Why Does the Shaman Need the Fire?

The campfire has been the heart of storytelling since our earliest days; it is where people gather to be together.

“Writing is a dog’s life, but the only one worth living.”
Gustave Flaubert

They descend upon the site, recalling last session’s twists and turns, some reenacting key moments, others content to smile like a conspirator before revealing their theories for tonight’s installment. They banter and question; probe and dissect. A tense excitement hangs in the air. Tonight promises to wrap up loose threads, and reveal the shadowy presence of the next arc. The group makes their way through the dark to the single glowing flame, barely more than a spark, that burns in the centre of the fire pit. Each has brought a log of wood, and the telling will only last as long as the wood burns—though its impact will linger on long into the night, the next day, and beyond.

As the group settles into the circle around the fire, the wood stacked within arms reach so as to not ruin the rhythm of the telling, the Storyteller appears silently from the darkness. There is no ruckus to proceed the Storyteller’s coming, no fanfare to follow. There is the fire; there is the circle. There is the Story.

Recently I watched the following video from Extra Credits, about the role of the player in games, and what struck me of particular interest was the section about the storyteller—and why the storyteller creates.

At the 3:20 mark, Daniel (the narrator) says, “We know why the initiate sits at the campfire listening to the ancient tales, but what of the shaman? What of the artist who must create? Why do they create?”

“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”
— Ernest Hemingway

“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.”
— Virginia Woolf

The heart, the mind, the body; interconnected and necessary to health.Some writers equate it to an powerful desire; others to an overwhelming compulsion, one with no possibility of denying. Their very health hinges on the act.

“If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”
— Lord Byron

“Those of us who write do it because there are stories inside us burning to get out. Writing is essential to our well-being.”
— Judy Blume

“I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I would die.”
— Isaac Asimov

xkcd comic #876, Trapped
via xkcd.com #876 Trapped

For some, it is to find a place of strength and power, or to ease the existential angst that comes with being sentient and alive.

“Writing eases my suffering … writing is my way of reaffirming my own existence.”
— Gao Xingjian

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of.”
— Joss Whedon

“It’s as though you have a certain music in your head, and trying to get that music out on the page is absolute hell.”
— Ta-Nehisi Coates

“Why am I compelled to write? … Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and anger … To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispel the myths that I am a mad prophet or a poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit … Finally I write because I’m scared of writing, but I’m more scared of not writing.”
— Gloria E. Anzaldúa

Superman breaks his chains to support his fellows.

Still others turn that search for inner strength into strength for others. A sharing of the deepest part of our humanity that cannot go untold.

“You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you’ve got something to say,”
— F Scott Fitzgerald

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?”
— Joan Didion

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
— Maya Angelou

There is a need which becomes fueled by desire, that lifts directions from the road map of the human soul before barrelling down the highway on a strange odyssey. The end result is long hours before the typewriter crafting dreams and nightmares for the world.

“So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled ‘file and forget,’ and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy, my complacency. Why should I be the one to dream this nightmare?”
— Ralph Ellison

the open palm holds magic—in this case, a rainbow of mist.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as some writers are on the search for real world magic and a way to be a part of something larger than themselves.

“The best thing about writing fiction is that moment where the story catches fire and comes to life on the page, and suddenly it all makes sense and you know what it’s about and why you’re doing it and what these people are saying and doing, and you get to feel like both the creator and the audience. Everything is suddenly both obvious and surprising … and it’s magic and wonderful and strange.”
— Neil Gaiman

And some, thank goodness, do it for joy.

“Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself.”
— Terry Pratchett

But In the end, no matter why, whatever fuels the need or delivers the compulsion, whether it’s for pain or joy or magic, the storyteller must find themselves facing one indomitable truth:

“I just knew there were stories I wanted to tell.”
— Octavia E. Butler

A pie chart, breaking down 17 reasons why writer's write.
Some research was done…

As Daniel goes on to say, “Is creation merely a personal act, referencing only the secret inner life of the individual, or are there universal aspects to creation that might allow us to make a more satisfying creative experience?”

If we accept, as Terry Pratchett suggested, that humans are indeed Pans narrans—the storytelling chimpanzee—then we acknowledge the fundamental importance story plays in our day to day lives. We are a community species, and had to find a way to convey information to one another (because without communication, community doesn’t work). But we chose, and continue to choose, to communicate through the telling of stories, rather than just relating uninterpreted facts. We transform all information into story before sharing it with each other. Be it telling a partner about your day or telling a joke—we tell them as stories.

Each of us, as Pans narrans, needs story and will thus be a storylistener—the excited people that travel through the dark forest to sit by the fire and have their lives echoed back as art. Story entertains us, gives us information in a form we remember. And the only way to have a story is to have a storyteller; it seems too obvious to spend much time on. The storyteller tells the story because it’s impossible for a human not to be both storyteller and storylistener. One does not exist without the other.

But there are those of us—that take it up as a profession, who spend our precious few free hours battling away at the typewriter in search of just one usable line—that come to the circle from the other direction, the silent space. We are the quiet figure that appears from the dark to stop the fire from burning and make it dance. Why do we do this to ourselves?

