You’re Not a Hero. Boo-Frickety-Hoo.

I’m watching The Wire right now.

It’s powerful. It’s challenging. It makes you think.

I fucking hate it.

David Simon, how dare you make me care about these people and then not at least give me the foolish comfort that it will all work out in the end? This is a tried-and-true Hollywood formula! Why are you denying me? I want redemption. I want reconciliation. I want an emotionally satisfying happy god-damn ending and WHY won’t you give it to me??? And how dare you inflict the senselessness of reality on me? I DON’T WANT REALITY.

This is the power of a narrative. We crave it.

We know deep down that life is meaningless and random, but we refuse to accept that. We HAVE to make sense of it all, somehow.

And that’s why we tell stories.

We tell ourselves stories all the time: This happened, then this happened, and this was the result. It’s an over-simplification, sure, but how could we ever really be aware of, let alone understand all the contributing factors?

So we don’t… We tell ourselves a story.

And over last eon or so, we’ve gotten really, really good at crafting just the kinds of stories that we like to hear.

Like the Hero’s Journey. Campbell posited that almost every tale that has captured the human imagination through the ages has followed this formula, give or take.

I don’t think he’s far off.

A story, a narrative, makes sense of the senseless. It’s how we grapple with information. We can’t read a grocery list without thinking, “scallops? salsa? mango? What the hell are you making?” The human brain will try to make sense of it all by forming a narrative.

Nowadays there’s movement to make sure your life makes a good story. I can really relate to that, because, that’s pretty much a mantra of mine: “It might be shitty/stupid/ridiculous right now, but someday it’s going to be a great story.” I mean, shit, I’ve got some pretty good stories right now.

So as much as wanting to be epic sounds like a really great idea, life really doesn’t work like that. 

It’s a myth we’ve built up throughout the modern era. And the only reason it could exist is because mere survival stopped being the metric of a satisfied life.

It strokes our vanity to imagine that the universe loves us and wants us to be happy and fulfilled. But what of the child brides in India? What of the victims of ethnic cleansing? What of David Simon’s project kids, half of whom don’t see their 20th birthdays?

Life is senseless.

It’s a complex interplay of causality and probability, shattering predictions with casual indifference. We tell stories not because they’re true, but because they satisfy our need for meaning.

Let me make that plain: They are not true.

They do not exist, in any objective sense.

Now, this is always the part in stories, where the hero has this crushing crisis of faith. It nearly destroys him, because he is the hero and if the story isn’t real, then neither is he.


Yeah, the reality is, nothing and no one has meaning, in the great, cosmic scheme of things.

In the words of the illustrious Dr. Evil: “Boo-frickety-hoo.”

But here’s the thing: If you want to tell a good story about your life be a good storyteller. 

Tell a story that’s REAL. Tell a story without the fairy tale tropes, where maybe the girl didn’t get her prince, and you know what? Life went on and she was happy anyway.

Tell a story about despair and how it changes you. Don’t tell the story of how you’re a better person for it– — — that bullshit’s all relative. Tell the story of what’s different now, and that you survived.

Tell me a story that makes me understand what you went through. Don’t tell me there was glory! I know there wasn’t. I know you did what you had to do because it was all you could do. But I still want to know that story because I want to know YOU. 

We all want to be epic. We want to leave our mark– we want that affirmation: Here’s my life.

This is what it meant. 

But we keep thinking in terms of Hollywood tropes– of good triumphing of evil, of things all working out, of happy endings of every shape and kind. Like the sunshine coming out after a rain. Black and white.

We need to write other kinds of stories.

Stories that are real. Stories that are true.

Sarah Goshman and I are running a new class: Permission Slips for Epic Goals on May 15, 8pm EDT. You should check it out.


26 thoughts on “You’re Not a Hero. Boo-Frickety-Hoo.”

  1. JackiePurnell

    and yet worse still, the stories that are told to us so often by others that we adopt them and believe them to be our stories too. 

    1.  @JackiePurnell Oh man! Great point. People ought to have to list family stories the way they list family medical conditions. 

