I’m in trouble.
The light’s fading, the moorland hills around me all look the same, and my map is useless. It’s four hours since the incessant rain seeped through to my underwear, and I’m convinced I’ll never be dry again – put me in the Sahara for a week and I’d still drip at the end of it. I’m cold and miserable, and my only consolation is that I’m in no danger of running out of drinking water. But that’s it. Everything else is awful, and I have no idea what happens next.
That’s a scary feeling – but far worse is the shame. The shame burns. I’m supposed to be good at this! I’m a travel writer! This birthday adventure, an 8-hour stroll across England’s North York Moors, is a test of my navigation and survival skills. So far it’s an epic fail with both. Not only have I forgotten how to take a bearing with my compass, I’ve also neglected to bring waterproof matches, food and shelter. I haven’t felt my feet since lunchtime (I presume they’re still there because I’m still moving). Maybe I’ll see something at the top of this hill? Yes, kinda. I’m greeted by an unparalleled, 360-degree view of rain. So much rain. If nobody else in England has rain right now, that’s because it’s all here.
If I ever get out of this mess, I promise myself one thing:
I’m never, ever going to write about this.
Unsentimental reality is all the rage on social media right now. Last year, Instagram star Essena O’Neill posted a tearful confessional on YouTube in which she admitted to depicting “contrived perfection made to get attention,” telling her half a million followers, “don’t idolise anyone, especially personalities you view online.” Unsurprisingly, this sent her popularity through the roof, and sparked worldwide discussion about the authenticity of social media.
But her story, while the most newsworthy in recent years, isn’t new. The only thing more popular than “living the dream” is “rubbishing the dream and seeking forgiveness.” In O’Neill’s case it didn’t seem to be a calculated move – but the effect was the same. The media, and the online viewing public, lapped it up.
If you’re a cynic, you could assume it’s because the online world is a mean place that thrives on the misery of others. But science suggests something much more interesting – that we’re all caring, hope-filled optimists who thrive on the misery of others. It doesn’t sound terribly comforting, I know. But it all comes down to the fundamental principles of good storytelling – and the horrific stories children tell themselves at night.
In his book The Storytelling Animal, science writer Jonathan Gottschall looks at children’s stories. No, forget what adults think of as children’s stories, filled with sunlight and talking animals and endless quantities of candy. These aren’t real children’s stories, the ones they come up with themselves. Here’s a sampling of the real deal:
“This is a story about a jungle. Once upon a time, there was a jungle. There were lots of animals, but they weren’t very nice. A little girl came into the story. She was scared. Then a crocodile came in. The End.” (Girl, five years old.)
“The boxing world. In the middle of the morning, everybody gets up, puts on boxing gloves, and fights. One of the guys gets socked in the face and he starts bleeding. A duck comes along and says, “give up.” (Boy, five years old.)
From an early age, we’re hardwired to anticipate the worst from life, a species “fixated on trouble.” One theory is that it’s an evolutionary tool. If your imagination can analyse a situation in advance and tell you that no, getting out of this tree to make friends with that sabre-tooth tiger is a bad idea, you have a better chance of survival. Maybe that’s it. Nobody knows for sure.
What is certain is that our brains can’t turn our self-generating horror-stories off. We worry. We fret. We suffer physical symptoms because these doom & gloom scenarios consume our thoughts, spike our blood pressure, make us tremble and sweat. Anxiety and stress are common ailments in the modern Western world, and their roots are in the stories we tell ourselves…
And we love them.
Yes, it’s twisted. We’re addicted to the things that scare us, make us feel vulnerable and riddled with fear and dread. Look at the popularity of crime thrillers, in book form and on TV. Look at the average night on HBO, and at the second highest grossing film of all time. We want to be scared, for ourselves and for others. We lean in, utterly gripped, when the sky falls in on our heroes. That’s what our brain needs to feel truly alive.
Isn’t this, you know, bleak as hell? Is human existence just one big traumatic episode of Dawson’s Creek? Thankfully not, as Pixar’s Emma Coates points out in the first of her 22 lessons of great storytelling:
“You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.”
Here, then, is the silver lining. We’re addicted to horror – or more correctly tension, in narrative terms – but only when the characters involved are trying to climb out of that hole they’re in. We’re really addicted to trying.
So it’s fortunate that after I found my way out of that rainstorm, off that hillside and down into the shelter of a nearby town, I plucked up my courage and wrote the whole thing up on my blog. Later, I rewrote it as a travel article for the print and online editions of the San Francisco Chronicle. Yes, it exposed what a terrible, awful, no-good explorer I was, and it still makes me squirm with embarrassment…
But it made a great story.
Mike Sowden is a freelance writer and storytelling consultant. (Yes, that’s a thing.) He’s spent half a decade helping bloggers and small businesses with their stories while telling a few of his own, travelling around the globe to speak at conferences in The Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Canada. Mike’s writing has been seen online at Mashable, CNN Travel,Matador, Gadling, EcoSalon
Mike’s hosting THREE Free Mini Workshops this week.
Three dates to join us:
Sign up here http://storytellingwebinar.pages.ontraport.net/01
Sign up here http://storytellingwebinar.pages.ontraport.net/02
In his six week course, you’ll learn how stories work, and why they work so well on us. You’ll learn how to craft stories that drive attention to your blog (and products, and services), both in the short-term and over the long tail, and learn how to keep that attention through the consistent application of addictive, exciting storytelling. You’ll learn how to hook your readers – and just as importantly, you’ll learn how to hook yourself, using story to keep yourself motivated and committed to your blogging plans, all the way to your dream finish-line….
But above all, you’ll learn how to make your readers really care.
If your audience really, really cares about your blog, everything becomes possible.
Course Starts February 2/28. Find out more here.