What do I mean with ‘story’? I don’t intend to offer tips on how to fine-tune the mechanics of telling stories to enhance the desired effect on listeners.
I wish to examine the most compelling story about storytelling – namely, how we tell stories about ourselves to ourselves. Indeed, the idea of ‘one’s own story’ is so powerful, so native, that I hardly consider it a metaphor, as if it is some new lens through which to look at life. Your story is your life. Your life is your story.
As long as there is no find, the noble brotherhood will last. But when the piles of gold begin to grow, that is when the trouble starts. – Howard (Walter Huston)
When stories we watch in the movies touch us, they do so because they fundamentally remind us of what is most true or possible in life – even when it is a escapist romantic story or fairy tale or myth. If you are human, then you tell yourself stories – positive ones and negative, consciously and, far more than not, subconsciously. Stories that span a single episode, or a year, or a semester, or a weekend, or a relationship, or a season, or an entire tenure on this planet.
Telling ourselves stories helps us navigate our way through life because they provide structure and direction. We are actually wired to tell stories. The human brain has evolved into a narrative-creating machine that takes whatever it encounters, no matter how apparently random and imposes on it ‘chronology and cause – and – effect logic’. We automatically and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us and ‘stuff just happens’ is no explanation.
“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948) is a story in the Joseph Conrad tradition, using adventure not as an end in itself but as a test of its characters. It involves moral disagreements between a wise old man and a paranoid middle-aged man, with a young man forced to choose sides. It tells this story with gusto and Huston’s love of male camaraderie, and it occasionally breaks into laughter — some funny, some bitterly ironic. It happens on a sun-blasted high chaparral landscape, usually desolate, except for the three gold prospectors, although gangs of bandits and villages of Indians materialize when required. At the end, it has Bogart in a delirious mad scene that falls somewhere between “King Lear” and “Greed.”
Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, one of the movie characters everybody can name. In 1925 in Tampico, he meets another drifter from America, Bob Curtin (Tim Holt). Both have been cheated out of hard-earned wages by a dishonest employer named McCormick, and when they corner him in a bar, they beat him so savagely that it seems pointless to hang around town. Their next move is suggested by the old-timer Howard (Walter Huston), who they’ve overheard talking about gold. They think he’s good for advice and not much more, but he has the stamina of a goat and is soon filling their ears with practical advice about how to find gold, which is not too hard, and how to keep it and not get killed, which is not too easy.
The heart of the movie takes place on the slopes of mountains, which the title identifies but the characters never do; they simply address it as “mountain.” They are so exposed in this landscape that only Howard’s experience and rough Spanish get them through. They start out as partners, but the moment they find real gold, Dobbs grows avaricious, suggesting they divide their gains three ways, every night. Soon they’re hiding their gold separately, and there is a long night when Dobbs awakens in the tent to find Howard gone, and then Curtin awakens to find Dobbs gone, and finally old Howard observes the turn has come back around to him and so why don’t they get some sleep because they have work to do in the morning.
Howard has been here before (“I know what gold can do to men’s souls’). He plays a tactful peacemaker, agreeing with Dobbs’ paranoid suggestions because he knows they will make little difference at the end of the day: Either they’ll get out with their gold, or they won’t. The performance is a masterpiece by Walter Huston, John’s father, and won an Academy Award (John Huston won two more, for direction and screenplay). Listen to the way the senior Huston talks, rapid-fire, without pause, as if he’s briefing them on an old tale and doesn’t have time to waste on nuance. He does a famous dance when he finally finds gold, playing the stereotype of a grizzled prospector, but see how his eyes are sometimes quiet even when he’s playing the fool; he reads every situation, knows his options, tries to slow Dobbs’ meltdown.
Stories impose meaning on the chaos; they organize and give context to our sensory experiences, which otherwise might seem like no more than a fairly colorless sequence of facts. Facts are meaningless until you create a story arond them.
By ‘story’ I mean those tales we create and tell ourselves and others, and which form the only reality we will ever know in this life. Our stories may or may not conform to the real world. They may or may not inspire us to take hope – filled action to better our lives. They may or may not take us where we ultimately want to go. But since our destiny follows our stories, it is imperative that we do everything in our power to get our stories right.
For most of us, that means some serious editing.
To rewrite your story, you must first identify it. To do that you must answer the question: In which important areas of my life is it clear that I cannot achieve my goals with the story I have got?
Only after confronting and satisfactorily answering this question can you expect to build new reality – based stories that will take you where you want to go.
Your life is the most important story you will ever tell, and you are telling it right now, whether you know it or not. From very early on you are spinning and telling multiple stories about your life, publicly and privately, stories that have a theme, a tone, a premise – whether you know it or not. Some stories are for better, some for worse. No one lacks material. Everyone’s got a story.
And thank goodness. Because our capacity to tell stories is, I believe just about our profoundest gift. Perhaps the true power of the story metaphor is best captured by this seemingly contradiction: we employ the word ‘story’ to suggest both the wildest of dreams (it is just a story ……) and an unvarnished depiction of reality (okay, what is the story?). How is that for range?
The challenge? Most of us are not writers. That is what I intend to do here in this hero’s journey. First, explore with you how pervasive story is in life, your life, and second, to rewrite it.