The Start of a Game–Thoughts on Transcendent Stories

This is where I start a game with a friend of mine.  She has made a contribution to the greater chaos of  online knowledge that I want to respond to.

With regard to my response, let me note out front that the intensity of my reaction should not be seen as an emotional response and especially not as a negative response–but rather as a positive thing–because the original contribution evoked a determined “NO!” from me on many levels.. which is usually the first sign that I’ve found something that has made me think… (and that is all to rare of an occasion in this life…)

In any case–I’m not going to link to the contribution directly–because I don’t necessarily want people to intrude into her space (although I’ll change this is she wants..)–but if you are somewhat clever and know me–you might be able to locate the contribution and then indulge in examining her other contributions.

To the point–my friend posted the following thoughts / statements / claims /what have you:

Draft guidelines for telling transcendent stories: Installment number one
Don’t …………… rush. 

Leave room for mystery.
Forswear pride and the banal. 
Be honest—honest might not mean factual. 
If you must be a character—be universal.
If you must bleed—bleed beautifully.
And almost every time—cut the last two lines.
Let me start with the first line: Draft guidelines for telling transcendent stories: Installment number one.

There is something really clever about this beginning–perhaps a bit Tyler Durden clever –but there’s also something problematic here that set off the entire chain of thoughts in my head. Let me try to handle them in an orderly fashion.

The concept of having draft guidelines for telling stories is the kind of pragmatic and practical thing that I normally latch onto immediately.  I tend to give my students similar advice–I try to instill basic rules and concepts–and repeatedly hammer them with these until most of them figure out that I’m not actually lying to them and that by doing what I say–they will not only get better grades–but they will actually write better also.

Thus–the kind of framework that this sets up is what I, myself, often try to propagate into our society.

However,  the word transcendent does change things a bit.

In particular, I had to ask–just what is a “transcendent story”???? This phrasing could mean a number of things.  In particular, the kinds of divergent and ambiguous meanings that are associated with “transcendent” do not necessarily make it clear how to interpret this phrase.

So what does transcendent mean?  While it comes from Latin roots meaning “to climb beyond” (transcend)… the more concrete definitions found in an online dictionary state the following:

1. going beyond ordinary limits; surpassing; exceeding.
2. superior or supreme.
3. Theology. (of the Deity) transcending the universe, time, etc. Compare immanent (def. 3).
4. Philosophy .
a.Scholasticism . above all possible modes of the infinite.
b.Kantianism . transcending  experience; not realizable in human experience. Compare transcendental ( defs. 5a,c ) .
c.(in modern realism) referred to, but beyond, direct apprehension; outside consciousness.

Let’s look at these definitions.  The first would imply that you are writing a story that goes beyond ordinary limits–that surpasses or exceeds what stories normally do.  Does this mean that it is just a really good story? or does it mean that it contains elements that are outside of the normal structure of storytelling.

The Second definition would just mean an exceptional story–which is pretty straight forward–and therefore seems the least likely to be insightful here.

The Third definition strikes me as a bit unlikely because of what I know about the author–but the relationship to the term “immanent” to this definition is more fruitful than it might first appear.  With a basic meaning of “within/inherent/taking place within the mind of the author/existing in the the realm of matter and time”–the term “immanent” seems to be much more related to my understanding of how to create stories than “transcendent” would be…. but more on this later..

The Fourth definition not only seems like a good candidate for the intended meaning–but it is also explicitly linked to what is problematic here.  Concretely–the idea of writing a story that goes beyond “possible modes of the infinite” captures the flavor of the word “transcendent”–but the connected/related ideas of “transcendent” being “outside of human consciousness” or “not realizable in human experience” introduces a big red flag.

Importantly–how can you have a story that encompasses a sense of the infinite and yet is not part of human consciousness or realizable in human experience?

Overall–the point of all of this is to say–Can their ever actually be a transcendent story according to the very definitions of transcendent?

Another way of saying it is–can a story ever escape immanence?  Aren’t stories always taking place within the mind of an author or reader–and aren’t they always an entity of the material universe… and don’t they require the presence and passing of time… History, one must remember is always really just a story…

This is the beginning… the first set of questions to think about.

I leave them to the reader to decipher.

Then there is more…

Don’t …………… rush.

I think there is something to taking one’s time and reflecting when writing stories..  I know that when I write–I take my time.. at least before I start writing.  I require a lot of thought before writing.. a lot of organization and processing.. and rushing this does not ever help things.. but then once I do start writing–it comes out pretty fast.  Is this rushing?  Overall, it may just depend on the process one uses to write….

