The Narrative Impulse

It’s been 10 years since James Atlas declared ours “the age of the literary memoir” in The New York Times, and the public’s appetite for true tales of the self, imaginatively told, seems boundless. The demand for fiction continues to fizzle, while first-time memoirists build the kind of buzz that once befitted big-name novelists. Some claim it’s a fad, a filling of the literary troughs with sentimental slop. Yet recent research regarding the brain would suggest that narratives of self—both the telling (writing) and the hearing (reading)— stem from impulses basic to our being. We’ve learned that the mind is malleable, that the brain’s neural pathways constantly rewire themselves to order sensory input, creating connections among disparate facts and ultimately spinning explanations about the self in the world. In essence, the mind “is telling itself a story,” notes David Suzuki in “The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature.” He argues that this knack for narrative enabled our ancestors to recognize, understand and remember the meaning of patterns in nature, such as the migrations of animals, the sequencing of the seasons and the duration of night and day.

These observations become memories, and the meanings they form transcend what we need to survive physically: They form a dynamic interplay with our emotions and thoughts that are essential to our psychological survival in a complex society. Not all of our memories teem at the surface of our conscious thoughts, that is sure, unless we actively set about recollecting them. But, taken together, our memories and perceptions form an autobiographical self, a set of personal myths and stories that give our lives meaning. In fact, people with certain brain impairments—such as occurs in Alzheimer’s patients—have lost this ability to narrate their lives and develop a sort of existential bewilderment, a loss of personhood known as dysnarrativia.

We are not content to tell our stories to ourselves; we feel moved, even inspired, to tell our stories to others. The storytelling urge begins early in life, notes Alice Weaver Flaherty in “The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.” She observes that children “compulsively narrate their experiences and desires,” as anyone who has been subjected to a 3-year-old’s running commentary can attest. The act of autobiography forms in our frontal cortices, while the will to write likely lies in our limbic system, which is one of the oldest parts of our brain, governing not only our basic desires for food and sex, but social bonding, learning and memories. We are the most vocal of the primates, and sharing the intimate details of our lives has many functions: The act makes us feel connected to others, alleviates stress and makes us healthier. Writing about emotionally laden events increases our T-cell growth and antibody response, lowers our heart rate, helps us lose weight, improves sleep, elevates our mood and can even reduce pain.

Given the importance of sharing stories, we should not be surprised that the age of literary memoir has flourished in an age of disconnection. We belong to fewer civic groups, spend less time with friends and family, and log a month more hours at work than we did in the 1960s, outstripping even the work-fanatic Japanese. Even picnics per capita declined 60 percent between 1975 to 1999, Robert D. Putnam notes in “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” Technology has sped up our lives and increased our isolation. We tend to sojourn solely in the company of a computer, although high Internet usage corresponds with feelings of loneliness. We visit an automatic teller instead of a live one, run our purchases over a do-it-yourself scanner at the grocery store and secure our privacy in public with an armament of personal electronic devices. We watch reality television shows to supplement a meager ration of interpersonal contact. Our voices and our stories become hidden in the steady babble of the information age.

Despite our isolation, we are drawn to story, and the more emotional the tale, the deeper the salient information lodges in our memories. We learn from personal revelations, war stories, family legends, urban myths, campfire tales, true confessions and gossip around the water cooler. James Wolcott, contributing editor for Vanity Fair, has sniggered at memoir for pandering to the voyeuristic and aspiring toward the lofty realm of redemption, yet living a life filled with suffering is precisely the existential itch that the genre scratches. The various subcategories within memoir mark the passages through being human: childhood, adolescence, love, sex, child rearing, illness, dissolution, aging, war, imprisonment, enslavement, abuse, addiction, healing, journeys, spirituality, the unknown and death itself. The telling of tales does more than entertain: It transmits important information between generations, making important events of the past relevant. A genre that appears to be narcissistic is, in truth, outward directed, actually eclipsing the experience of the individual and speaking to society. The memoir multiplied creates a million little connections, threading an otherwise fragmented, post-modern world with the narrative of human meaning.