience these curious tendencies constantly. They are a significant part of our everyday lives. We all know how hard it is to get a story straight or accurately remember something we’ve been told, or even experienced, if it hasn’t been written down. You tell someone close to you something exciting that happened (an incident worth repeating) and when you hear it repeated later that week or even later that day it’s been severely changed. It’s the cause of many serious misunderstandings. Well, you can imagine what happens to a story that has spent hundreds of years in an oral tradition. It has been thoroughly and completely changed.
There have been numerous experiments documenting this phenomenon. I saw one not long ago on PBS on one of their science programs. In this particular experiment, twenty children were lined up on stage. A story was whispered into the ear of the first child and she was told to repeat it. She whispered it to the boy next to her and he whispered it into the ear of the girl next to him, and so on. Then everyone laughs when they hear the last child’s version because of the way it’s been completely changed.
The important thing to remember here is that these are unconscious, instinctual processes. These old great stories were being created by the creative unconscious mind, with the unwitting cooperation of the conscious mind, of course. The creative unconscious seized the incident worth repeating and slowly over time, using these curious tendencies, helped the storyteller sculpt it into a marvelous story that contained powerful bits of that hidden truth. No one actually had to do anything consciously but repeat the story. And even if there was conscious involvement (i.e. the desire to use the story to instruct or entertain or even to change it) those desires and changes were prompted by feelings, insights, and various other forms of inspiration, which originated in the unconscious, so the end result would be the same.
(To be continued…)
AUTHOR NOTE: Click here for James Bonnet’s Storymaking website