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Part VII, How Stories Influence Our Lives

By Remy Benoit

The power of stories in our lives.

Stories told to us when we are young help shape who we become.

How much input we put into our own stories determines what course our lives take and what path we choose.

Stories can bring war. War can bring stories.

Stories may be presented as truths. Stories may be told as the "Big Lie;" the lie so outrageous that it couldn't possibly have been made up, or could it?

Stories like there is no other course but the Americanization of the war in Vietnam.

Although we sought to do the right thing-and believed we were doing the right thing-in my judgment, hindsight proves us wrong.
—Robert S. MacNamara

Stories lead to so many other stories with such varied endings.

Stories stumble about like dominoes falling on all of us, and all of them.

No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all accomplices.
—Edward R. Murrow

Think back on something you said today, or yesterday that might have been misunderstood during the McCarthy Era, or if you were living in Stalinist Russia.

In Soviet Russia, writers used an underground system of passing from hand to hand manuscripts. The term for this was samizdat, which comes from two Russian words meaning, self and publish The punishment for this could be quite severe.

The Red Giant has burned out; not with a bang, not in mushroom cloud, but with a puny whimper.

Have you criticized a person in power, a decision of the power makers?

What might have happened to you here in the early Fifties, or in Stalin's Russia during the time of the Great Purges?

What determines what you say where today?

What, if any, are the consequences of your speaking you mind, today, in the United States, at your office, in your home?

How many times a day do you say what you don't really mean? Why do you do that?

Try writing a scene where you sit with some friends and you actually say what you are thinking. What happens? What becomes the inter-activity of this circle of friends.

Picture yourself on a political platform giving a speech in which you tell this country what you think would fix up all its hurting places.

Write a dialogue with yourself in which you are driving across the border to avoid military service, following the route laid out by your conscience. How do those left at home come into this dialogue?

Write a scene where you have been stripped of your normal clothes, put into prison garb, and tossed into a 4 by 4 cell with a slop bucket and rodents, and know that no one you know, knows you are there. I realize that this is not a pleasant scenario, but it if you play it out and compare it to the 'conditions' in your current life that make you feel somewhat trapped, they take on a totally different perspective.

Can you identify what makes you feel restricted, or if you don't feel restricted, how did you break free?

What was the cost of that breaking free?

Free to be what, who?

In one line, write who you are; not what you do; not what you look like, but who you are.

Write a " credo": this is what I believe, be specific. Define truth. Define yourself

And then, do the same exercises with your character.

Try adding transportation limitations. How would your teenage years have been different without transportation available? Would a different you have emerged?

What if extremes of weather played into the picture, hot or cold? How might they have influenced your life.

Try to visualize on paper your life as an inhabitant of the Siberian north; as an inhabitant of a South Sea Island.

Write yourself into the Court of Louis XVI; into the Coliseum as a gladiator; into a Speakeasy of the Roaring Twenties. Write your character into different times and places and see what traits that were hidden in her come into the light.

Exercises like this will help you see how you, your character, would grow and adapt to different situations. Play with your character in different times and places.

Write a storm; a thunderstorm, a Nor'Easter, a blizzard; and then write yourself and your reactions to it into it.

Going into the front hall, I put on my slicker and facing head on the force of the storm, I opened the door and went out.

The light from the few road lamps swayed in the wind, seeming to know if they stood rigid in the face of the storm they would break. Their glow just barely illuminated a world where the division of land and water had disappeared. The roadway was now a tidal path covered by at least a foot of water.

As I stood allowing my vision to adapt to the sparse light, the water lapped up to the third step of the stairway I stood on as the tide moved in and out.

I became fully aware of the meaning of the word island, for the land under my feet was now secured by nothing but the pilings that supported the house; the house that I now understood existed at the whim of the land and water.

Inside the house there was light and warmth, the very fabric of the frail human cocoon of security; the pilings over which we build our lives. The wind gusted, pulled at my coat, bit into my hands clinging to the rail to keep from being blown over; it pulled at the seventy percent of me that was water.

It screamed its primitive force.

It screamed inside my bones, demanding that I acknowledge its being, its unreasoning will.

Its sheer force was dreadful, venerable, in the primal blood coursing through me, and yet, yet not alien.

Somehow I felt a basic communication with it.

It was chaos, raw force, but not cruel, for cruelty comes from the heart and brain of man.

This force had no motive for good or evil.

It simply was an unbridled force of tremendous strength.

It did not plan its path, like Alexander or Sherman, not its destructive capabilities.

It simply existed through a combination of atmospheric conditions.

We who had built these houses chose to put them here, not to challenge this elemental strength, but to witness it, draw strength from it, knowing, but not accepting at a conscious level, the tenuous position we had put ourselves in.

Just as we know that one day we will simply cease to be as we are, we go on dreaming, and building, and doing, for we have our own force, our own dreams.

In the winds I heard the impassioned cries of lovemaking; in the careening debris in the water I saw the chaos of creation itself, the male seed seeking the female egg.

I heard the woman screams of child birthing, the child screams of new life smeared in blood.

I heard ten thousand generations of force and convictions, and I understood them.

Looking up at our writing rooms, I heard Alex's inner cries of seeking his heart's way, and my soul's search for its own path.

I heard the two combining.

I understood chaos, and questioning, and our need for growth, and order, and achievement.

The wind died down a little, gentled my face, and welcomed me to a new me, a different woman than the one who had come through the door a little while ago, or to the Island just four months ago.

I knew now that I would journey to the inner river of the writer, and that blood and life could no longer stand alone having touched the center of primal energy.

I felt renewed, awakened, and filled with conviction.

The winds of the storm had broken the web of my domesticated and civilized tethers, had set free the will in my center.

I was stirred by all those who had come before me down through the millennia, tied in a new way to everything.

I understood those on this island who had so lovingly guided me step by step into this vision.

But I knew too, in that moment of blinding vision, that this thread could easily be severed if I did not willfully, consciously cling to it, and share it.

I knew what my work was to be, and that it would be my joy.

I turned back into the house, shook off my slicker, shook the water from my face and hair.

All weariness, all inconsequentiality, all fears of the unknown, had been washed away in the ritual I had just celebrated.

— Island Quilts

Write your storm in different time periods. Write it in a woman's voice, then in a man's.

What was the biggest storm in your life? The hardest thing you had to face.

What storm is your character trying to survive?

Make your reader feel the storm in your character's life.

The issues are the same. We wanted peace on earth, love, and understanding between everyone around the world. We have learned that change comes slowly.
— Paul McCartney


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This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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