Is this progress? Humans, computers and stories

As a computer scientist, I have to say my job has changed very little in the last  last twenty-odd years. The tech has, admittedly, but I am still doing what I did back then, sitting in front of a computer, thinking about how computers can make peoples’ lives easier, what makes people tick, and how can we put the two together to make something cool?  Sometimes I even program something up to demonstrate what I am talking about.

It seems to me though that everyone else’s jobs (non-computer scientists) have changed and not necessarily for the better. People do their jobs and then they do a load of extras like social media, blogging, content creation, logging stuff in systems- the list is endless – on top of their workload.

It makes me wonder: Is this progress?

Humans and stories

As a teenager, on hearing about great literature and the classics, I figured that it must be something hifalutin’. In school we did a lot of those kitchen sink, gritty dramas (A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, Kes, etc.,). So, when I found the section in the library: Classics, Literature, or whatever, it was a pleasant surprise to see that they were just stories about people, and sometimes gods, often behaving badly, and I was hooked. Little did I know that reading would be the best training I could receive to become a computer scientist.

Human and computer united together

In my first job as systems analyst and IT support, I found that I enjoyed listening to people’s stories in and amongst their descriptions about their interactions with computers. My job was to talk to people. What could be better? I then had to capture all the information about how computers were complex and getting in the way and try to make them more useful. Sometimes I had to whip out my screwdriver and fix it there and then. Yay!! Badass tech support.

The thing that struck me the most was that people anthropomorphised their computers, talking about them needing time to warm up, being temperamental, and being affected by circumstances, as if they were in some way human and not just a bunch of electronic circuits. And, that the computer was always the way of progress, even if they hated it and didn’t think so.

I think this is partly because it was one person with one computer working solely, so the computer was like a companion, the office worker you love or hate, who helps or hinders. There was little in the way of email or anything else unless you were on the mainframe and then it was used sparingly, especially in a huge companies. Memos were still circulated around. The computer was there to do a task – crunch numbers, produce reports, run the Caustic Soda Plant (I did not even touch the door handles when I went in there) –  the results of which got transferred from one computer to another by me, and sometimes by that advanced user who knew how to handle a floppy disk.

Most often information was transferred orally by presentation in a meeting or on paper with that most important of tools, the executive summary whilst the rest of it was a very dry long winded explanation, hardly a story at all.

Human and computer and human and computer united

Then the Internet arrived and humans (well mainly academics) began sharing information more easily, without needing to print things out and post them.  This was definitely progress. I began researching how people with different backgrounds like architects and engineers could work together with collaborative tools even though they use different terminology and different software. How could we make their lives easier when working together?

I spent a lot of time talking to architects and standing on bridges with engineers in order to see what they did. Other times I talked to draftsmen to see if a bit of artificial intelligence could model what they did. It could up to a point, but modelling all that information in a computer is limiting in comparison to what a human can know instinctively, which is when I realised that people need help automating the boring bits, not the instinctive bits.

I was fascinated by physiological computing, that is, interacting using our bodies rather than typing – so using our voices or our fingerprints. However, when it was me, my Northern accent, and my French colleagues, all speaking our fabulous variations of the English language into some interesting software written by some Bulgarians I believe, on a slow running computer, well, the results were interesting, to say the least.

Everyone online

The UK government’s push to get everything electronic seemed like a great idea, so everyone could access all the information they needed. It impacted Post Offices, but seemed to free up the time spent waiting in a queue and to provide more opportunities to do all those things like pay a TV licence, get a road tax disc, and passport, etc. This felt like progress.

I spent a lot time working on websites for the government with lovely scripts to guide people through forms like self-assessment so that life was easier. We all know how daunting a government form can be, so what could be better than being told by a website which bit to fill in? Mmm progress.

Lots of businesses came online and everyone thought that Amazon was great way back when. I know I did living in Switzerland and being able to order any book I wanted was such a relief as opposed to waiting or reading it in French. (Harry Potter in French although very good is just not the same.) Progress.