As an introvert, writing is never the same as thinking/reflecting  for me because writing takes place in the external world.  In particular–there is always a lag between the two.  I think and reflect first–often for a while–and only after thoughts are collected and organized–are they then written in what is a fairly permanent and enduring form.  For extraverts–this might be different… or maybe not.  I know that for me–writing is very similar to talking–I almost never do either without first thinking exactly about what I want to express–whereas I know a number of extraverts who quite often use speech and talking with others as a way of doing their thinking/processing–because, for them, the external world is the primary reality–and thus–to make a thought real, it has to appear in this external world.  Just thinking about it internally doesn’t seem as real to them…

This could have the effect of making a different kind of distinction between speech and writing, however, as I’ve also noted that extraverts’ “talk” is often more like a kind of etch-a-sketch type of activity–it isn’t necessarily seen as the final/contemplated draft of ideas that introverts are more likely to perceive it as.  I’ve talked a lot more about this here

 Leave room for mystery.

How does one do this?  Perhaps others can leave room for mystery–but the best that I can do is recognize that at no point in time can one tell every aspect of a story… because telling a story is a perspective on events… and as limited beings we cannot ever really see all perspectives in a story.

There is no god’s eye view in a story.

Not really.

I know authors might believe they can cover all of their bases–at least some might think this–but the mere fact that the audience will impose interpretations and prior frameworks of understanding upon a story means that perspective will always be circumscribed by the diversity of minds that inhabit our worlds.

In the end–for me–there is no need to leave room for mystery–but merely to recognize that mystery is always there–and we may as well accept and acknowledge it.

Forswear pride and the banal.

This seems unproblematic to me–but also obvious.  Of course–the shadings of what constitutes the banal may be a matter of taste and discussion… and one person’s perception of pride may be another person’s joy and comfort.

Be honest—honest might not mean factual. 

This is insightful.

Honesty is more important and not necessarily (often not!) the same thing as the truth. Honesty is about avoiding lies, self-deception, and emotional shortcuts and it always begins as a subjective phenomenon, whereas the truth–as most people tend to understand it–is more of an intersubjective/objective phenomenon.  As a storyteller–we most often only have access to our truths… which are necessarily incomplete and built within the framework of our limited knowledge and biases.  This does not render them worthless–but merely means that they our one of the many truths that can exist simultaneously with regard to a subject.

Thus–be honest.. and strive for the truth.. but know your limitations.  In addition, never forget that meaning and truth are independent variables–and while they can overlap–there is no reason that they must.

If you must be a character—be universal.

I understand what is intended here–but I think it’s the wrong way of going about it.  Universality is the kind of designation that may have a clear definition–but which also has a very unclear path towards its achievement.  To point this out–let me reference a super insightful xkcd comic about Zombie Marie Curie

The key part of this comic comes in the second to last panel when Marie is talking about how one becomes “great.”

In specific, she says, “But you don’t become great by trying to become great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.”

I think this is exactly what applies to having a character be “universal.”  In other words–you can just say “I’m going to write a universal character!” but rather that what you have to do is write a character that is so true to him- or herself and so realistic that people will then recognize themselves (or at least aspects of themselves) in that character–thereby creating the universality.

I think this kind of process–the achievement of a quality only by indirect means–is true of a number of important and desirable elements in our lives.  It is true, for example, of beauty, because, at least for me, you cannot become beautiful by merely following a recipe for “How to achieve beauty!” (unlike what so many women’s magazines tell you…).  Instead, it is a quality that comes about as people grow into themselves.  Such growth often involves pain–and as I’ve noted before–I’m a strong believer that beauty comes from pain… and real beauty always cuts you to the core…

This indirect method of achievement also applies to happiness–which is not just about smiling and laughter and joy–but is something deeper, richer, and cumulative rather than transitory.

If you must bleed—bleed beautifully.

See above.  I interpret “bleeding” here to mean suffering–and while not all suffering is beautiful–I do find that all true beauty contains and is grounded in suffering and sacrifice.  I do not posit this as an external objective truth for everyone–but merely as a subjective observation that I believe in.

I’m being honest here.  You can decide whether it’s factual.

And almost every time—cut the last two lines.

I don’t know if it’s always the last two lines that need to be cut–sometimes they come up earlier… but it is true, in my experience, that nothing is done perfectly the first time.. practice makes perfect… and practice is fun.

So don’t live your life with expectations of achieving that one perfect moment or masterpiece on your first try.  Such ideas are merely the lies of that have been pawned off on us by advertisers and charlatans.  Real achievement takes work and making mistakes.

And now.. the Game is on.

Your turn.


About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
This entry was posted in Human Nature and Mind, Identity, Meaning and Philosophy, Uncategorized, Writing and Communication and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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