There are days when I walk around and I don’t see humans; I see monkeys. It can happen as a cute blonde teenager passes by and her forearm is held in just the right way, soft blonde hair shining in the light, and from that point on – monkeys. I feel my own skull and the coarse black hair I inherited from my mother and think about the silver-back gorilla at the zoo. When this perceptual shift happens, I watch the world and the people in it. The people stop having mundane problems and are simply gathering food before it gets dark. They scurry through the cash register line chattering about what shiny objects celebrities have gathered, and where to get them. They go home to their boxes made of clay and sticks, light their hearths and sleep someplace safe.
It’s from these visions where I derive the answer to what is story. In its simplest form, story is the answer to why. Why don’t we go exploring at night? Once upon a time there was a jaguar that waited patiently at the edge of our grove. He can see better than we can, he can move faster than we can, and he has sharp teeth and claws. You can wander into the night if you like, but no one who has, comes back. Soon it became a little girl in a red cape, who shouldn’t talk to strangers. She went to grandmother’s house and met a wolf. He ended up eating her, swallowing her whole. Then it became the gang members who were out trolling for a kill on a Friday or Saturday night. They drive with their lights off, and if anyone flashes their high beams at them in a Good Samaritan fashion, they follow them home and murder them in their own beds.
Story is the bridge between instinct and wisdom in our experience. We have instincts that initially guide us from our primitive roots to the ability to pass on our experience to those that follow. A broken leaf on a trail tells a story to a hunter who is experienced in tracking. Does it tell him when the last deer came through? Was it being chased? Was someone else who is inexperienced and sloppy hunting it? A painting on a wall can capture a moment in time. It can express the inner emotion of the audience. It can draw out the emotion of the audience from centuries in the past. Story is communication for the purposes of explaining why things are the way they are. Why do tears come when someone we love passes on? Why do they stop? Why are we afraid of the dark? Why do we look both ways before crossing the street?
We have dreams and we have feelings and they come to us at times without a frame of reference and without a guide. That is the purpose of story – to guide our species forward with lessons from the past. Someone else has had these feelings, has encountered a situation like the one someone is going through today, and has chosen to pass the answer or the partial answer forward so that you, the present man, can experience something new.