  2. Stories are the lifeblood of our civilisations, on a grander level they’re called history. I’m not sure it matters whether or not they’re true. They inspire us, enrage us and we live by them. Our memories are stories on which we build our lives. We need stories like we need food.

    1.  @mikegarner Oh, absolutely. The thing is, history is written by the victors, and that’s where you get these overly simplistic stories that have grand majestic hollywood/fairy tale endings. But the people who didn’t get to write history, still have stories. And they still had victories. But their stories aren’t as clear cut. But they’re still beautiful.

      1.  @Shanna Mann That’s the beauty of social media. Everybody (well, in the Western works at least) has a voice

        1.  @Jason Fonceca I saw it. It’s a coping technique– not a bad one, mind you, but that’s what it is. A baby’s death is pretty much the epitome of senseless, and that’s how she gave it meaning. 
          She’s a great example of how you can *choose* the meaning you take from experiences.

        2.  @Shanna Mann Speaking of “meaning” I don’t know what a “coping technique” is, or what meaning you’re giving it 😉
          To me life is the process of “coping” or “adapting” or “growing”  and any “technique” that helps with adaptation or growth is fantastic 🙂

        3.  @Jason Fonceca I simply mean it in opposition to a zen-like acceptance of circumstance. You’re right– life is a process of coping and adapting.

  3. I love pop culture, stories, and The Wire in particular, but where you call life senseless/meaningless I call life: “the process of creating meaning.”
    We’re all here to establish our own meaning — cant avoid it actually — and though I enjoy the ‘freshness’ of dark ‘real’ shows like The Wire, the meaning I give to my life and my story is one of uplifting triumph, success, and victory.
    Rock on and ryze up!

    1.  @Jason Fonceca We are always in the process of creating meaning. My point (and maybe I didn’t make it very well) was that the “Hollywood” matrix is only one extremely simplistic framework for a story. 
      I think it’s great that your story can be one of uplifting triumph… there’s nothing wrong with that. But people get started on these storylines that disqualify them for success– instead of being Snow White, they think of themselves as one of the Seven Dwarves. But the dwarves have stories, too. Probably pretty cool stories. They just don’t necessarily follow the struggle-redemption-ultimate victory schema– and in fact, few stories do, but we love that storyline so much we force these meaningful tales of lives lived into that mold, to the ultimate detriment of the story itself, which would have been more powerful if we didn’t try to force it into the mold of what a ‘life well lived’ should be.

      1.  @Shanna Mann yep, I hear ya, Shanna.
        Question though.. if I tell a ‘dark tale’ to one person or to another, they may have completely different perspectives + interpretations…
        What does that mean?

        1.  @Jason Fonceca I think you’re pulling my leg 🙂 
          Each person’s meaning is different. It’s like the kids of an alchoholic. You ask one: “Why are you an alcoholic?” “Because dad was an alcoholic”. You ask the other one, “Why aren’t you an alcoholic?” “Because dad was.” 
          The really interesting part is seeing the stories people create out of their circumstances.

        2.  @Shanna Mann Well, I have a tendency to do that from time to time.
          This time what I was getting at was this:
          If we listen to the Dwarves stories, I’d wager that the way they tell it fits the struggle-redemption-victory model 😉

  4. You ever see the movie The Breakup with Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston.
    The entire movie you’re thinking to yourself “I wonder how these two get back together?”  
    “How is the screenwriter going to do it?”
    Then they don’t get back together… And Vince Vaughn is still giving his tours of Chicago and Jennifer Aniston is still happy doing whatever.
    Your story is important… But you don’t have only one.
    Ryan H.

    1.  @Ryan Hanley I kind of want to see that movie now. A Hollywood rom-com that doesn’t have the couple together and happy at the end? My mind is blown!
      Yes, we don’t have just one story. I always joke that I can tell the story of my childhood a dozen ways and you’ll come away with a different impression of it every time…. but they’re all still true…

  5. SteveBainesBiz

    Wow Shanna, that post really touched me!  I felt your passion come through the words on the screen. I love it!
    “It might be shitty/stupid/ridiculous right now, but someday it’s going to be a great story.” – I find myself thinking / saying that regularly.
    I fully agree with you – tell a REAL story, don’t sugar coat it, don’t fairytale it.  If you tell it REAL you will get a much deeper connection with those who are listening.
    Thank you for inspiring me!

