Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Epidemic Narrative

Sharon Wildwind

If a story builds in the forest, and no one hears it, is it still a story?

Amidst the plethora of news recently related to the swine flu—is it or is it not an epidemic—was a fascinating interview on CBC’s Radio 1 morning program, The Current.

Priscilla Wald, a U.S. author and English professor and Vincent Lam, a Canadian physician and writer got together with the program’s host Anna Maria Tremonti for a look at contagious illness not as sickness, but as story. If you’d like to hear the entire segment, click here; scroll down to Part One: Swine Flu Narrative; and then click on the play button.

Basically what the two authors said was that the more confusing an event, the greater the lack of cohesiveness, the more prevalent conflicting opinions, the more desperate human beings become to turn events into a narrative, that is, into a story line they understand.

Right off, most of us choose sides. We pick bad guys, good guys, and victims, the essential triangle needed to develop story conflict.

Small waves radiate out from the initial event. There is a first victim; as Stephen King says, probably an old man and his dog in a dusty pick-up truck. The heroine feels the tremor in the universe:

“What’s wrong professor?”
“I don’t know, Jimmy. For a moment there, my readings went all out of whack.”
“They look okay to me. It must have been a trick of the light or something.”
“You’re probably right.”

Eventually people notice the deaths/mutations/body inhabitation, etc. The usual authority figures are baffled and helpless; they call in the experts, who are themselves baffled.

“What do you think that is, professor?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Someone suggests an easy fix. It fails. Increasingly esoteric fixes also fail. Each failure is more spectacular than the last. Panic grows. Sides develop. One group wants to try to communicate. The other group wants it incinerated and its ashes scattered in the wind.

Finally only one chance remains, and somebody will have to pay big time for it to work. It doesn’t pay to be the hero’s best friend at this point. In Star Trek it’s known as the red-shirt syndrome.

The hero takes the final, awful chance. The world is saved . . . until next time.

Great stuff for the late-night Friday science-fiction movie. The problem is the temptation to use a Hollywood script as a model for real life events

As you read the following list, which of the three roles—bad guy, good guy, or victim—comes to mind for each character?

Big business is the . . .
The workers are . . .
Government is the . . .
Pharmaceutical companies are the . . .
Poor people are the . . .
Rich people are the . . .
Doctors and nurses are the . . .
The media is . . .

Did you think I was talking about the potential flu pandemic? I never said I was; you’re already forming your narrative based on an assumption.

Suppose that we do talk about the potential pandemic. Poor people are the . . . . A lot of people would say victims, but a surprising percentage would say that poor people are the bad guys. That percentage believes if poor people would just clean up their act—literally and figuratively—the conditions for illness development and transmission would be reduced. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be this mess. That’s a narrative looking for a scapegoat.

Another problem with building a real-life narrative is knowing the reliability of the narrator. In addition to assigning a role to characters, as readers or viewers we also assign a reliability factor to each character. “She had me completely fooled; I never imagined she would lie about her husband.” or “Those shifty eyes didn’t get by me. Soon as I saw him, I knew I couldn’t trust him.” Okay for fiction because if we’re wrong about a character, maybe our enjoyment of the story is a little diminished, or sometimes, as many years ago with the movie, The Sting, we slap our foreheads and gleefully realize we have been had.

In real life, so many sources compete for our allegiance that the tendency most people have is to make one of two choices: if I trust the source, then their information must be right or this is all too much to understand. I’m going to pick a point-of-view that sounds logical and stick to it.

Take masks. The one image of the past few weeks will be, for many people, noses and mouths covered with blue masks. They have taken on the totem effect of Harry Potter’s wand or Wonder Woman’s bracelets. With masks everything will be okay, in spite of the fact that most masks offer virtually no protection against respiratory spread of infection.

It’s so hard to build a story when we’re busy living it. We’ve heard a lot the past two weeks about breaking the transmission chain. We also need to break the anxiety chain. For some time every day, turn off the TV, radio, personal data device, e-mail, cell phone, etc. Get outside. Take a walk. Listen to music. Do yoga. Do art. Meditate. Do whatever it takes to get you outside the constant barrage of someone else trying to build the narrative for you.

Oh, yeah, and wash your hands. Wash often and well.

Quote for the week:

The success or failure of your narrative passages … depends entirely on your clear under- standing of point of view. ~Beth Anderson, mystery and romance writer


Julia Buckley said...

"Break the anxiety chain." That's a great way of putting it, Sharon.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, you've done it again. You stripped it to the bones so well this time that I ended up reading the whole post aloud to my husband, who isn't much interested in the deconstruction of the narrative process, but like everybody else is interested in the flu. He pointed out the one you omitted: "The media is/are the..." He says that in the effort to give us the information we need, they're busy scaring everybody to death and creating the panic they're urging us to avoid.

Susan D said...

Very astute, Sharon. This post is a keeper for me. (I'll file the link under "Words of Wisdom".)

Meanwhile, applying the same list of suspects to--oh, let's say the economic downturn--we could now add "The Workers are...."

Sharon Wildwind said...

Thanks, guys. I went to bed last night thinking the post made no sense at all, but apparently I was wrong. I've added your two other categories to the original post.

Liz, my husband actually made it through that deconstructionist book, "The Great War and Modern Memory." After that, we made a pact not to dwell on the deconstruction of the narrative process in our marriage. (grin)

Sandra Parshall said...

Ah, Sharon, I wish I could see things the way you do!

Chris Roerden said...

Well done, Sharon. The clearest, most straightforward analysis I've seen in a long time. I've already sent your blog's URL to several writers I work with.