Janet L. Factor was born in the soot-showered industrial city of Barberton, Ohio, where as a girl she kept her head down and counted toads, turtles and snakes in the grass. She graduated magna cum laude from Hiram College, Phi Beta Kappa, having devoured a degree in biology, imbibed a minor in history, and nibbled on delectable side dishes of art and literature.
Janet has expanded on that liberal arts tradition by studying and teaching dance, martial arts, and yoga. A devotee of Jacob Bronowski, Janet was convinced by him of the deep connection between art and science. At home she pursues the art of garden design while creating backyard wildlife habitat, and has recently acquired the courage to play at painting.
After nineteen years in the Finger Lakes paradise of upstate New York, Janet now resides in the prairie home of Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, where in 2006 her first act was to found Springfield Area Freethinkers as a haven from the heavy red fog of faith that permeates the region. Here she began writing, first for Free Inquiry and then Secular Humanist Bulletin, where she is a contributing editor and for five years has authored the column “Heart & Mind,” which seeks to reconcile the demands of reason and emotion to construct a wise approach to life.
This is a four part series by Janet L. Factor that was originally published via the Secular Humanist Bulletin.
For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived
A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.
Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Opposite this sleek, birch-and-silver computer desk where I write, there sits an old club chair. Its lined vinyl skin is worn, and split in places. The seat has sagged. Tacks have come loose and the coverings curl humbly downward from the front of the arms. The round wooden feet, having seen flood, are rough and scaly. In more deeply wounded places the stuffing escapes, smelling of must and mortality. No one ever sits on it but the cat. Yet for me, it is magical, a sacred object, for this is the chair my father sat in to read to me when I was a child. Such is the power of story that its spell cast in childhood still holds us enchanted as adults.
People crave story; they look for narrative everywhere. The man who can spin a good yarn is welcome at any gathering. It has even been argued that what we call the self is nothing but a narrative constructed from our life’s events. Think how, at a funeral, everyone longs to hear stories about the person they are gathered to mourn.
Once humans acquired language, it was inevitable that we would use it in this way. Stories present a segment of life and challenge us to understand it. That’s a re-creation of our native reasoning process: it’s exactly what evolution shaped our brains to do. Normally, if we do not have personal knowledge of something, it does not seem real to us. And so we discount history, and our spouse’s complaints. But it is the function of art to provide a vicarious experience so intense it seems like our own, and leaves an imprint just as reality does. Hence, the venerable institution of the tale-teller.
This ancient art is how understanding was passed down through the generations long before writing was dreamed of, and it still smells of the campfire. We are made to learn this way, and to remember this way. Constructing a mental story is a common mnemonic device; long lists can be memorized using an imaginary narrative that links the items, no matter how fantastic it becomes. The more vivid the tale, the better, if it is to be remembered. The most primitive people are superb storytellers—and children, eager to learn, are superb listeners. Many folktales are clearly intended to teach the young or otherwise ignorant. Aesop’s fables, derived from Greek and Indian lore, include an explicit moral, and nursery stories frequently contain an equally obvious lesson. But as adults, we want more complex narratives whose significance we can puzzle out for ourselves, and as cultures mature, they often produce works whose meanings are obscure, inviting debate among the members of their more sophisticated audiences. What’s the meaning of Macbeth? Of Breaking Bad?
How did we get from “The stinking hyenas stole my wildebeest!” to “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player”? Inherent in storytelling are the first steps toward fiction. Recounting one’s actions requires choosing how to frame events and speaking so as to have the greatest influence on the listener. When the heard story is retold, that’s one remove from reality. From there it is a small step to fiction, whether through deliberate invention or simple evolution over many hearings and retellings. As Clive James put it, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.” Over time, details become blurred, and only the most striking parts of a tale remain.
Such sharing of experience, the essence of art, is straightforward in fiction, where we are often directly put in another’s place. For this to work, there must be what critics call a willing suspension of disbelief. The hearer steps out of herself and enters the world of the story, temporarily accepting its premises, however strange. With the very young this is easy, perhaps even automatic; likely evolution has programmed children to automatically believe whatever parents tell them. For adults, it is a voluntary act, and the teller of a tale, whatever form it takes, must somehow nurture the illusion of truth to keep his audience cooperating until the story ends, and they sigh at the breaking of the spell.
Seeing is believing, they say. This is not just about evidence; it’s about the fact that emotional response is triggered by sensory stimuli. Take a fiction writing course, and the teacher will tell you straightaway “Show, don’t tell!” Showing conveys the sensation of being in the story, and allows us to react as though it were happening to us. Good fiction is far richer in descriptive detail than exposition is. Metaphor figures prominently. The lessons of story are embodied, not explicit.
For good reason: physical sensation, even imagined, feels convincing in a way that mere logic does not. The body is where we meet the world. All human experience is created by reason and emotion acting together on the unending torrent of data about reality that pours into us through the senses. This deep and ancient channel is what they share and where they meet. We find well-told tales irresistible because they satisfy both sides of our nature: they make sense of evocative, if virtual, events by literally bringing an order to things.
This is as true in science as it is in art. Jacob Bronowski said, speaking of atomic theory, that “all our ways of picturing the invisible are metaphors, likenesses that we snatch from the larger world of eye and ear and touch.” The difficulty is that what is invisible may also be imaginary. So scientists, rather than suspending disbelief, make a skill of it, testing the aptness of every metaphor in search of its breaking point. Peer review is just a nightmare audience. But there is another area of human endeavor that takes the opposite approach, seeking to
banish disbelief altogether: religion.