    1.  @SteveBainesBiz Real stories are all too rare, and all the more powerful for that reason. That, and the fact that it’s incredibly validating to the normal person to hear the gritty details and think, “Yeah. My life’s like that too. Maybe I’m not too screwed up to get where he is.” The fairy tale not only glosses over the difficulties, it presupposes the happy ending– something no one knows what it looks like, where it’s coming from, or when it might hit. 

  6. I love how you’re able to completely shatter the illusion of life making sense and at the same time still allow for the telling of stories. Talk about a good paradox. Telling the stories that are real and that are true (even if they’re still stories) is more meaningful than telling the ones that fit the trope… I think so many people on the interwebs need to hear that. Everyone tries to gloss over their stories to make them fit a mold and they’re so much less interesting for being so similar. Do you think vulnerability comes in here as well, in terms of how we tell our stories? The more vulnerable we can be, the more truth we can access, maybe?

    1.  @sarahemily Oooh. Good question! Vulnerability is tough, and not just because it’s hard to be vulnerable. It’s also tough to get enough perspective from your story that you can lay it out to share with others. The “hero’s journey” is at least intimately understood, so it’s a bit easy to piece together a narrative in that shape.
      Personally, I think the hardest part of the vulnerabilities aren’t your experiences– it’s unveiling your character. The ‘hero’ might have flaws in the beginning, but by the end of the tale he is purified and redeemed. But if you’re a writer, you know that nobody gives a shit about your characters until they’re relateable — as flawed as everyone else, in other words. 
      A hero’s tale is unequivocal on this point: a hero goes through a crucible, and is purified. I think it’s more like a growth or an evolution, and just because you grow on one front doesn’t mean you grow on all fronts. Besides, what would happen if you actually got to some perfect end point? You’d stop growing? Doesn’t that mean you’re dead?
      So to be authentic about your story, you need to share not only where you’ve evolved, but where you still have some growing to do. And that’s where the vulnerability is hardest, I think. Because you have to be upfront about your imperfections. I did a post on that a while back, you remember?

  7. Shanna,
    I love the Wire and this is a great post on a really important topic. I believe in storytelling. When I find a real storyteller, it’s easy to get enraptured. Sucked into the story. I think the reality is that most stories are packaged. Some are even invented. Is it okay to take creative license with stories? To cut out the complicated nuances that are too hard to explain quickly? To change the sequencing a bit for more impact?  I think for most stories this is okay as long as the material facts don’t change. What do you think?

    1.  @RtMixMktg It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish with your editing. A lot of the time “never let the details get in the way of a good story” works just fine, because the details are just that– details. But Mike Daisy got into big trouble fiddling with details– and his excuse that “Just because I couldn’t find a story to back me up doesn’t mean it’s not happening” doesn’t hold water. He wanted to make a *statement* with the story. 
      It’s a fine line between taking meaning from your story and moralizing for the benefit of your audience. I think as long as you don’t cross that line, that whatever adjustments you make are for a more powerful rising action or whatever, that’s fine. 

  8. Hi Shanna,
    That’s so true, truth isn’t popular. Especially in TV series where the idea is to let people turn their brains to stand-by for the duration of the show…
    I love your point, “Don’t tell the story of how you’re a better person for it– — – that bullshit’s all relative.” I don’t know about American schooling, but in Finland at least, people don’t really know how to use (or when not to use) relative expressions. “I’m a better person than before I tried Zen meditation.” tells something, but not much about me.

    1.  @petersandeen I could wish people were a little bit more aware of the literal truth of their words, but they’re not.  It’s like every time someone does a neuroscience study and the papers trumpet “XYZ CHANGES YOUR BRAIN!!” Duh. Everything  changes your brain. 
      I personally thinking it’s a lack of critical thinking (or best case, a lack of consciousness) but I’ll pick my battles here. I don’t want to be the language police.

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