The computer, in other words, could not understand what we call causality. It couldn’t see how the ripples spreading from one event caused another to occur. It couldn’t see the forces that were secretly at work in our stories, but which we never name. For a computer, a Lincoln Continental is just a car—steel is just steel.
“Storytelling is a human universal,” Gordon says. “There’s not a culture that doesn’t tell stories. It’s something embedded in our genes that makes us good storytellers. It’s a huge survival advantage, because you can encapsulate important information from one person to another and share it within a group. So there’s a good reason to be good storytellers.”
But the utility of storytelling has to do with causality, the ability to determine what causes what. Causality is the thing that helps you plan. Causality helps you decide what must be done to get what you need, or want, or want to avoid. You might know how the world is, but if you want to know how it got that way, you have to understand causality. If you want to know how to change it in order to effect your goals, or if you want to know what to expect in the future, you have to understand causality. When you tell a story, you’re trying to bring what Gordon calls “causal coherence” to events that are ordered in time.
Whether computers will ever be able to understand not only what happens in a story, but also why it happened and why it matters, remains uncertain. At the moment, they are very far from that point.
We, on the other hand, are already there. We see causality constantly, incessantly, and effortlessly: when we read the news, when we gossip about neighbors, when we watch a movie or read a book. Much of our life is the search for the causal links between events, for the forces at work not only in the physical world, but also in the hearts and minds of the people we know. We are constantly cataloguing the story lines around us in an effort to sort out our own. What causes greatness? What causes failure? What causes happiness? What causes goodness or evil? What causes sadness and fear?
Radio journalist Ira Glass has said that his mentor, Keith Talbot of National Public Radio, once advised, “Every story is an answer to the question: How should I live my life?”
Or, as the poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.
The headline came as a shock: “Author Paul Gruchow, who chronicled the prairie, dies at 56.” In late February of 2004, Gruchow took his own life with a drug overdose.
There were few details. Obviously, he had been deeply depressed. According to one article, when asked several months before his death how he wanted to be remembered, Gruchow replied, “Tell them I got up and said a few words.” According to another, when an old friend wrote to ask if he could do a story about him, Gruchow wrote back: “Last year I earned $62.85 in royalties and gave one public talk, in Duluth, that drew a dozen listeners…. Two or three times the phone rings. Usually I don’t answer it. There isn’t a story.”
There was a story, but perhaps not one he wanted to tell. It almost certainly wasn’t the one he’d imagined when he dreamed of becoming a writer. Maybe it was the story he’d been trying to tell me all those years ago when I sat across from him.
But it wasn’t the story I heard. What I heard was that it was not going to be easy, that it would take time and effort, and that I would have to endure hardships. Those were warnings that have served me well.
Looking back now, his words seem to take on another meaning, another kind of caution, one that has little to do with writing, and everything to do with life: Down there in our stories, the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell others, the ones we hope are true, the ones we fear might be, are forces at work that we can only ever halfway understand. Knowing how causalities hold our past together doesn’t mean we can always see what those causalities are.
What I heard from Gruchow was this: Writing, creating something so beautiful that it may outlast you, is so important that you must be prepared to suffer for it, and then keep going on. That has always been a part of my story, and that is one of the reasons I am still writing nearly twenty years later.
That may also be why the news of Gruchow’s death, so many years after we met, filled me with a deep and unexpected sadness. It was a sadness born of the realization that while I thought he and I had been reading from the same script, perhaps we weren’t. It drove home the understanding that at each of life’s crossroads, what you believe deep down determines which way you turn.
Be mindful, in other words, of the stories you believe, the stories you love, and the stories you choose to tell. Because in the end they may become your own.
Frank Bures is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.