Then businesses joined in and wanted to be seen, causing the creation of banners, ads, popups, buying links to promote themselves, and lots of research into website design so they were all polished and sexy, even though the point of the Internet is that it is a work in progress constantly changing and will never be finished.

I started spending my time in labs, rather than in-situ, watching people use websites and asking them how they felt. I was still capturing stories but in a different way, in a more clinical, less of a natural habitat, way which of course alters what people say and which I found a bit boring. It didn’t feel like progress. It felt businessy – means to an end like – and not much fun.

Human -computer -human

Then phones became more powerful and social media was born, and people started using computers just to chat, which felt lovely and like progress. I had always been in that privileged position of being able to chat to people the world over, online, whatever the time, with the access I had to technology, now it was just easier and available to everyone – definitely progress.   Until of course, companies wanted to be in on that too. So, now we have a constant stream of ads on Facebook and Twitter and people behaving like they are down the market jostling for attention, shouting out their wares 24/7, with people rushing up asking:  Need me to shout for you?

And, then there are people just shouting about whatever is bothering them. It’s fantastic and fascinating, but is it progress?

The fear of being left behind

The downside is that people all feel obliged to jump on the bandwagon and be on multiple channels without much to say which is why they have to do extras like creating content as part of their ever expanding jobs. The downside is that your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times. The upside is that people can say whatever they like which is why your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times.

Me, I am still here wondering about the experience everyone is having when this is all happening on top of doing a job.  It feels exhausting and it feels like we are being dictated to by technology instead of the other way around. I am not sure what the answer is. I am not sure if I am even asking the right question. I do know how we got here. But is this where we need to be? Do we need to fix it? Does it needs fixing?  And, where we should go next? I think we may need a course correct, because when I ask a lot of people, I find that they agree. If you don’t, answer me this, how do you feel when I ask: Is this progress?

Designing story (5): Possession, the relations between minds

Sexy, funny, lovely: Still from Possession (2002)

He felt that he was prying, and as though he was being uselessly urged on by some violent emotion of curiosity  – not greed, curiosity, more fundamental even than sex, the desire for knowledge.  – Possession,  A S Byatt (1990)

[ Part 5 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5) Possession, the relations between minds]

I have read many a How to write a bestselling... novel/book/etc. I love them inexplicably, though, I have never written (or published) a novel/book/etc., bestselling or otherwise. 

In all of the how to books I have read, they identify the bestselling pattern, after the fact, after the book has been hailed as bestselling, which I think is cheating a little, especially as the author who identifies the bestselling pattern is never the one who has written the bestselling book under analysis. Personally, I would love to have someone write a how to, then wait a while, and then afterwards, publish a best seller. How cool would that be?

We all want to be seen, heard, and matter

As usual, I was wondering why the need to write (or publish) a best selling novel is so compelling and, why how to write a bestselling… books are so successful. Finally, the reason I came to is the one I always use for everything, probably now and forever, on this blog, in conversation, on social media, and it’s what I murmur during my sleep which is: We all want to be seen and heard, we all want to matter. So, if we write (or publish) a bestselling novel, then of course, people will take notice of us, we will be seen and heard, and we feel like we matter.

The closest thing that I have read to a how to by a best selling novelist is A S Byatt’s Possession and all the wonderful things she said about writing it during interview. Byatt said that she set out to write a bestselling novel. And, I believe her. It is very different from her other work. (Just an aside, if you are thinking of Stephen King On Writing, as good as it is, a) it is part memoir, b) he wrote it long after he had written many a bestselling book and, c) I’m psychic.)

I first read Possession in the midst of completing my PhD in Engineering and it was the only novel I have ever read before or since, that made me wish I’d stuck with my original plan of doing a degree in English Lit (I have A levels in History, French and English Literature and I have degrees in Computing, Artificial Intelligence,and Structural Engineering – I know!). Even today, as I am rereading Possession, whilst wrapping up this blog series, it still fills me with that yearning for things lost, you know the one.

