Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Coherent Stories and Overlapping Identities

Sharon Wildwind

Time is a funny thing.

For most of history being an eye-witness meant something. To be one the chosen few present when a major event happened indelibly marked a life. People said with reverence, “My great-great-grandmother was on Kill Devil Hills when the Wright brothers flew. She shook both Orville’s and Wilbur’s hands.” “My grandfather was a typesetter for the Saturday Evening Post. He set the Rosie the Riveter cover.”

“Did I ever tell you about the time I met John Glenn?” Yes, dad, about fifty times.

[Just for clarification, my family claims none of those things. I’d be proud if they could, but there are families who do have events like that as part of their heritages.]

I don’t know if you had this in grammar school, but we read out loud. Even if we’d finished the story, even if we knew that Puff safely returned home, or the family bought a bushel of apples on their Sunday drive, we had to sit through the entire story again, page-by-page. There was no such thing as fast forward, record-now-play-later, or — perhaps thankfully — instant replays. It may have been boring, but at least we heard a coherent narrative.

Pick any disaster in the last decade. How many times have we seen it? In how many formats have we seen it? How many times have we seen it as a straight narrative that made sense versus chopped sound bytes and video clips?

What happens to our ability to develop understanding of and empathy for the plight of typhoon victims in the Philippines when we see their story interspersed with commercials, or unrelated material as we channel surf or answer e-mail in between those sound bytes and video clips? What happens is that our ability to write and hear coherent stories disappears.

We’ve moved from future shock that Alvin Toffler wrote about in the 1970s, to present shock written about by Douglas Rushkoff and others. In future shock, too many changes happen in too short a time. In present shock, everything is happening at the same time, forcing us to live in many identities at the same time.

At the end of World War II, it took, on average, three weeks for soldiers, sailors, and marines to reach the United States from either the European and Pacific battlefields. Often it took additional weeks or months before they were released from the military and allowed to go  home.

I’ve read accounts of how men and women, on their own, without anyone ordering them to do it, gathered in groups and set out the rules for what they would and wouldn’t talk about when they got home. They had time to sort our their military identity and decide how to reform their civilian identity. Not that individuals didn’t have problems reintegrating, but they were at least awarded the chance for a coherent narrative.

Fast forward to Viet Nam. A soldier could be in the jungle on a Thursday, and out of the military, sitting in his parents’ living room, on Monday. A lot of harmful overlap between military and civilian identities contributed to later problems.

Fast forward to drones over battlefields, with operators sitting in Nevada. The transition time from battle to home life is the time it takes to get up out of a battle chair and drive home. The transition time back the next day is from the front door to the battle chair. Rushkoff has a word for this, too. Digiphrenia: a confused mental state from having too many identities running at the same time in parallel.

I have to admit that my writer’s radar immediately latched on to digiphrenia. What a wonderful situation for a character. Instant tension. Instant disorientation. Yeah, I can do a lot with this.

On further reflection, is it possible that, as writers, we need to pay attention to both narrative collapse and digiphrenia in our own work? In all likelyhood, I’d do better as a writer if I reduced or eliminated outside distractions while I’m writing. Do I need to plot and answer e-mails at the same time? Or write dialog while I look for Christmas presents on-line? Likely not.

On the other hand, do I need to separate my real-life identities and character, particularly when I’m writing those darker scenes? You bet I do.

I’ve written before about having taken the hand-made pledge. There are a lot of versions out there, and you can search for handmade pledge if you want to see some examples.

I propose a Coherent Story/Single Identity Pledge

I pledge to involve myself, without distractions, in taking time to write a coherent storyline. When I’m involved in writing, the electronic world and other distractions can wait. I pledge to build on- and off-ramps that separate my real life from my writing, so that I won’t have too many identities running at the same time in parallel.

Quote for the week
Narrative Collapse is what happens when we no longer have time in which to tell a story.
~ Douglas Rushkoff, American writer, columnist, and graphic novelist


Sheila Connolly said...

Ooh, I like the term digiphrenia! More and more often these days, I find myself telling myself "Focus." I'll be writing something, and even if I avoid the electronic distractions, these other voices pop up and say, what are you making for dinner? Don't forget to go to the post office today. It's hard work to do only one thing at a time.

Anonymous said...

I'm up to shouting, "Focus" at myself, but self doesn't seem to be listening. Soon as we turn the light out at night my brain starts making lists of everything I didn't get done during the day.