Backstory. It’s what’s happened to your character, your family, your country or your galactic empire before the story starts. How did you get to that desert planet and learn to fly dragons? Writing fiction, you figure how to bring it in as it’s relevant without clotting it into one big dump.
Most mornings, the first whiff of dawn awakens my farmers’ genes, I grapple for my sleep mask and launch some idiot dream. Other times, the brain worries some task, an insight or paranoid vision, like a cat ragging the mouse that won’t die.
Last week, working on the end of the 8th draft of a novel that few will want to read, I began early dawn to torment my own backstory. It’s a common question at readings: how much of the novelist’s life is contained in his characters? That same question might be put to the writers of memoir.
I won’t go into my own life story here. That’s mostly contained in our 2010 memoir CO-CREATION. That book’s as honest as we could be, and yet it could be deconstructed in terms of its serving our psychosocial self-images as individuals and as couple. The story of a life is a story. We construct the story we tell about ourselves and the story we believe. Sometimes the two are the same, but even recounting every incident in merciless detail, we’re still selecting the incidents that define us.
Not to suggest that our own backstory is false or that it should be abandoned—that’s best determined in consultation with therapists or lovers—but only that we be aware of what’s there and what’s not; how our chapters might otherwise divide; what functions or disfunctions it serves. It may be grossly self-congratulatory or hideously shameful, but we tell it and tell it and tell it, and we keep on living it because it serves a purpose. It keeps the illusional entity known as Me alive.
The celebrity memoir has a more predictable form. Surviving the traumatic or idyllic childhood; early inspiration; success; the inevitable crash from depression, intoxicants, ego flatulence or anything else offering struggle; and finally rebounding thanks to God, meeting Sal or Sally, yoga or Vitamin C. Not that these stories are false, only that they’re stories. They’re as “constructed” as a novel, with an intent—conscious or unconscious—of bringing about a result: being beloved or elected or rich, or a genuine desire to inspire—many options.
In the political spectrum, stories have enormous power. They can cure cancer, induce genocide, launch armies, drop the bomb, free the slaves, send a man to the moon or eviscerate Planet Earth. Guns kill people, people kill people, but the story pulls the trigger. The real weapons are the stories. It’s the stories we kill with, and they swarm like roaches.
So what’s the backstory I tell of myself? What purpose does it serve? Why does it cling to my face? I live it daily, though I’m only beginning to know it. Perhaps by the time I’m eighty.
There’s a lot of punditry going around about how the Dems just don’t have the “killer instinct,” or how they are “squishy,” or how they’re full of touchy-feely platitudes. Of course the Repubs will steam-roller over everything because they know how to talk directly. To the amygdala.
The amygdala is a little structure located deep in the bottom central area of the brain where your head hooks onto your neck. Once I read a pithy little self-help article about anger management. It recommended that when steam is about to shoot out of your ears in a fracas with mate or kids, do something, anything to break the tempo. Deep breaths, leave the room for a count of ten, whatever. But the best, most memorable way I heard it expressed was “Don’t get hijacked by your amygdala.” That stuck with me.
The amygdala is an ancient part of the brain structure, sometimes referred to as the “lizard brain,” and it’s part of a team. The cerebellum handles basic functions: breathing, keeping a heartbeat, organizing the muscles to do stuff without falling over. The hypothalamus plays our hormones like a piano, the hippocampus gives us memory, the thalamus organizes sensory inputs and sends that info to our our computing brain; the pons seems to function as the switchboard operator for all these messages and is a key element in dreaming. And the amygdala? It’s the structure that functions as the fire station siren: when it goes off you run like hell or go postal. It triggers a spurt of adrenaline before the conscious mind can make any kind of decision, and when it works overtime it gifts us with fear, anxiety, stress, and panic attacks.
Adrenaline speeds everything up. Early in my life I developed a pattern of leaving stuff until the last minute, waiting for the fear to kick in, then pulling it all off on an adrenaline high. I needed the fear. It was uncomfortable, it kicked me in the gut, but I relied on it. I wasn’t part of a community, I was solo and vulnerable, and it took years before I began to understand how to reach out, connect, and accomplish things in a gentler and more pleasurable way.
Music camp. Ensemble theatre. Quaker Meeting. Bonding with a lover. These were a different kind of high, and they all took time and the courage to release the tight defensive boundaries of a fearful self. Not an immediate kick in the butt: something deeper and more productive. It doesn’t deliver like Amazon Prime.
On the other hand, hate delivers and delivers fast, especially if it’s in a crowd. It’s a short-cut to the amygdala and it is powerful. No thought required. How do we reach out to offer something different, something better? How do we become effective against the power-hungry steamroller? I see a lot of commentary suggesting that we need to hit the fear button ourselves, to warn that we face a collapse into fascism, to enlist the amygdala in our own progressive efforts. But is fear that different from hate? If our human world can only be shaped by the owner of the rowdiest amygdala, how will we ever extract ourselves from this strait-jacket of aggression?
I don’t know. I’m tired. I’m worn down by the street-eaters and graders that will give us a better Pleasant Hill Road. Their gargantuan machines roam up and down gargling subsonic rumbles, which freak the cats, but they freak me too. (It’s wired into us.) I want to believe that somehow we will bumble our collective way to a world of more peace and quiet and comfort. How can we advertise that the world of the fist is not the way?
What do you do when a story grabs your head in its jaws and won’t let go? It’s like an earworm, that unbearable impulse to repeat a song, a rhyme, or an ad slogan over and over until you can bear no more: you confess your terrorist deeds and take the Boy Scout oath.
In my current brain, it’s the Akedah, Hebrew for binding, specifically referring to the myth of God’s directing Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. At the last moment, he’s reprieved and a ram is provided: God still requires blood, just not the son’s. But Abraham has proved his obedience and is duly blest.
Right now we’re finishing the eighth draft of a novel updating the tale to a father/son journey from Chico CA across Yosemite and Death Valley to Las Vegas and on to Shiprock NM. Two years ago, I drove this route. We expect to publish it early next year and to give away copies, just to have it done with.
Why has this story captured me ever since I first heard it in Sunday School? Of course I was told its moral, but it burrowed more deeply. You could pull off the bloated tick’s belly, but the head held tight.
Some years ago, we did a workshop at a Lutheran seminary. We asked the students—future pastors all—to listen to this odd story as if they’d never heard it and had no notion what it meant. “What does it spark in your mind?” They then divided into groups and came back with treatments of how they might focus a play. In one group, it was the straight interpretation, except that Abraham held a pistol to his son’s head, not a knife. Another, that it was Isaac commanded to kill his father. Another, that the dad was getting directions though a CB radio with very bad reception and was incredulous of what he was hearing. Another, focused entirely on Isaac’s mother Sarah back in the tent.
Like all great stories, it can’t be corralled by “the moral of the story is . . .” It’s a bramble with vicious barbs.
I don’t start out with a message I want to express, rarely even for a Facebook blurb. I’m drawn to a ground where I want to dig. I may find dinosaur bones, a vein of gold, or the petrified dregs of a privy. I only know that I need to dig. Why there? I don’t know. At some point I’ll probably speculate on the why: something to do with my father, with me as a father, with the yearning of men in the desert? I’d be interested to know, but right now I can only shape the story as it wills, and I may have to fake knowing what it means.
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