A yearning that I’ve always known and always had

For me, it is brought about by the first spring evening when the clocks have gone forward, especially on a day like today (Mother’s Day) – a flash bulb memory causing you to remember all the other days you have lived through when you experienced that yearning, which somehow includes the promise of light, of life, of creation. Or, the other one which undoes me, sometimes in the middle of a pub, or a conversation, when I forget what I am saying because I hear a key change in a song, it might be a bridge, or include a certain phrase in a chorus, it’s that change which causes an uplifting and undoing all at once. It reflects a yearning that I’ve always known and always had, even before I had reason to yearn.

Possession makes me yearn too, for it is a fantastic novel of love lost, of lives not lived out loud, and it demonstrates all the things I have spent ages fathoming out whilst writing about what makes a good story, which begs the question: Did I write this blog series with Byatt in mind? I don’t think so. However, her desire to write Possession, began with the very nature of the question: If you spend time considering other people’s words then who possesses whom?  In Byatt’s words: Possession is about the relations between […] minds.

Truth is what feels right to us, the only truth we know

Possession starts with a familiar genre: the detective story. Byatt said she had been asked to review Umberto Eco’s Reflections on the Name of the Rose, and she liked the detectives, and how in order to destroy a library with fire, Eco had to design it so it could easily go up in flames.  To detectives she adds a quest for the truth after a serendipitous discovery of an unsent-beginning-of-a-love-story-letter in the London Library. And, then very cleverly she includes 1,700 lines of short story, poems and letters, so that we the reader find our own truth in these writings, knowing what we now know between the two authors, because truth is defined in semiotics, by what feels right to us. It is the only truth we know.

Mr and Mrs Smith in a B&B

Then, she describes the time and place so perfectly, we feel that we are researching too, in the British Museum, or that we are in Victorian times doing, as my mum would have called, a Mr and Mrs Smith in Whitby (alright: a euphemism for booking into a hotel to spend time together). Indeed, the still above is the two of them travelling up north in a train carriage, and it portrays that sense of intimacy which two people who have never been alone before, but who have corresponded for a while, experience on meeting for the first time, and which we sometimes feel online nowadays, before even meeting.

Archetypes and the twists in the tale

And, we have our archetypes: the academics, the feminists, the down trodden scholars, the women who endure, each which bring their own energy. Byatt provides twists on them, because although we like what is familiar, we want a twist in the tale. We want surprise and we want our archetypes to be just that – archetypes not stereotypes. The found letter is a catalyst, a herald of change archetype, for everyone involved in the story. And, to that mix, Byatt explores lesbians, spiritualism, and gothic grave digging in the present day and Victorian times to juxtapose living between the ages, with our liminal women who live enclosed lives, and our different ways of managing life, birth and death, influenced as she said by Henry James The Bostonians.

We feel the intimacy of the trip, the intimacy of a séance even written in the omnipresent third person. We feel happy escaping there, even when Byatt presents us with those polarities of life and death, of love and pain, of agony and ecstasy. She describes them exquisitely.

Creativity: sex, life, and rock and roll

I once saw Byatt at the Oxford Union and remember her saying that she reads The Lord of the Rings when she is ill because it is comforting, because it is asexual. I remember giggling a bit at the time. But, now I get it. I often watch The Two Towers when I feel too ill to do anything. So much of life is about creativity which of course is inextricably linked to sex, the ultimate act of creation, to life, birth, death, and all the big questions such as: Why are we here? So, no wonder, grappling with all that, everyone needs the day off feeling sexy sometimes. Byatt writes about sex beautifully too, yep I know you were thinking about it.

So, how is this answering the question I started with in Part 1: How do we design a classic story? The answer is, we write about the emotional truth of a situation. We write about what touches us most and we do so with an open heart, with vulnerability, we lean in and we love, and we capture it, along with our regrets and the things we mourn, with a sense of significance. Stories matter, so we must do it in a way that uplifts us so that regardless of what happens, we can still look on life with a shiver of awe.

