Ben Arthur's "Bone and Heart"

Singer-songwriter and novelist Ben Arthur, who recently finished the European leg of his tour for If You Look for My Heart, an interrelated concept album and novel, wrote and recorded a song inspired by Frank Bures's article "The Secret Lives of Stories: Rewriting Our Personal Narratives,” which appears in the January/February 2013 issue. The lyrics, Arthur says, are either direct quotations or lines inspired by the work of Paul Gruchow, the late poet who's words of advice factor heavily in Bures's essay.

Grinding underfoot
The music of snow
Drifts at the fenceline
A fat gauzy glow
The words stung
Like they were meant to sting

Broken bones and broken hearts don’t heal the same
The reverberations don’t die away

Listening to the surfacing sound
of the wilderness
It knits together
The ravages of a hard winter

Broken bones and broken hearts don’t heal the same
The reverberations don’t die away

Audio icon bone_and_heart.mp32.23 MB
Image icon ben_arthur_portrait_and_album.jpg263.15 KB

The Secret Lives of Stories: Rewriting Our Personal Narratives

Frank Bures

Around the time our daughter turned four, she started making what seemed like odd requests. “Tell me about the sad parts of your life,” she would say at the dinner table. Or, “Tell me about the scary parts of your life.”

This phase went on for a while. I played along, telling her about my appendectomy in Africa, the time I almost fell off a cliff, the time I got a fishhook through my finger. We talked about deaths in the family, and she would sit with her eyes wide, not saying a word, listening as if her life depended on it.

It wasn’t until I’d gone through a whole list of broken bones and broken hearts that I realized what she was really asking: How can I deal with sadness? What should happen when I’m afraid? She was looking for scenarios out of which to build her own. She was looking for directions about which way to turn when she reached those crossroads herself.

After thinking about this for some time, it occurred to me that I had done a similar thing. It was in college, when I discovered that I loved to write. I wondered if I could do it. I wondered, “How do you do it?”

In search of answers, like many beginners, I approached other writers and bombarded them with questions to learn their secrets and to find out how they got where they were. As it happened, there was just such a writer in the town where I went to college, south of Minneapolis. His name was Paul Gruchow, and one day he came to speak to one of my classes.

Gruchow owned a small bookstore in town, occasionally taught writing courses at our school, and had written several books of essays, one of which we’d read in our class. It was called The Necessity of Empty Places (St. Martin’s Press, 1988), and I loved it for both the writing and the sentiment. I had no idea at the time that he had studied under poet John Berryman, or that for years he worked at newspapers and radio stations across the state before the University of Minnesota Press published his first book, Journal of a Prairie Year, in 1985 (it was reissued in 2009 by Milkweed Editions). All I knew was that his thoughtful, eloquent style had earned him comparisons to Thoreau and that somehow he had arrived at a place much like the one where I wanted to be.

After the class, I asked Gruchow if I could talk to him about writing. A few days later, he welcomed me into his home, told me to sit down, and offered me a cup of coffee. He was bald and portly and kind. His beard made him seem like the professor he sometimes was. He had a quick laugh and a look in his eye like his mind was always elsewhere.

We sat, and I started asking him how he’d done it, how it all went, what had been his first big break, and on and on. Patiently he told me about his work at the Worthington Daily Globe, about his first book, and about his many struggles along the way.

When I asked for advice, he tried to wave me off. He warned me that the writing life was full of hardship and disappointment and that there were seven times as many people who wanted to be writers as could be.

“Don’t do it,” he said, “unless there’s nothing else you can do.”

We sat for a long while, and I listened as he talked about his own writing life, hearing mostly the parts that I needed to hear. By the time I got up to leave, much of what he’d said had lodged itself deep into my mind. Before he’d even finished telling me his stories, I’d already begun to imagine my own.

I did not grow up in a storytelling family. My father tells what he likes to think are stories, but are more like sequential chains of loosely connected factual events. My mother keeps a three-line diary in which she catalogues the day’s events, which is more like the raw material from which stories are made.

My wife’s family, however, are easy raconteurs who tell stories loosely based on things that happened, but with deep feelings at their core. Her father, for example, likes to tell a story about how my wife’s first car was a huge Lincoln Continental that was so big she could barely see over the dashboard—he could only see her little head in it. He got her that car, he says, because he wanted to make sure she was surrounded by as much steel as possible.

Except that wasn’t it exactly. The Lincoln was just one of several cars her family owned and that she drove. Another was a tiny Datsun that would have been smashed like a tin can if it had hit another vehicle. Her first car was actually a crappy Ford Tempo.

