“Other than storytelling there is no reason to things.”
Whitefish Review’s 22nd issue, “The Stories We Tell,” features nearly 40 authors, poets, photographers, and artists, as well as an interview with author and CNN anchor Jake Tapper. The cover artwork is a new oil painting by artist Jennifer Li called “Ring of Fire.”
Below is an excerpt from influential Montana author William Kittredge, who taught at the University of Montana from 1969 until his retirement in 1997. His publications include stories and essays from Graywolf Press, “Hole in the Sky” from Knopf, and his share of the credit for the famed anthology “The Last Best Place.”
The Stories We Tell
The poet C.K. Williams came to Missoula and spoke of “narrative dysfunction” as a prime part of mental illness in our time. Many of us, he said, lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us how we are supposed to act and who we are supposed to be. It isn’t any fun, and doesn’t just happen to people; it happens to societies. Stories are places to live inside the imagination. We know a lot of them, and we’re in trouble when we don’t know which one is ours. Or when the one we inhabit doesn’t work anymore, and we stick with it anyway.
We live in stories. We do things because of what is called character, and our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in. Late in the night we listen to our own breathing in the dark and rework our stories. We do it over again the next morning, and all day long, before the looking glass of ourselves, reinventing reasons for our lives. Other than storytelling there is no reason to things.
Aristotle talks of “recognitions,” which can be thought of as moments of insight or flashes of understanding in which we see through to coherencies. We all seek such experiences. It’s the most commonplace thing that human beings do after breathing. We are like detectives, each of us trying to make sense and define what we take to be the right life. It is the primary and most incessant business of our lives.
We figure and find stories, which can be thought of as maps or paradigms in which we see our purposes defined. Then the world drifts and our maps don’t work anymore, our paradigms and stories fail, and we have to reinvent reasons for doing things. Useful stories, I think, are radical. They help us see freshly. They are like mirrors in which we see ourselves. That’s what stories are for, to help us see for ourselves as we go about the business of reimagining ourselves.
If we ignore the changing world and stick to some story too long, we are likely to find ourselves in a wreck. It’s happening all over in the American West. Many of our neighbors attempt to live out rules derived from worn-out models. Thus, they reconfirm their prejudices. They get to see whatever they want to see. Which is some consolation. But it is not consolation we need. We need direction.
The interior West is no longer a faraway land. Our great emptiness is filling with people, and we are experiencing a time of profound transition that can be thought of as the second colonization. Many people here are being reduced to the tourist business, in which locals are servants, hunting guides and motel maids, or local color. People want to enclose our lives in theirs, as decor.
Native American people were living coherent lives, at one with circumstances, when our people displaced them, leaving them disenfranchised, cut off from possibilities in our society. Reservations are like little beleaguered nations battling to survive within our larger one as we continue with wrecking the traditional resources of their cultures. The result, for them, is anomie, nothing to hang on to, and powerlessness. We are shamed and look away, and do very little to help.
So it is deeply ironic that Native Americans are being joined in their disenfranchisement by loggers and miners and ranchers, and by the towns that depend on them. Our ancestors came west and made homes for where they could live independent lives. Because of their sacrifices, we think we own the West; we think they earned it for us. But, as we know, nobody owns anything absolutely, except for their sense of who they are.