I’m not a statesman, or politician, and even as a citizen, I am a mere beginner. Like all of us, I too am immersed in critically ill world. My experience of our world is an almost daily series of disconnected shocks, and my first instinct is to try to bring it under control by turning it into a narrative. That’s what I do.
Here’s what we do.
Always in emergencies we invent narratives. We describe what is happening, as if to confine the catastrophe. When people heard that the “credit crisis” was spinning out of control, writers and pundits inundated us with stories and cases of other people and other organizations in crisis, but for some reason, few have ever told us how the crisis affects them. Storytelling seems to be a natural reaction to crisis. People bleed stories and we have become a blood bank of them.
A person or an organization has to start by treating the crisis not as a disaster, an occasion for depression or panic; but as a narrative, a story. Stories are antibodies against crisis and pain. When various individuals and organizations file for bankruptcy, or when organizations displace employees into joblessness, I’ve found it helps a lot when you can create a narrative of what is happening to you. Talking has a way of humanizing and translating experience. It can prepare, strengthen and sometimes, even console you. Anything is better than an awful silent suffering.
I sometimes think that silence can kill you, like the terrible scene at the end of Kafka’s, The Trial when Joseph K, lies speechlessly, “like a dog.” To die, or to feel dead is to be no longer human, to be dehumanized – and I think that stories or narratives are the most effective ways to keep our humanity alive. To remain silent is literally to close down the shop on one’s humanity.
I knew a man who had lung cancer, and during his final days, he was speechless. For days, he lay in his bed trying to talk to the people with his eyes. He was too depressed or maybe traumatized to try to write on a pad. He died not of cancer exactly, but of pneumonia, as if his lungs had filled with trapped speech and he drowned in it.
Some of the best writers of our time turn their anxieties and neuroses into a story in order to be able to control it to a degree, so a person in crisis, or on the wrong side of the credit crunch or a job loss can make a story, a narrative, out of their ordeal as a way of trying to detoxify it.
One of the many ways you might do this is to create mini-narratives. Metaphor is a powerful ally. You might, for example, see your predicament as a visit to a disturbed country, rather like Georgia. Or, perhaps it is a love affair with a demented other who demands things you have never done before. Or, as a presentation you’re about to give to a full conference room on a subject that has not been specified.
Making narratives can rescue you from the unknown, from what Becker calls, “the panic inherent in creation” or “the suction of infinity.” Thinking about difficult situations is what writers do best. And we should all be writers, if only for the thinking and the way language can help us write our way out of a difficult situation.