Sexy, funny, lovely detective work

And, this is the thing about Possession, a lot of the reviewers said that the book had a big heart, as if it was a surprise, that someone so erudite could be so sexy, funny, and lovely, but Byatt leaves us clues all along, even fusty, dusty James Blackadder thinks about learning things by heart, as if poems are stored in the bloodstream, and then quoting Wordsworth: Felt along the heart. Byatt knows that we all want the same things. We all feel the same way. We are all experiencing the human existence, even the seemingly fusty, dusty characters (and that is just one point of view of a person) want to feel sexy, funny, and lovely sometimes.

And, we the reader spend the whole book reading the poems and short stories, and then finally, letters (which Byatt achingly holds out on us for the longest time) trying to see the sexy, funny, lovely parts of the interaction between the two people who wrote them, mentally intertwined but physically far apart, after their passionate time doing a Mr and Mrs Smith in a Whitby B&B.

And, don’t we do that with any book we read? Whether it is part of the English Literary Canon, the one that Byatt knows so well, and wears so lightly in this book that it dazzles us. Or, any other story from anywhere else literary or not? We are looking for a resonance, an intimacy, a connection, we are looking to fulfil our Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (‘cos I never miss a chance to mention that either in any blog I write). And once we close the book, armed with that new knowledge gained by violent curiosity, we too feel sexy, funny, and lovely, and can dazzle and feel dazzled in return, in and amongst the intimacy and connection which makes our world a brighter, better place.

Designing story (4): Women

When they write about you do they talk about your thighs? Or your girlfriend? They validate me through having a boyfriend, someone wants me – Abby Whelan, Scandal.

[ Part 4 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5)  Possession, the relations between minds]

Scandal is extraordinary, precisely because the women in it, like Abby Whelan above, articulate exactly how society views them in 2016 and depressingly enough, she is spot on. Women are still viewed by the way they look and the men with whom they are associated.

It is said that Jesus had a whole entourage of women who travelled with him. But if the women were there, we don’t know anything about them when we read the stories in the Bible. If they held his hand, uttered words of wisdom, or stood in the light receiving the same appreciative words of confirmation that God uttered over him, no one cared to write it down.

Prostitutes and saints

The one time they had to, was when Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’s grave on Easter morning to find him resurrected. The men had fled, so she was the only one there to meet him. History has rewarded her by calling her a prostitute and even though historians have said that wasn’t the case at all, the label has stuck. All the men got sainthoods, btw.

It reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Women only appear in it as temptresses or goddesses, and they only have support roles. We don’t hear their stories or their trials and tribulations. Instead they are silent.

In his book, Christopher Vogler tries to demonstrate how the hero’s quest could apply equally well to women, like this:

The masculine need to overcome obstacles to achieve, conquer and possess may be replaced in the woman’s journey by the drive to preserve the family and the species, make a home, grapple with emotions, come to an accord or cultivate beauty.

Cheers, thanks for that Chris!

Busy women

Campbell himself said that we only find women in fairytales because women have always been too busy to sit around telling stories. And, when Frank McConnell analysed how hero’s stories make us better in his book Storytelling and Mythmaking, it is men who do the self-actualisation, whilst women are playing prostitutes with hearts of gold, or enduring like Penelope, whilst Odysseus is off chasing glory.

It is the same with the archetypes discussed in the previous blog. We have women playing the shadow or the trickster purely as a plot devices to move the plot along; like the damsel in distress, the old crone jealous of the fair maiden, or the jilted lover. These are all tropes which the hero battles and conquers. The poor women are never the heroine, never the mentor, and they are never allowed to self-actualise. The rare cases in which they do, they become outcasts (don’t be taken in by the sexy pic above of the goddess trinity), shunned and lonely, or punished. Because they are not there to be anything but decoration and to soothe a man’s brow.

