Story and Its Forms

Oct 23, 2019 | Shared thoughts

Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

In your story, are you author, character, medium or reader?

Harry

As you read the book in your hands, you follow Harry Potter’s journey from indistinct and unloved orphan to powerful wizard. The words take life in your mind, and Harry learns his craft, battling dark forces that killed his parents, forces that now threaten the world. He pursues adventures with friends, suffers setbacks, makes decisions and enjoys or endures consequences. It seems this Harry leads an extraordinary life.

In a moment of pause, still feeling the book in your hands, you might catch your flowing thoughts and ask, ‘What does this Harry Potter experience?’ The book’s weight on your palms might remind you that Harry Potter, the boy wizard, the beloved character of J.K. Rowling’s ultra-successful fantasy series, experiences nothing. This Harry is a fictional character that Ms. Rowling, through the medium of her words, has created. He is, in one sense, nothing more than curved patterns of lines on a page, patterns that conform to an alphabet, language and grammar that have meaning to you. While Harry exists as this beguiling character, he does not exist as that which the story makes him out to be — a real boy wizard in the real world, a boy who experiences what is happening like you do.

In another sense, we might say that Harry is not these words but rather the composite character that the words, together with your imagination and memory, create within you. If any experience is being had here, then you are the one having it. You are experiencing Harry’s adventure and that of the other characters in a way determined by the interplay of Ms. Rowling’s text and your mind. Because you are sitting in a chair and reading rather than rushing about a magical castle-school, that experience differs not only in content from your everyday life but also in colour and texture. Although in many ways it feels ‘real,’ its nature is clearly different from your full-sensory lived experience.

You might rub the pages between your fingers as you consider four components to this reading-Harry-experience of yours: the author, the medium, the story and the experiencer. J.K. Rowling authored the story of Harry’s adventures. Ms. Rowling’s brilliant mind conjured Harry and the entire environment in which his life unfolds. From a verdant well within her, the story blooms. Although she almost certainly draws on personal experience, proclivities and perspectives to create this work of art, although it has come and could have come only from her, she knows that she is not the story. She knows that the story is not her life.

What emerges physically from J.K. Rowling’s hand is words in patterns on paper pages. This is the medium through which she transmits the story to you. Through your eyes, you absorb the patterns, and thereby the story. The nature of the medium influences the story and your eventual experience of it.

The story folded into these words is rich. It includes Harry — descriptions of him and his actions, a privileged view into his thoughts and feelings, perceptions from his point of view. Multiple other characters move through the story, and you may gain access to their perspectives as well as a ‘God’s eye’ view of some action. A whole world of sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, actions, decisions, happenings, things, people and strange creatures is woven into the medium of squiggles on paper.

Harry as a character is part of that weave. It is obvious when you think about it that he cannot move separately from it. If J.K. Rowling writes, ‘Harry ran down the stairs,’ then that is exactly what Harry does. If she had written, ‘Harry decided to leave magic behind and become an accountant,’ then Harry would have decided just that. J.K.’s words on the page dictate the story’s every detail, which is what Harry’s life and the unfolding of everything in his world are. Harry and the other characters are not free; the story binds them.

At the receiving end of this chain of story transmission, you, the reader, sit. Your eyes and mind conjure a final alchemical transformation. What began as thought sprung from a creative well in the author, what made its way to you encoded as ink on paper, transmutes into experience. The words on the page interact with your mind, which is to say with your history, your way of making meaning, your assumptions, your quirks, to create a unique instance of J.K. Rowling’s story, to bring Harry and his world to life. This life is known only by you and only as the private experience in you as you read. Harry, his friends and his enemies experience nothing; only you as the reader experience the story. The story lives in you.

When you read of Harry’s sadness as he thinks of his lost parents, of his pain as the Hogwarts headmistress makes him write with that pen that carves its message into his skin, of his mortal peril as monsters corner him, you feel strong sensations and emotions, both for Harry and on his behalf. Deep down, though, you know that there is no Harry to experience these pains in the way a real human does. Although you can enjoy being swept up by his story, you recognise deep down that you are not Harry, so the nature of your experience is not the same as if the real you were sad, terrified or pained like the character is. You as the experiencer of the story are close enough for it to entertain you but not so close as to make you mistake yourself for Harry or to believe that the story’s ups and downs are your own. The story binds its characters, but you as the reader remain free.

