The Story as an Entity : An Essay-Response by Jeff Phillips
Sally Cooper’s essay posed the question; can a story have an aura? And it caused me to stop for a moment and consider how we experience an aura, other than seeing a field of light or energy surrounding a body, a “vibe” is often mentioned to express this. Vibe, vibration, is, when it comes down to it, a response to stimuli. Whether a ghost stares you down with dark eyes or you read a book that strikes a chord, you are affected by a vibe. And vibes can be damn complex, textured, an amalgamation of sometimes discordant, sometimes harmonious notes, perhaps both. Like noise from the imprecise radio where different voices sift in and out, creeping you.
A friend of mine recounted earlier this week how he had seen a ghost over the prior weekend. While on a getaway in Wisconsin, he and his girlfriend spent the night in a motel. They both awoke at 12:30am to see a shadow person watching them sleep. As they swatted, the shadow person vanished.
Now, this got me really thinking about ghosts, which made me think about ghost stories, and these thoughts then boiled down into thoughts on stories.
Whether they truly saw a ghost or not, whether it can be debunked, or if it’s a stress related hallucination, these theories don’t erase the fact the person typically believes they saw a ghost. And they feel as though some senses were stirred in them that they’re not quite used to sensing.
Reading a great story, in many ways, is like seeing a ghost. The story emerges as an entity, one that we were not quite expecting, one we can’t explain and sometimes it triggers old, deep seated memories. Emotions come back to haunt us, and we can’t quite sleep right, because this entity is trying to communicate with us. Our heads see one thing, and our gut’s confused.
When unfamiliar electricity tingle the hairs on the back of your neck, questions arise. Why is this shadow person watching me sleep? What do they want with me? Why are they haunting this place?
When we finish reading a strong story, similar questions arise. Why did the author write this? Why did I feel the urge to open this book? Why can’t I stop thinking about a certain passage?
It is not just the story we remember but the environment of experiencing a story. We remember not just the hard facts of a story’s happening, the dots that push down heaps and turns, but the way a particular person tells it, his timber, the way his elbow flaps his side to emphasize. The way he tells it is different than the way I would tell it. Or you would tell it. And this is part of the texture he spackles our absorption of the tale with. And if we had heard a different person tell it, or a different person had written it, our memory would be very different. And memories stir up such vibes, further fueling its color, and it lights the history of our personal experiences, much as an interior lighting designer sets the ambience of an anteroom with say, welcoming tones of yellow-orange.
I use the example of a scary story because it conjures up the oral tradition of campfire telling, but even in looking at an opposite genre, perhaps comedy. When we were at a comedy club we don’t just remember the punch line, but the timing, and the way our friends laughed and bumped up against us, or the chortling of the random guy into his cupped hands on the table in the corner.
And aside from easy examples with clear genres, look at the books that capture such a small detail that affirms the universality of a weird shame, one we thought no one else felt, and the flushness we feel and hope no one was watching us read. That sticks. Recently I read You Can Make Him Like You by Ben Tanzer and there were moments in there so relatable, so textured with fears I’ve experienced, insecurities in relationships or perceived injustices from friendships, that the book acts as a center of gravity for the other subconscious gunk to circulate and maybe find clarity.
The author is in some ways, a conduit, an incubator for the greater central stories and concerns of the reader’s conscience. I’ve often thought of the reading experience as a mind altering substance. I get inside the author’s head…the author also gets inside my head. It’s possession.
Point is, our memory of a telling isn’t just in the beats of the tale, but in the way it affects us and our peer group. Just as an education isn’t only comprised of what’s in a textbook, but the classmates, their personalities, their distractions, their engagements in the material, the stupid questions, the teacher’s rant, the autumnal breeze coming in through the window that says, yes it’s back to school. The recollection of our childhood schoolhouse is often a collective vibe involving a whole slew of elements.
And something unique is happening with literature through technology. A story experience can be bounced around from a small room in my Chicago apartment and maybe affect some guy in Portugal, reading in an apartment ten times as old as mine, and he might offer a comment that makes me consider a whole new note, and I then revise/elaborate, and that might send some lady reading from a tablet on a ferry boat in Rhode Island on a diatribe that makes me really glad I took the time to write something. Or maybe even regret phrasing something in a certain way. But at the very least, shadows of thought are watching one another, and then fleeting, getting us riled up and maybe telling others about it.
When you pull back from the experience and the community murmurs around it all, you have a sort of constellation, like a fractal creates a strange, colorful pattern when looked at from a distance. Or, if you will, the personality of a person is the make up of not only behaviors and responses to the behavior of others but the network of organs, vessels, neurons, cells, atoms…
And in such a way a story is an entity, when we step back from it after it’s had some length of life with readers and conversations. A bowl of soup gets its whiff of steaming flavor when the ingredients have been boiled, steeped and whisked around.
Jeff Phillips moved to Chicago in 2002 to study theatre and pursue ambitions of becoming a method actor. After co-founding Three Leaves, an original works theatre company, and running it into the ground, he fell in love with the process of writing, evolving from writing plays and screenplays to reveling in the freedom and challenges of prose. As a member of the XIII Pocket Collective in Chicago, he has contributed short stories to several issues of the annual publication "Seeding Meat" and also work-shopped his play "Bosto" with the collective as part of the DCA Studio Theatre's Incubator series in August of 2010. He is the author of the illustrated storybook Whiskey Pike: A Bedtime Story for the Drinking Mankind and the novella Turban Tan. Currently he's a member of the comedy production group Wood Sugars where he writes and performs in live sketch shows, films, and podcasts.