Women in the movies

Thankfully, things are changing. In previous blogs I have talked about Rey in Star Wars, and the women’s worlds of Spy and Suffragette. And, to this I want to add Ghostbusters (2016) .

I watched it last night for the first time, and thought it was brilliant. I have never watched the original Ghostbusters, because I never wanted to. The first time I was aware of it on TV, I was a teenager and as it started, I thought: Huh blokes and I went upstairs and read a book.

Last night was totally different. I loved every second, it made me laugh out loud, and as someone who has decided not to dye her grey hair anymore, the riff on hair dye was really funny, because that was happening to me a lot. And when Sigorney Weaver turned up at the end to high-five and utter the immortal line: Safety lights are for dudes… well my life felt complete.

A room of one’s own

There was no patronising female quest of creating a home or attracting a man to make a woman feel validated, it was just smart women being themselves and saving the world. They didn’t need recognition, just a nice space to carry on doing what they love. Virginia Woolf would be so proud.

I can’t wait to see more stories like this one. Lot’s more.

Part 5: Possession, the relations between minds

Maslow’s hierarchy of chakras

chakras pic
Source: montereybayholistic

You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny. – Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which he proposed in 1943 is still a popular theory today for explaining human motivation, especially in management. At a first glance, it seems quite similar to the ancient Hindu Chakra system, especially when some of Maslow’s pyramid diagrams are colour coded using the rainbow, rather like the above picture. The chakras were first proposed in the sacred Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, which were orally transmitted since, what seems like, the beginning of time, and were first written down around 1900BC.

Maslow’s theory came from studying people he described as exemplary, or inspirational – people such as Albert Einstein or Eleanor Roosevelt. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also studied exemplary people and found that these people regularly engage in activities in which they lose themselves to bring about a state of flow, or in meditation terms, they lose themselves in the gap which is where our unbounded consciousness – the space between our thoughts and ego – lie. The gap is the place where we find our pure potential and infinite possibility.

Connecting to Shakti

The chakras are seven energy centres which run from the base of our spines to the top of our heads in our bodies. They are gateways connecting us to the world we live in and beyond to the universal life force known as Shakti, the most magnificent expression of flow, a place of infinite possibility.

We awaken Shakti energy and activate our chakras through meditation. Indeed, the ancient texts have described masters of Shakti being able to meditate during a storm, control nature, and command supernatural powers.

If this sounds rather far fetched, research in neuroscience has shown that meditation can help rewire the neural networks in our brain which in turn reduces the amygdala or lizard brain – the prehistoric part of our brain – where we register emotions such as fear, anger and anxiety, thus the end result makes us feel more at peace and at one with ourselves and the world around us – powerful stuff. We can calm our inner storm and be still when all is not.

And even less esoterically speaking, the chakras are where our nerve endings collect and our blood vessels are concentrated, which affect our hormones, our immune functions, and our vital energy. Focusing in on the chakras and awakening Shakti through meditation can make us feel emotionally balanced or even enlightened. The word enlightenment has many meanings, but one lovely definition from the Buddhist tradition is we become enlightened by knowing ourselves.

Who am I?

When we feel more self-aware and less emotionally agitated, when we sit quietly with ourselves and breathe deeply, it is easier to answer the question: Who am I? A difficult question to answer, perhaps. But, once we tolerate, love, and have compassion for our owndear selves, it is easier to extend tolerance, love, and compassion to others.

Inversely, when we are intolerant of ourselves, we are intolerant of others. Jesus knew this when he said: Love your neighbour as yourself. You cannot love someone if you do not know how to love yourself. You cannot give someone something you do not have, whether this is food and shelter, or love and compassion.

