I’ve had some amazing experiences in my life. I’ve eaten guinea pig under crystal-clear Milky Way nights at high-altitude on Lake Titicaca. I walked on The Great Wall of China. But some of my most memorable moments were not even real. They were pure fiction. Books, films, & TV shows that gave me sorrow, surprise & excitement – fictional moments that have stayed with me as indelibly as if they were real events. It is hilarious to admit, but the 13 year old me probably felt more engagement from watching “STAR WARS” than from any REAL event that happened to me in 1977. I suspect that I’m not unusual though. Homo sapiens is the story-telling animal, and fiction is a big part of any human life nowadays.
Long before social media & the internet, TV & film, and the printing press, people enjoyed stories. Back when we average peasants were unable to read, people were likewise enthralled by storytellers, whether at the hearth, the tavern, the pulpit or the stage. However, when pre-literate people felt excitement, love, or horror it was mostly from primary sources. From a life actually lived. They were not so immersed in fiction as we are today.
Nowadays, fiction can now actually be more durable than reality. My memories of “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” may be sharper than my memories of long-ago actual visits to Machu Picchu, or bicycling through pagoda sunsets in Bagan. Simply because those real events from my own life can be never be re-experienced, but fictional events can be re-played simply by pressing a button. I could of course revisit Machu Picchu, but the crowded site of 2023 could not feel as in 1989, when it was empty. That particular moment continues only in the memories of the few who were there.
As well as my years roaming the world & having real life adventures, I’ve also spent years doing the polar opposite, as a medical shut-in. When the scope of my actual world was severely limited, my life was enriched virtually by my access to streaming services. So I truly appreciate the life-saving power of fiction, and have thought a lot about its place in a real, lived human life.
The human sensitivity to narrative enriches our lives, but leaves us vulnerable too. To manipulation – whether a spam email about a lost inheritance, a political grift about the ‘other’ coming to take your stuff, or someone you know trying to warp your perception of things – the con always begins with a story..
Do other social animals communicate with stories? Do Crows tell each-other legends? Do Dolphins lie to their pod-mates? Can Elephants spread gossip? Do Wolves boast? I’m not sure.. but it is certain that we humans carry a lot of narratives in our minds. We are the Fiction-Loving Animal. Constantly reinterpreting reality, with stories about others or ourselves, sometimes self-defeating.
This is not to deride fiction itself. After all, I work in the story business – crafting ‘lies’ that will hopefully make people laugh, and feel, or think, and even question. Our ready access to fiction in the modern era can wonderfully broaden our human experience. We’ve all visited outer space, been terrified of creatures that don’t exist, & felt empathy over tragic events that never happened, and come to love (or loathe) non-existent people. Just as facts can be used selectively to lie, I believe that fiction can be used to expose truths.
I love stories, and my life has been greatly enriched by art, in all its forms. A life devoid of art sounds horrible, but a life of only fiction would be empty too. The nutrition of human existence comes from living real experiences with real people. The art that moves us, does so because it has bottled that feeling, and was made by a human being who’d likewise experienced a lived-life. Fiction is one of the best inventions homo sapiens ever came up with, but must be balanced against living a REAL life.