Blanche

Not all stories arrive by written word. Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire for performance on the stage. A creative wave issuing from him and traveling through time joined more recent ones from a director, costume designer, set designer and others to form a live audio-visual offering to today’s seated public. The playwright’s submission does not complete the creative, pre-performance input. An entire team, with the playwright to the fore, replaces J.K. Rowling’s solitary role in generating the content and setting.

And we might include the actors who play each character within the creative team, for create they do. But we might also consider them as part of the medium. It is through their words, facial expressions and actions, in the crafted setting of the stage and theatre, sporting costumes, employing props and furnishings, that the story unfolds. Their performance and the setting in which it takes place are the medium in this artistic form.

When Blanche Dubois utters, ‘Whoever you are… I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,’ the words, born of Tennessee Williams, do not reach you through quotation marks on a page, but in the voice of Vivien Leigh. Vivien has latitude in her tonal and bodily expression when delivering this line, but except in limited cases of artistic licence, Mr. Williams’s script binds her.

Vivien plays Blanche, but she is not Blanche. At the end of the performance, she will step from her role and engage in her offstage life. Even onstage, we might suppose that her thoughts, when she is less actively engaged in the scene’s action, browse any number of topics that have nothing to do with the play. She knows that she is not Blanche, and she maintains a personal distance from the great trauma and turmoil that Blanche suffers in the play. When Blanche is humiliated, raped or led away to an asylum, Vivien does not suffer. She must be able to get very close to Blanche’s feelings, words and movements so as to play her role convincingly, but we would have to pronounce her mad if she took herself to be Blanche, if she fused with the character itself. Vivien’s experience is not Blanche’s but that of playing Blanche.

Let’s turn to the story, and within it, to Blanche herself. Like Harry in your book, the character of Blanche is more inescapably defined than Vivien is as an actress, for Blanche can only be what the summed creative efforts of the playwright, the director and the actor dictate that she is. Blanche is not free. Blanche cannot wonder, ‘Is it Vivien Leigh who is playing me tonight?’ unless Vivien Leigh utters the question for her, and that may be somewhat greater artistic licence than the director would allow in diverging from Tennessee Williams’s creation.

Your experience, sitting in the audience, differs from what it would be if you read A Streetcar Named Desire from the page, differs from how you experienced Harry’s story. Whereas you could access much of Harry’s inner world, you only have access to what Blanche externalises through words or body language. You watch and hear the events taking place on the stage rather than looking at squiggles on a page. Perhaps this gives more vivid visual and auditory experience than your imagination mustered when you read the descriptions of Harry’s surroundings and events. Perhaps it leaves less to your imagination to fill in?

Still, the final step in the chain, the step whereby the entire production becomes your experience of it, happens within you. Your eyes and ears take the story in, and your mind does the rest. Because it is your mind, the creative merging of the ‘raw’ story with it generates a unique experience — not an experience, like one of the actors, of playing one of the characters, but rather an experience of the story as a whole. If the story is a powerful one, if it is one that resonates with you, if your state of mind this evening is one that lends itself to immersion in the story, then it will move you deeply. You will have strong feelings of empathy with some characters, judgment of others. But you’ll not mistake yourself for Blanche or any other character in the story, and you’ll not mistake this story for your own. You experience it in an individual way no one else will, but it does not capture you completely. At evening’s end, you will leave the theater and proceed with your own story. As the audience, the experiencer, you remain free.

Mike26

Mike26 is your avatar’s name in a near-future version of Call of Duty: Battle Sense, a multi-player online game. In Battle Sense, your avatar fights alongside other avatars and pre-programmed but flexible characters. The enemy unit is populated the same way. Behind each avatar is a human player, who may be sitting anywhere in the world, connected via the internet to the centralised game engine. Stealthy patrols, devastating raids and pitched battles fill your game time, fill Mike26’s life.

Battle Sense is the product of a delicately balanced creative process of agile design and development that tip-toes the line between structure and openness. Hundreds of software engineers and designers contribute to the game world’s birth, to the pre-programmed characters, to the avatars the players adopt and adapt, finally to the dynamic engine that, along with the real-time input of the human players around the world, dictates how the game unfolds second-by-second. The authorship of any period of gameplay is therefore highly distributed, both across the team that created the product and among the players currently sharing it. This story has virtually countless parents.