Maslow’s pyramid echoes a similar journey. At the most basic level, our needs are physiological – we need food and shelter, for without them we cannot function and their lack makes us fearful and anxious. Maslow called all four of the bottom needs deficiency needs. Along with food and shelter, we need safety, love, recognition and esteem from others, otherwise we feel deficient, and this makes us strive to find our place in the world. It is only when we are satisfied, and feeling fulfilled can we self-actualise and share that by deed or word.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

No striving only surrender

The main difference between Maslow’s theory and the Chakra system is that Maslow looks outside of us to satisfy needs, to work for our food and shelter, to work for our community and love, to strive. In contrast, the chakras encourage us to look inside to connect to Shakti or flow to meet our needs. There is no striving, only surrender.

When we are at one with all things, we respond and interact. When we are separate, we tend to react and contract. Mahatma Gandhi was aware of this when he said, Be the change you want to see in the world. You can literally change the vibration of your life and what and who goes on around you when you behave differently.

Aligning Maslow’s chakras

Maslow and the chakras contain many similarities, but we need to look inside ourselves, not outside to others to make us feel or be different:

  • Physiological needs such as food, water, and shelter which make humans think of little else are found in the Chakra system at the Root chakra represented as ruby red and the earth,  it is our foundation, it’s mantra is I am;  and the Sacral chakra which is orange and water, it is nourishment, purity, and protection, it’s mantra is I create.
  • Safety needs either personal or job security are found at the Solar plexus chakras represented as yellow and fire. It is our power centre where our emotional and physical fires burn bright with transformation, intention and desire, it’s mantra is I do.
  • Social needs such as belonging to a club or a family, to give and receive love are found in the Heart chakra which is green and air,  it is innocence and pure, a  connection to the infinite, the divine, it’s mantra is  I love.
  • Esteem needs to respect ourselves and have others respect them are at the Throat chakra which is blue and space, it is connection and communication, it’s mantra is I express.
  • Self-actualisation needs are when humans want to do realise their potential, and feel fulfilled, this is seen in the Third eye, or Brow chakra, it is purple and light, it represents clarity and judgment, it’s mantra is I see.
  • Transcendance needs were added by Maslow later on, and aren’t shown in the pyramid above. However, they correspond to the Crown chakra at the top of head, otherwise known as the thousand petal lotus, it is ultraviolet or white,  it is about connecting to source, to feel unity with the great consciousness, it’s mantra is I understand.

The secret of eternal youth

People who have awakened or connected to Shakti tend to be constantly evolving and expanding. They are energetic and are often described as young or youthful. It is easy to lose this expansion and delight with life, as we grow older and, I think this is why we are culturally obsessed with youth. Our young constantly evolve and expand, they are full of potential and promise, unlike the older members of our society who have had responsibility and routine creep in, making their potential and promise options seem fewer.

However, it is not too late. It is possible to reclaim that promise if we surrender to the flow, to that divine Shakti energy, and remember our desires,  which we are told in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad can lead to our destiny.

 You’re never too old, never too bad, never too late and never too sick to start from scratch once again. – Bikram Choudhury

Let’s dive deep and reconnect to our driving desires.

Designing story (1): The intimacy of the written word

Source: www.la-screenwriter.com

It’s telling me what I’ve already done, accurately, and with a better vocabulary. – Harold Crick, Stranger than Fiction (2006)

[ Part 1 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5)  Possession, the relations between minds]

E M Forster said that he wrote the last two chapters of a Passage to India whilst under the spell of T S Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which shows that whilst writing is a solitary process, and reading can be too, both are acts of intimacy, in the true sense of the word.

Intimacy is a lovely word. It means comfort and familiarity which is found in a shared space of connection.  It is much bigger than just a euphemism for sex. Intimacy (or connection) gives our lives meaning. We want to be seen and understood. Well told stories, fictitious or otherwise, can do this. They tell us we are not alone, that someone else understands the very experience that has bruised or filled up our hearts, and that someone know how we feel. Stories explore our hopes and fears. They teach and inspire us. And, they describes us, as Harold says above: accurately, and with a better vocabulary.

Sharing is caring

Imagined and real experiences are managed in the same way by the brain which means that stories create genuine emotions and a sense of being in a certain place or space, and we respond accordingly. Consequently, we fall in love with characters (even scary Heathcliff regularly makes it into the top 10 romantic heroes lists), or we feel bereft when a book ends. It has all felt so special, so intimate, we want to continue being there, in that space.