For a long time I puzzled over this discrepancy. It took me years to finally understand that this wasn’t really a story about her first car. It was a story about how much he loved his daughter and wanted her to be protected from the world. All that steel was love.

Why do we misremember things in certain ways? It’s a fascinating question. Looking back, we do not recall a steady, seamless flow of events in time. Instead our mind breaks the flow of time into related chunks and stores them as scenes and anecdotes and episodes. 

These episodes are the currency of our past and the storyboards we arrange to make sense of the things that have happened to us. We line them up like dominoes that lead to where we stand now. That we do this imperfectly has been written about many times. But I am more interested in the invisible threads running from one episode to the next, the forces that hold our stories together. Some have names, like love, or courage, or fear. Others are harder to pin down.

According to psychologist Dan McAdams, the episodes in our memory are not only the material for anecdotes to amuse our friends. They are also the building blocks of our “life story”—our own version of how we came to be the person we are.

Unless we write a memoir, or visit a therapist, we may never even tell anyone this life story, but that doesn’t make it any less important. McAdams and others argue that the ability to see one’s life as a story is at the heart of identity. In fact, our ability to “narrate” our life’s events may even be the defining mark of consciousness.

Building a life story is a process that begins around the time we turn two years old. That’s when we develop what McAdams calls a “primitive autobiographical self.” As we move into adolescence, we start to emphasize different memories we feel were important—events in which we learned something or changed. Then, during our late teens we start to develop a more complicated “personal fable,” in which we dream of the people we could become, like astronauts and presidents. McAdams calls this a “first draft” of our identity. We choose episodes based not only on who we think we are, but also on who we hope we can become.

As we move into young adulthood (between seventeen and twenty-five), things become a little more urgent as we try to compose a “full life story” that explains not only how we got wherever we are, but also what we believe, and who we will in fact be.

But our own past is not the only place from which our life story comes. The memories are our own, but what they mean and how we put them together come from the lives we see around us, from the stories we read and hear, and from whatever possibilities we can imagine.

For most of us, that full life story is never really finished, and is always subject to revision. Even so, it determines much of how our life unfolds. It’s like a road map through the chaos, with arrows pointing one way or another at turning points like failure and success, death and birth, love and loss. That is what our daughter was really asking: How do you live in a world with sadness and fear? And how should I?

After the door closed behind me at Paul Gruchow’s house, I went back to campus. I graduated and my career went slowly on. Yet even as I wrote story after story—hundreds of them—and even as I became a better writer, I still didn’t quite know what a story was, not exactly. Instead I wrote by feel. A story was something I knew if I saw or felt it, but when I tried to put a definition into words, the meaning would slip through my fingers.

You can find this same problem running through much of the discussion about stories, or narrative, these days—and there’s more of it than ever. Narrative neuroscience and narrative psychology are both growing fields. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a part of the U.S. Department of Defense, is even researching the use of narrative for defense purposes. Evolutionary biologist and author E. O. Wilson has repeatedly called us the storytelling species, and last April Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published a book by Jonathan Gottschall titled The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. But like other authors who have tackled the subject, Gottschall never quite articulates what he means when he talks about a story, and the book remains a disappointing collection of platitudes.

So what makes stories so important? What makes them stories at all? I finally stumbled across a kind of answer in a field about as far from the English department as you can get: artificial intelligence.

It turns out one of the biggest problems with making a computer intelligent is getting it to do something that we do naturally, something called “commonsense causal reasoning,” which means understanding instantly when one thing causes another to happen.

“It’s very simple things,” says Andrew Gordon, a researcher at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. “Like if you tell the computer you dropped an egg, you want the computer to know that it broke, not bounced.”

Gordon and his fellow researchers have been working on this problem for some time. They tried to instill this ability into a computer program by collecting millions of stories from blogs and using them to teach it how to deduce that A causes B.

After they had collected these stories, they designed a test in which they asked the computer a question, such as: “The man lost his balance on the ladder. What happened as a result? 1: He fell off the ladder. 2: He climbed up the ladder.” Or this one: “The man fell unconscious. What was the cause of this? 1: The assailant struck the man in the head. 2: The assailant took the man’s wallet.”

“Computers are horrible at this test,” says Gordon. Humans get the answer right 99 percent of the time—more or less perfectly. The best result they could get from the computer was 65 percent correct, or just 15 percent better than chance. 

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.