The medium through which the story evolves is paradoxical. On the one hand, the product that the engineers and designers create is a static collection of binary information: 1s and 0s storable in a small box that you could hold in one palm. On the other, it is a womb of structured potential that can manifest in unpredictable ways depending on players’ actions. It is, in a sense, both static and dynamic. Its resting state encodes movement.

The name Battle Sense comes from its five-sense immersion. Players wear virtual reality headsets, noise-cancelling headphones and haptic bodysuits. They hold small, refillable bluetooth lozenges in their mouths and sit near a refillable vaporiser. All of this means that they experience all five senses from the perspective of their avatar in the game. When Mike26 takes a punch to the mouth, you taste blood. When a grenade explodes twenty-five meters away, you not only hear the deafening blast but feel its shockwave and smell the lingering cordite. You see the whole scene only through his eyes. You hear the avatars’ voices, each with a live human voice behind it. Mixed among them are the shouts and utterances of the game’s pre-programmed characters.

The story here is a series of realistic battle scenes in which your actions and those of your fellow players determine the outcome. You see colleagues die. Your own injuries hamper your movement and sap your strength. You take enemies’ lives. Through occasional accidents as happen in all war, you even extinguish the lives of your own comrades. All around you swirl death and destruction. Sometimes, oblivion taps you on the shoulder: Mike26 perishes, and you wait out the remainder of the scene on the sidelines, reliant on the game for a regeneration. The game world cheats the real world by giving your Mike26 countless lives.

Eventually, in each scene, one side emerges victorious, and the scenario shuffles forward to a logical next stage. Mike26 is not free. You control him. Considered more carefully, your control is only partial, for his life is also constantly influenced by the actions of the other players and by the intricate lines of binary code that determine the unfolding of the game. In truth, what is happening with Mike26 in any moment cannot be disentangled from what is happening in the game as a whole. In any moment, the game state determines Mike26’s state.

Connected, watching, listening, deciding, feeling, tasting, smelling, you sit and experience technology’s best approximation of the fictitious Mike26’s life. The depth to which the game places you ‘within’ Mike 26 is impressive and unprecedented. In so many ways, you are experiencing him and his life. You are ‘wearing’ and ‘driving’ him. His part in the unfolding of the Battle Sense story is, to a large degree, what you experience. And you are the only one who experiences it; of course Mike26, as a computer avatar, experiences nothing.

Still, as you remove your game gear and step out for a bite to eat, you consider how your experience falls short of perfect immersion. Setting aside any sensory imperfections, you focus on the most obvious aspects of experience that always remain yours rather than Mike26’s: your thoughts, your feelings, your memories, emotions and preferences, your hopes and intentions. Because of these and other personal specifics, the experience you have is different from what any other ‘driver’ of Mike26 would have. As a person, your experience derives from the collision of the ‘raw’ input to your senses from the game with your conditioned mind.

The intimacy of your Mike26 experience is certainly greater than your Blanche experience and probably greater than your Harry one. Yet you always retain a degree of distance from identification with Mike26. Your identity doesn’t meld with this character. You know that you are distinct from these experiences. As a person, you have one foot solidly outside the game world and can contrast the game world with your own. You experience Mike26, but you are not him.

DreamYou

You sleep peacefully next to your partner under your favourite duvet, and you dream. In your dream, DreamYou is walking to class. DreamYou meets your friend, and you head to English class together. She mentions in passing that she was up all night completing her term paper. A knot forms in DreamYou’s gut as they step into class. The teacher welcomes everyone and announces that he’ll be collecting all term essays at the end of the period. DreamYou now fully realises that they’ve completely forgotten to start, let alone finish, their ten-thousand word essay, which makes up most of the course grade.

You are the sole creator, the lone author of this story. It arises from the creative spring of your mind. Every detailed aspect of the dream is exactly as it is because your mind calls it into being. And yet, you don’t create it through any conscious effort or decision. You don’t decide that DreamYou will forget the paper; you don’t will the mistake into existence. Although you are the author, your creativity arises spontaneously. The dream issues effortlessly from you.

What is the dream’s medium? Of what is it made? You’ve never really considered it before, but this and all dreams play out in your mind and seem to be made of nothing but your mind. There are no hardcopy materials, no screens or stages, no computers or speakers. The entire story unfolds within you.