Fan fiction is one way of spending time in a shared space, though it receives a mixed press. Neil Gaiman is a fan fiction writer as is E L James.

For those who are readers rather than writers, then there is literary and film tourism. We have the studio versions like Harry Potter, or travel agents who take fans to the exact film locations for Lord of the Rings, the Sound of Music, or various places where Jane Austen lived in order to gain more understanding of her life and times, so we can feel closer.

The above examples are well known and extremely popular, but there are many books we put down because that connection hasn’t been made, and we don’t feel that we have anything in common with the writer or the space offered. What is it that entices readers into spending time in a fictional world that a writer has created?  What are the key ingredients?

Time for new stories?

Joseph Campbell said that archetypal story patterns are hard wired in our psyche, and I used to believe this. Nowadays, I am wondering if is it just that we have just heard the same stories (or patterns) over and over, that they are familiar and so we connect because we like the familiarity and comfort. But is this enough? For, as resonating as the hero’s quest is, it wasn’t designed for women even they make up 50% of the population. That said, James Patterson says that he writes for women because 70% of his readers are female and our favourite hero’s quest story Star Wars now has Rey.

Last week, I attended an agile management for women seminar where one of the presenters said that there are no archetypes for strong women in business which made me wonder if that is because there are not many in stories. The first question to ask is there should be? Should there be strong female archetypes specifically design to fit into a patriarchal norm? Or, is it time to write new stories and rewrite our business structures so we don’t have to adopt any persona/archetype – armour up – in order to fit in? Thankfully, we have lots of talented women working on the heroine’s quest, author of historical fiction Phillipa Gregory is rewriting history from a feminine perspective, and script writer Shonda Rimes is putting dazzlingly authentic dialogue into women’s mouths, on prime time TV, expressing exactly how society views and validates them only in relation to men. I literally cheer and clap all the way through Scandal.

Reflecting us

If a story is to have meaning for us, if a writer wants to connect to a reader, then it has to reflect the problems that the reader has, perhaps reflecting our day to day lives, or pondering the human condition and  the philosophical question: Why we are here, which is why I chose Stranger than Fiction (2006), at the top of this blog. It got mixed reviews but it is funny, clever and moving.

Harold Crick lives a lonely life until the day he starts hearing a female narrating his life and foreshadowing his imminent death. He enlists a professor of literature theory who gives Crick a quiz to figure out what his story is:

Has anyone recently left any gifts outside your home? Anything? Gum? Money? A large wooden horse?
Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large, luxurious homes to which you may or may not have been invited? …
Are you the king of anything? King of the lanes at the local bowling alley. King of the trolls?… A clandestine land found underneath your floorboards?
Now, was any part of you, at one time, part of something else? …

This (abridged here) quiz is hilarious, clever and recognisable, because we all do it, even though it can seem naive and silly to refer to literature as a guide, and that message is even enforced in literature: John the so called savage from Brave New World tragically struggles because he uses The Complete Works of Shakespeare as his guide to life. 

Affirming life

However, we do it subconsciously or otherwise because like Harold, we sometimes fret about whether we are living in a tragedy or in a comedy, which might cause us to ask how life should be lived and we might feel like we are living the wrong story.  In the end, Harold embraces his fate and the business of living, connecting and falling in love – all the lovely things we want in a story, and in life too.

It is the polarities of life and death which create action and tension, and, any story which explores death but embraces life, according to Christopher Vogler author of The Writer’s Journey, makes it one which is emotionally universal and intelligent.

But, that doesn’t answer the question of what makes a great story. Are polarities enough? Do we need a gestalt whole of time and place, plot and character? What about archetypes and blueprints for resonance? And shared emotions for that intimacy we crave? How do we go about designing story?

Let us tell some stories and see.

 Part 2: Structure