This is a guest post by S.T. Gulik, author of “Birth: The Exquisite Sound of One Hand Falling Off a Turnip Truck (Chakra Kong Book 1)“.
S.T. Gulik is a magical cockroach.
He started life as a common wood roach in 1681, living in a small castle outside of Dublin. One day, a human alchemist blew himself up while trying to brew the elixir of life. S.T. survived the blast, but the fumes cursed him with self-awareness and immortality. A lot has happened in three-hundred-thirty-five years. Everyone he knew and loved has died. Vampire movies make him cry.
On the up side, he’s had countless adventures and learned many things. He worked for the goddess of chaos for one-hundred-twenty-three years. About thirty years ago she turned him human and disappeared, which is fine because humans are smart and likable.
Oh, and he writes absurdist fiction. That’s important. Gotta mention that.
At the heart of storytelling is a desperate need for validation. That sounds sad, but it’s actually beautiful. Insecurity is one of mankind’s most significant driving forces and the key to becoming a powerful wizard capable of shaping reality itself.
Have you ever wondered why kids rehash every tiny detail of an enjoyable experience? They’re reliving the day in fast-forward to make sure that stuff really happened and that their perception of events isn’t off. They don’t know they’re doing that, but somewhere in the back of their minds they still remember a time when they thought mommy stopped existing when she left the room. That’s why groups of kids tend to be into exactly the same stuff. If one proclaims his opinion loud and first, the others will immediately begin to doubt their own taste. Dissenters get pushed out of the pack
Our survival instinct makes us want to be right about everything. Being wrong can kill you or ruin your life. It’s easier to fall in line with a group than it is to figure out what’s true, so people usually end up in the first group that will have them. We learn to sync with other people and reinforce their opinions so they will like us and return the favor.
As people age, we make validation easier by deciding one type of person is right. We choose who to spend our time with based on how similar their worldview is to ours. Eventually, many people streamline their friend list to the point they hardly have to verify anything. Soon, they assume their friends concur with everything important they say, so they can focus on fun things, little disagreements that define them as individuals. They become comfortable, they stagnate, and become subordinates of their own assumptions. External opinions are reinforced until they are true. “You have to see ___.” “You have to eat at ____.” “Don’t bother with ___, it’s lame.”
We are all born with an empty sponge between our ears. The second we open our eyes that sponge begins to soak up random bits of information we instinctively condense into symbols, which are then ordered into relative logical systems. Understanding is based on juxtaposition, each new symbol shedding more light on every other. We become self-aware and then exponentially more so throughout the rest of our lives.
Self-awareness breeds uncertainty. How do we know there isn’t some inherent flaw in the foundation of our mind that’s perverting logical superstructures and making us suck? How can I be sure of anything when the meaning of each word is influenced by where and when we hear it more than by the actual definition?
We can’t actually meld minds, but we can some pretty close. One of your brain’s main functions is picking out the important input and tuning out the rest, which is exactly what storytellers do. It doesn’t work as well with film. Even if you resist the urge to check social media, you’re still experiencing the story like a stranger looking through a window. When reading, the eyes of the character are your eyes. Their experiences are your experiences. And your mind is working as much as possible like someone else’s. The author is sending out thousands of tiny tendrils of thought and plugging directly into you your consciousness, molding the experience symbol by symbol. And this is happening across time and space. You an experience another person’s perception even if they’ve been dead for hundreds of years.
Whether you’re trying to navigate life or master the art of crafting a communicable reality, it’s tremendously helpful to know what you’re doing. It’s important to not only know how to do a thing, but to understand the motivation and the purpose. A waiter’s job is to take orders, carry food, and clean stuff so people don’t get poisoned. Those things are necessary, but they aren’t the purpose. The purpose is to make people happy. The motivation is to make money. A writer’s job is to tell an entertaining story, but the purpose is to share information. The motive is to receive positive feedback from people we don’t know. Authors tend to have a tenuous grip on reality. Dialogue is an author talking to him/herself in multiple voices without being involved in the conversation (a.k.a. Schizophrenia). It stands to reason that we need a little more convincing of what’s real.
Still sounds pathetic, huh? Wondering where all the aforementioned beauty is?
Insecurity definitely leads to bad stuff like rape and war, but it also gave us language. That drive for validation gave us the tools to share enough information to create science, which made life easier and gave us more time to share information. Every piece of art was inspired by someone wanting to scream into the void and hear an echo. Every innovation is the result of someone wanting to do better than the last person so they can prove their worth.
Ayn Rand believed all advancement was motivated by selfishness, but the root of selfishness is fear, and fear comes from uncertainty. Fear of ridicule, pain, not being as good as, not having enough or not getting it fast enough will trigger a survival instinct that will drive you to survive better, but identifying insecurity as the motivation creates a connection to other people that encourages empathy and creativity instead of egomania. It’s staggering what difference a little semantic tweak can make.
This principle can be applied to anything. For authors, figuring out a character’s motivation is one of the most important and difficult things we have to do. Consider the difference between The Great Gatsby and a Trix commercial. Trix rabbit is addicted to sugar. That’s it, not very compelling. Gatsby presents as a rich douche, but we slowly learn that he grew up in poverty. He hated the experience and dreamed of escaping into a life worth living. He falls in love with a rich girl and dedicates his life to becoming good enough, only to lose her in the process. While struggling to become worthy she becomes a symbol of everything he ever wanted, all that is beautiful and worthwhile. So not being able to be with her means no amount of opulence or success can make him happy. That’s perception and insecurity at work.
If Gatsby were to snap out of it, he’d realize he’d accomplished his goal. The book probably wouldn’t be a classic, but he’d have been happy. It’s an important lesson on fixation.
Literature gives us the opportunity to adjust our perception by learning from our own mistakes without actually having to make those mistakes. The more you read, the more opportunities you have to test multiple mindsets. It’s like fiddling with the knobs on your brain to get a better signal.
By adjusting your perception, you directly affect your experience of the world. All we know of reality is our experience, so directly effecting perception directly effects reality. That’s the goal of magic. So, if you want to bend reality to your will, read more books. If you want to bend the reality of others, tell a story.
A powerful wizard once said that “the purpose of life is to love, experience, and remember.” Another said, “Love is the law. Love under will.” Yet another wrote Mein Kamph. Don’t be Hitler. Use your power wisely, and always remember your motivation.