This episode of Extra Credits bestows a lot of importance to video games as a medium that shares the act of storytelling between creator and audience—and I agree wholeheartedly—I just don’t agree that games are the only medium that do so. I don’t agree that “[i]n any other artistic medium people may interpret a given work differently, but they won’t fundamentally experience it differently. A painting on the wall is a finished work. A movie on a reel is whole and complete. A novel on a shelf is what it will always be”. An audience changes a work by the very act of being an audience; it brings its own thoughts, experiences, desires, and needs to the piece. Only through this sharing of creation and receiving is meaning made.

Art can only be something if the story it conveys is told to another being; without audience, any creative work remains an internal thought. Ask any artist to compare their internal epiphanies to those discovered through manifesting their art in the “shareable world”, and I’m sure they’ll agree the best knowledge and understanding comes with the latter. Only after manifesting the artwork and allowing it to be engaged with by an audience does art—and story—fulfill its purpose.

Two pieces of a whole, the storyteller and the storylistener. The audience sits by the fire to be entertained, to have their emotions invoked, to be posed a question; they sit there to peer into the mirror held up against our world. And we, the storytellers, the shaman from the woods—we’re holding the mirror. We spend our time crafting stories so that we may influence the shape of the mirror; what the audience sees and hears, and in turn, what they think upon. Our role is not to tell them what to think (not if we’re doing it right), but to present the problem before the group and allow them to take it where they will. We give the story form, substance, direction based on what we have seen and learnt of this world. Then we hand the pieces to the audience so they can interpret, feel, and act, completing the circle and giving us more to observe, feel, and comment upon again—a cycle that continues indefinitely.

“Why does the creator create?” There is no one reason why a creator creates, or a person opts to be the storyteller and not just a storylistener. If you’re reading this, the likelihood is that you consider yourself a creator, so I pose the question to you: why do you create? What drives your compulsion to take a thought, feeling, or abstract idea from inside your head and put it on the page for an audience to feel, interpret, and take home? Let me know in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Why Does the Shaman Need the Fire?”

  1. For myself, this question made me think (surprise surprise!) about Adventures in Storytelling, and in particular Charlotte’s Journey. Why am I writing this story? And what seemed like an obvious and simple answer, as I thought more about it, became less obvious and simple as I went.

    First, I’m writing this story as a part of AiS, obviously, so it’s about “doing” and “community” (the two main driving forces behind this website: http://adventuresinstorytelling.ca/about-us/). But why Charlotte’s Journey? I could be telling any story—why this one? Well, it’s what James and I came up with together. Sure, that makes sense. But the same question still applies. When we could have come up with any story to tell—why Charlotte?

    What is it about Charlotte’s world, about her struggle, about that journey, that drives me—as a storyteller—to commit it to paper and share it with an audience. What do I want them to feel from it? What do I want their experience, as much as is possible for me to set up, to be as they read it? I’ve been so caught up in capturing the process of crafting this tale, that I haven’t spent much time thinking about how I feel about it. Or rather, why I feel strongly about telling it.

    I’m not going to lie—as excited as I am, as much as I can’t wait to share Fort City and the Cottonwood with y’all, there’s a wall that looms before me. And I’m pretty sure it’s the same wall that always creeps up on me, making scuffing noises in the dirt until finally I turn my head to look, at which point it jumps between me and my project. It’s a pretty big contributing factor as to why I haven’t felt or called myself a writer for so long, no matter how much I know I want and am one. This is one of my obstacles, the mental block standing between idea and execution, and I’m thinking that the rope I need to scale it is made of why.

    Back in university, my poetry teacher, Priscilla Uppal, told us a story about her days in class: her teacher marched the entire class into the library on the first day and had them stand in the middle, the stacks rising around them on all sides. Books upon books towering over these 30 students. She made only one comment, then asked a question. “You can see all the stories that have been written here. What do you have to contribute?”

    If I can figure out why I think it’s important for you to read about Charlotte, then I will understand why I’m creating the story in the first place. I will know what I have to contribute to the stacks in the library. I will better understand her, the story, and my role to play in creating it. Armed with that knowledge, the next time I sit down to write that obstacle will hold no power over me, for as large it attempts to loom I will simply climb higher.

  2. Extra Credit is great because there is a ton of interesting research and some really well-made points, but every now and again, this miss something really important. Luke’s put his finger on a big one here – suggesting that works of art are not interactive. Without diving too deep into literary criticism, lets just say this: what a reader brings to the table is just as important as what’s on the table all ready.

    In the words of Lucinda from an (as yet) unfinished section of Charlotte’s journey: “Your culture is who you are. It takes a lifetime of experience to truly understand a culture. You need to live it, breathe it, be raised in it. A culture is learned in the stories you are told, the food you eat, the life you live, your relationships, your position in a family, a nation, and the world… your view will always be coloured by the life you have lived, the way you were raised, the stories you were told about yourself and your place in the world.”

    When your self meets a work of art, a mixing takes place. Ideally, both the work and the self will change when that interaction occurs.

    Have you ever gone back and re-read a favourite book from childhood and found something in it that you never knew was there? Looked at a painting that always made you feel cold and found hope in its stead? Watched a movie you thought was boring and laughed your way to tears?

    If I’m the shaman, then I need the fire because it changes my state. It warms me – maybe so much that I have to get up and move away – but I’m also the one that fed it. Interacting with story, as listener or as creator, is all about having active agency (yes, even with a static text) and changing something… even if it is something as small as moving from being bored to being entertained.

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