That story involves DreamYou, which during the dream seems to be you. But the story also involves your friend and your teacher. And both of these characters, just as surely as DreamYou, exist only in your mind and are made solely of your mind, as is the classroom and hallways you walk with your friend. Isn’t it interesting, though, how, when you tell your partner in bed the next morning and then your work colleagues later in the day about the dream, they all say they’ve had one just like it? So perhaps, though made only of your mind, the dream has also existed with small variations in and been made of countless other minds!

You as the sleeping dreamer are the experiencer of the dream. DreamYou experiences nothing. DreamYou is an aspect of the dream, a sliver of what is experienced, a character in the story. Only you as the dreamer ‘hear’ the dream words, ‘see’ the dream images and ‘feel’ the dream anxiety. What’s more, during the dream, DreamYou is absolutely certain they are you. It doesn’t even arise as a question in the dream. Yet, upon waking, it is just as obvious that DreamYou was not and is not you. You are too old to be in high school English class. You have no paper due today. You are not in trouble. You needn’t worry.

That sinking feeling, that escalating anxiety as DreamYou realised they had forgotten the assignment, was something you experienced, but now you realise that, even then, at the time of the dream itself, there was nothing for the real you to worry about. The unpreparedness in the dream was never a threat to you as the dreamer; it was only a problem for DreamYou. Having woken, you realise things are fine and that things were equally fine even as you slept and experienced an anxious dream, a disturbing story.

You don’t have to scold DreamYou. No need to admonish, ‘How could you have been so silly?!?’ DreamYou couldn’t help it. They were just a character in the dream, in the story that existed within and was composed of your mind. DreamYou could do no differently than they did. DreamYou was not mistaken. As the character, they were bound by your mental creation of them; they were simply being themselves as they were.

DreamYou knows nothing of you the dreamer, because they know nothing at all. They cannot understand you, because they understand nothing outside the context of the understanding you give them within your dream. They are a character whose composition may include ideas about a higher level reality, but those ideas, if they are present in DreamYou’s ‘mind’, are there only because the real you dreams them.

You needn’t be disappointed in yourself either, ‘How could I have mistaken myself for that dream character?’ You didn’t mistake yourself for the dream character at all. You were simply the experiencer of the dream, and the dream was a story in the first person from the perspective of the main character, DreamYou. You experienced the story with perfect clarity and accuracy. It’s just that the story contained the strong sense of subjectivity that the main character was a conscious self with a will, a history, preferences, senses and thoughts. Upon waking, you realise the illusory nature of that sense, but within the dream, there was no perspective from which to see this. The perspective is part of the story. There is no perspective from outside while experiencing the dream, only once it ends.

You were not mistaken. You experienced your dream exactly as it was.

You

Now, something to consider.

What if the you who dreamed the DreamYou above is really a DreamYou itself? What if that which you’ve always taken yourself to be is not actually a subject at all, is not the experiencer, the knower of your life? What if that personal you is a DreamYou and therefore an object of experience in a greater consciousness?

Would this be scary? Does it mean you don’t really exist? Wouldn’t it instead mean that you are that greater consciousness rather than the person you’ve taken yourself to be? Let’s consider it as we did the previous scenarios: author, medium, story, experiencer (reader, audience, player, dreamer).

In this scenario, the ‘greater consciousness’, which is You (capitalised here onward), is the author of the story. Like in the dream scenario, this author is the creator in the sense that the entire story arises from the well of potential that You are, but You do not choose how the story unfolds, do not sculpt its details through design decisions. You are the author, but not in the sense of a dictating director expressing a will. No, rather as pure creativity, infinite potential. This greater consciousness (which is really the only consciousness) that You are, is not a person drawing on preferences, experiences and imagination to create. You draw from your own essence — unbounded freedom and creativity.

Of what is the story made? On what page is it written? What is its medium? It is made of experience. It is experience. The story is the experience of the story, the experience of itself. And that experience is made of nothing other than the greater consciousness itself. It is nothing other than You. You are both the creator and the medium of the story.

This story is, from the perspective of the person (now recognised as a character) you once took yourself to be, absolutely comprehensive. It is your personal life. It is everything that happens, everything experienced from that personal perspective, across every second of the life that that experience constitutes. The story is a personal life including the person itself, all the other characters and the entire environment in which the life unfolds. From the personal perspective, the story is life, reality, manifestation, the universe, everything.

