Posted in Reading, Social Media, Teaching, Writing

Storytelling and Simulated Worlds

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured an essay on narration that a friend mentioned on Facebook. I didn’t see her comment initially because I don’t frequent Facebook. My husband posts there several times a day though, so he passed the news along to me. Now that I’ve read the essay, I’m ready to enter the conversation–but not on Facebook, where it seems too late. My friend’s request–“I’d love to hear more thoughts on this”–now lies buried beneath four days of links and “likes” and photos.

The essay “Once Upon a Time, There was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time‘” reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s story “‘The Veldt” (1950), which my students and I read and studied this week. The  story’s crystal-walled virtual-reality nursery leads the Hadley children away from creativity toward passivity. When the son, Peter, admonishes his father for removing the picture painter from the nursery, George Hadley replies: ‘. . . I wanted you to learn to   paint all by yourself, son” (76).

“I don’t want to do anything but look and listen and smell,” Peter replies. “What else is there to do?” (76).

Ray Bradbury’s short story collection The Illustrated Man (1950), which includes “The Veldt.”

In “Once Upon a Time. . . ,” writer Steven Almond addresses how visual media (Bradbury’s crystal-walled virtual-reality) has changed how we conceive of storytelling. “Traditionally,” Almond writes, “stories represented an active collaboration. Listeners and readers were called upon to create the world described by the artist. Film advanced a new model of collaboration. An array of artists (screenwriters, actors, cinematographers, set designers, etc.) worked together to invent an ultra-vivid artificial world. The audience’s role became increasingly passive–to absorb and react, not to imagine. Television shrunk the wonders of film and delivered them directly to our living rooms.”

The absence of narration in “the shrunken wonders of film”–now shrunken to fit our iPhone 5 screens–isn’t simply the loss of a literary device. It’s the atrophy of an essential skill: one that enables us to make sense of the world. It’s no surprise that Almond’s creative writing students produce short stories that lack coherence. Or that many of the freshman in my classes struggle to produce essays of more than 1,500 words. If I write any more, I’ll be repeating myself, they often say, not because they can’t write more, but because they can’t imagine writing more. To do so would require the sustained attention and reflection that our digital culture leaves behind.

Posting to Facebook about the decline of narration isn’t the equivalent of driving and texting about the dangers of driving and texting. But it does underscore a consistent contradiction in our lives. As a writer and a teacher, I attempt to reconcile that incongruity with blog posts–writing that my students and I can draft and revise before our words enter the sphere Almond describes as “the simulated world through which most of us flit from one context to the next, from Facebook post to Tumblr feed to YouTube clip, from ego moment to snarky rant to carnal wormhole.”

5 thoughts on “Storytelling and Simulated Worlds

  1. I find myself wrestling with the same incongruity with my own students, and I too find that they struggle to produce any writing beyond the character limitations placed on them by Twitter. I’m not sure what to do beyond showing them that there’s much, much more to be produced and, to use a term my students are quite familiar with, “share”.

  2. Thanks, David. I plan to address today’s blog post in tomorrow’s class as a way of both sharing and showing what more we can produce when we allow ourselves to do it.

  3. Hi Jane, I’ve been thinking about your post. I’ve had smiliar conversations with other writers. It seems people in the arts are most concerned about today’s fractured attenion spans.

    I found a spot of good news while reading the Jan./Feb. issue of Poets&Writers. The issue focuses on inspiration. In one article, The Inspired Mind, by Arnie Cooper, he discusses the window into the writer’s brain and how it relates to storytellig. A 2009 study, reported in Psychological Science, used the fMRI and tracked activity in real time while people read short stories. One, the study disproved the idea that reading is passive.And the study’s lead author Nicole Spear said “the results suggest that readers use perception and motor representations in the procss of comprehending narrated activity.”

    The article goes on to discuss mirror neurons through which we identify with characters.So characters have to have goals from the very beginning of the story to engage readers.Curiosity is essential.

    I’ll follow a writer if their prose is sparkly and my curiosity is aroused, even reading about characters and landscapes I never imagined I’d care about.



  4. Hi Jane,
    Just read the article on reading Austen that I remember seeing floating around but hadn’t read. Thanks for the link.
    Functional MRI’s are amazing in their specificity, a look at what the brain is doing. The Austen study also found surprises. I suspect soon there will be a book or two on this topic. Literature and neuroscience.
    I have a friend, psychologist, who uses the fMRI to study the effects of mindfulness meditation on various populations. From at-risk teens in high school to people put in stressful medical situations. Meditation of course doesn’t fix everything, but one clear outcome is more sustained focus, concentration.
    I wonder as the popularity of meditation spreads, will that have positive effects on college students’ study habits and ability to focus? Possibly help curb short attention spans?

    Best wishes,

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