A Writer’s Meta-Narrative (02.07.11)

I’m currently working on yet another essay about meta-narratives, those giant, all-encompassing stories that contain the stories we write and, often enough, the lives we live. They can also define what kind of reality we live in, how time works, and what the purpose of life is.

A former student hints at his own meta-narrative when he writes that he gets freaked out at the idea of raising children in a world whose future is as dark as this one seems to be. Judging from the headlines, he thinks his children are likely to starve or freeze to death in the dark or die in war. I suspect he has the same shock of recognition I have when faced with the iconic skull scenes in the Terminator movies.

So The End of Civilization is a meta-narrative. So are Utopia and Ecotopia, stories in which humans have learned to Live In Peace With Human Nature or With Their Planet. So is Laissez-Faire Capitalism, where The Market Will Make You Free, and Marxism, where History Will Make You Free, and Christianity, where Christ’s Passion Has Washed Away Your Sins.

A distinguishing characteristic of meta-narratives is their susceptibility to capitalization.

Although meta-narratives can look silly when presented this way, if yours or mine malfunctions, we’re in serious trouble. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance shows how you can use logic to slice through the meta-narrative of your culture, but points out that if you do, you’ll find nothing on the other side and you’ll go mad. An opposing idea, one explored by the science fiction writer J. G. Ballard, is that culture is the mask we put on reality. If you are alienated enough from the mainstream, you can see through the mask of culture to what lies behind it. And then you will go mad.

2011 sees us surrounded by meta-narratives that are no longer doing their work of keeping us sane. Free Energy From The Peaceful Atom is broken, as is Get Rich Flipping Houses, as is Work Hard And Save Your Money And Prosper.

A person’s usual response when his or her meta-narrative breaks is to lie like crazy to repair it, as when a fundamentalist Christian looks at a fossil and calls it an invention of Satan. Conservatives who insist that the free market doesn’t contain the seeds of its own destruction are doing the same thing, as are liberals who insist that entitlement programs—including the one that supports the Pentagon—won’t bankrupt this country. People who believe we’ll need airports in twenty years are telling themselves and the rest of us that the world hasn’t run out of cheap oil.

My own meta-narrative, which is in need of repair on a number of fronts, is that Brilliant Writers Always Become Rich and Famous.

It’s hard to experience the breakdown of your meta-narrative as anything but violence to yourself and your family and your community, and such perceived violence begets more violence, usually in the form of scapegoating. New meta-narratives can be forged out of the scrap of broken ones, and there’s always a low-life demagogue out there forging one from the basest, nastiest, ugliest, and most fearful parts of the human psyche.

The longshoreman Eric Hoffer, writing in The True Believer about the crowds who cheered Mussolini and Hitler, said that “a rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of individual existence.”

Hoffer suggests that meta-narratives are arbitrary constructs with little meaning outside of the meaning we give them. Thus a fundamentalist Muslim and a fundamentalist Christian and a fundamentalist Buddhist (they exist) are psychologically identical. They worship sacred texts rather than ponder them. A few guards at Guantanamo intuited this phenomenon when they threw copies of The Koran into toilets and struck at the heart of the fundamentalist meta-narrative.

A writer’s meta-narrative also offers refuge from the barrenness and meaninglessness of individual existence, but it offers no pre-packaged solutions to these terrors. Instead, what it offers is a lifetime of making meaning, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, and not least, character by character.

The good news is that when you construct your meta-narrative on the page, it’s more durable and more richly complex than the brittle ones that have been designed for the mob. It’s more apt to be based on empirical evidence. It will likely address the anxiety of being alone inside your skull, something that every writer faces every time he or she faces the blank screen or the blank page. It will allow you to make meaning in a world where entire political movements, economic systems, religions, and countries have revealed themselves to be murderous frauds.

By now some details of my own meta-narrative should be obvious. To write is to be a witness. What you witness is the real world, and it is real, and it exists separate from your religion or your politics. General statements about human nature or the individual’s relation to the cosmos—anything that ends the with letters ism, in other words—are to be treated with a healthy skepticism. Meaning comes from the microcosm, not the macrocosm.

In spite of the limitations of meta-narratives, it’s important to maintain and improve yours if you want to function. That’s why you need to keep reading, witnessing, and pondering throughout your god-given life.

Capitalize as needed.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Katrin Horowitz February 8, 2011 at 12:34 pm

John — I especially enjoyed your final paradox — healthy skeptic-ism as just another -ism — proving yet again that we can’t avoid tying ourselves into knots when we try to understand how we think about thinking.

Joan L. Cannon February 8, 2011 at 12:59 pm

This could be a sermon to enlighten every thinking human being of any faith or background–not just writers. It should become a real focus for anyone who writes for reasons other than financial ones.

Mary February 8, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Always thought-provoking, John.

Now I’m pondering my own meta-narrative. What is the big picture?

I shared your book MFA in a Box at the Sabino Springs Writers’ Retreat in Tucson Arizona. To see 11 posts and photos of the retreat: (http://maryemcintyre.wordpress.com)

Michael February 18, 2011 at 10:31 am

Enjoyed your post, John. Keep keeping us on our toes. Thank you.

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