Yet, the person is part of the story. The person is, like the rest of the story, experienced. It is not the experiencer. It, the person, is not You. You are the experiencer of the story, of life, of reality, of manifestation, the universe, everything. If your personal name is Bob Smith, then consider that Bob Smith experiences nothing. Only You experience Bob Smith, his life, the story of which he is the main character.

You are this greater consciousness that is not any thing, is no thing, is nothing. None of the particulars of the story apply to or limit You. You are no object that has defining properties. All objects and properties arise in You, all are composed of You. You experience all properties but are bound by none.

Yet, because the story is composed of nothing but this consciousness, this experiencing, You are everything. You are nothing in the story, yet You are everything in the story. The story is created by You, composed of You and experienced or known by You. The story is Your experiencing of Yourself. Consider too, all that differentiates Bob Smith and his life from any other character, from any other life, all that differentiates any story from another, is detail – limiting and defining properties that apply in different measure and in different combinations in one story than in another. Yet You, this experiencing consciousness, are the same You that experiences all main characters, the subject behind all perspectives, the author, medium and experiencier of all stories.

In the previous scenario, the dreamer was a person. That person awoke to a more fundamental level of reality. From that waking level, the person could assess the dream ‘from the outside’. The person could realise from outside that DreamPerson was not the real person. The person could compare the dream to other dreams and to waking life. The person could analyse it, consider alternatives to it, judge it.

In the current scenario, which is to say in reality, a greater intelligence, You, experience all stories, but experience each only from the inside. This is why Bob Smith is unable to know, can only guess at, Sally Brown’s experience. You know every story by experiencing it, but Your only experience, aside from the eventless knowing of Your eternal stillness, is through one or other of the countless stories, from countless different personal perspectives, that spool from Your creative heart. You are none of these people, but each of them exists only in and as You.

These stories. These endlessly varied, uncountable, comprehensive lives and perspectives are each whole and perfect, as is Your knowing of them.

Bob Smith may be accepting or judgmental, but You as the experiencer of his life accept every aspect of the story that arises within and as You, including Bob’s acceptance or judgment. All judgment, like its opposite, sits within Your perfect acceptance. Anything that exists, exists only because You have accepted it.

Bob may understand his current situation, or he may be confused, but You as the knower of his experience see this understanding or confusion with perfect clarity. All confusion, like its opposite, sits within Your perfect clarity.

Bob may seek pleasure and avoid pain, but You know his seeking, his avoidance, his pleasure and his pain without concern or preference. All pain, like its opposite, sits within Your perfect peace. All preferences and aversions sit within Your unjudging awareness.

Bob may struggle or he may rest in the flow of life, but You know his struggle or ease with absolute effortlessness. All struggle and effort, like its opposite, sit within Your perfect ease. All that happens, including the feelings and thoughts of effort and struggle, happens with no effort whatsoever.

Bob’s travels might take him to remote continents. He might even traverse the stars to distant galaxies. All locations and space itself lie within Your dimensionless infinitude. You occupy no space but hold all space enfolded within Your experiential field.

Bob may be virtuous or sinful, good or evil, but You know his good or evil from beyond good and evil. All good and evil, all love and hate, sits within Your unconditional, welcoming love, a love that says Yes to all that arises to, in and as You, a love that blesses all with Your radiant awareness.

Bob makes decisions, exerts influence, exercises his will. But all decision and action sits within the flow of manifestation arising from the creativity of Your unbounded freedom. Bob is free to be exactly as he is. You are freedom itself, the field of limitless potential and all possible manifestation.

Yesterday, Bob may have been ignorant of his own true nature as You. Today, he may have realised that nature and awakened to his true self as You. But Bob always is You, whether he realises it or not. You are untouched by Bob’s or any character’s ignorance or enlightenment. Enlightenment, like happiness, wealth and virtue, are for the persons, the characters; they are not for You but in You.

Bob was born and will die, but You know his and all birth and death, and You see each moment of every life eternally. All birth, death, movement and even time itself exist within Your eternal stillness.

You seem to be a person living out an amazing story. You seem that way because that is what the story is. All that You experience is through story, not from outside it, looking in. The story is You.

You experience Yourself, and thereby the world is born — not once and for all but in every moment of existence. All that can possibly happen awaits manifestation in Your infinite well of potential. Yet no story truly waits, because You bless each eternally with Your creative, radiant awareness. Every moment, from every perspective, spontaneously arises and instantaneously passes, side-by-side, in the timeless blessing of Your presence.

You are. I am.

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