Thursday, January 19, 2012


Storytelling is hard. Sure, we all do it, while we're eating a meal with good friends, nursing drinks in a dim bar, or sitting around a campfire under a blanket of stars. But doing it well? Well, that is an artform - the art of plucking just the right scraps of information and experience from the roiling maelstrom of life and stitching them together into a narrative that flows. We've all heard amazing stories. And we've all suffered through more than a few bad ones. But we love them nonetheless. When told right, stories have an almost magic quality to them.

But storytelling can also house hidden dangers. By filtering the information that you include in a story, you inherently simplify the entire experience that you are trying to describe. Inevitably you leave something out. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but the problem is that we almost always leave the same things out, and we keep the same things in. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that life and the world around us are complex systems of non-linear actions and reactions, we're often stuck trying to explain them using the same few storylines: good vs. evil, the quest, rags to riches, voyage and return, tragedy, comedy, rebirth. Sure there's some variation, but the result is that we keep telling ourselves the same stories over and over again.

Tyler Cowen explains all of this extremely well in this TED talk about the dangers of stories:

Now, the rest of this post will make a lot more sense if you watch the video above, but I've been thinking a lot recently about what Cowen speaks about in his talk. This idea that the stories we tell ourselves can limit our conception of the world and what we ultimately experience in life.

It started a couple of weeks ago when I was working on A Desert Life, trying to create a narrative that would work for that video. Though I was happy with the final product, I was painfully aware of how much the film left out. I didn't like that one might watch the video and think that Alf's life is all sunshines and rainbows, splitters and sun-kissed sage. It seems that he's deeply depressed at times when he's out there by himself in the desert. There are a lot of cold and lonely nights when you spend an entire winter in Indian Creek in a crappy old camper. He thinks a lot about whether he wasted his life by just climbing from place to place instead of establishing a career or a family. All of this goes unseen in the film, and I was unhappy that I couldn't figure out a good way to convey this great conflict going on inside of him. Ultimately I chose to just simplify the narrative. And it worked: 30,000 people from all over the world have watched the film online.

And then I read this post on James Lucas' blog. I thought it was really good, like most of James' writing, and incredibly timely given my thoughts about the Alf video. James does an incredible and necessary job of revealing a simple truth: life can be ugly and messy, especially when you're living the dream.

Shortly after releasing A Desert Life I did a short interview with Alpinist Magazine, in which one of the questions was "Why do you think people are so fascinated with this idea of the dirtbag lifestyle?" I gave a wide range of answers, none of which seemed quite right at the time. Later, I realized that much of it has to do with this incomplete narrative that most of us place on the idea of "the dirtbag." In magazines and stories, and even in my own work, we see only beautiful days without worry or responsibility. You never see the sad, rainy days filled with fears of wasting one's life. A lot of viewers are duped into a deceptive narrative, seeing in the dirtbag lifestyle a possible escape from the humdrum banality of their daily lives. This not only fails to capture the complete reality of dirtbag life, it belittles the wonder and joy of "normal life."

But this goes way beyond dirtbags and normal life. It has me thinking about how climbers in general, regardless of their cleanliness, impose narratives on their climbing and its role in their lives. For most climbers I don't think climbing is merely the act of a couple people going out, holding onto the small edges of a rock face, and moving from the ground to the top of the cliff.

No, if most climbing stories, discussions at my local gym, and videos online these days are good indicators, climbing in our minds is more often the legend of a lone warrior (the climber) venturing forth into the wilderness (a road cut near their house) to vanquish the fiery dragon of lore (their project) and save the damsel in distress (their increasingly fragile ego).

Or it is Rocky Balboa (the climber) getting beat down in the ring (their project) then training his ass off (going to the climbing gym two nights a week) to eventually come away with the knockout (sending the proj).

Or it is an Arctic explorer (the trad/alpine climber) going forth into the unknown (a traderoute) on a voyage of exploration and discovery (bolted belays - all of them) where they suffer incredible hardships (I forgot the topo!!! Noooooo!) but ultimately push through against all odds to return victorious to civilization with newfound insight (Dude, we are sooooo badass!).

We see these narratives all the time not necessarily because they're true, but because they work. We love to see inspiring stories of climbers engaged in epic battles or horrendous suffering, barely pulling through or making it out alive. Perhaps the only thing we love more is to imagine that we ourselves are the ones performing unearthly feats, even if all we're really doing is climbing a route at the local crag that a team of eight year-olds just hiked for their warmup.

While I would not doubt if Fred Beckey actually has slain great beasts using a piton for a sword and his rope for a whip, are these narratives accurate for the rest of us? Is climbing really a grand voyage of self-discovery? A life-affirming battle against some great force that is trying to beat me down? Maybe. But maybe not. By placing my own experience into one of of these preexisting story lines, how much do I limit my conception of what the climbing experience is for me? How often do these narratives really tell the whole story (hmmm, but don't narratives inherently leave information out? Can they ever tell the whole story?...uh oh...circular...thinking...paralyzing...brain...).

My own belief is that it keeps us repeating the same tired, unoriginal storylines that truly limit our appreciation of what climbing is, who we are as climbers, what climbing is for you (hint: probably not what it is for me) and how to understand one's path as a climber (fuck...the narrative of the path, the journey...even I can't get away from these damn metaphors!).

And so I'm left wondering how to move forward. How can I, as someone who would like to make a living from telling stories, avoid limiting both myself and my audience? Especially when inspiring stories, and those that we climbers love to see, often leave out so much? So much of the unglamorous hardship? So much of the mess? Should I just get rid of the filter? Include all the details, good and bad? Perhaps, but it's tough though (woah, did you realize that tough and though are spelled almost identically but sound completely different? English is weird. I bet storytelling is easier in other languages).

I have my own thoughts on what makes for a good climbing story, but I'll save those for another post. The truth is that we need narrative in our lives. We literally would not be able to make sense of the world around us if we couldn't filter our perceptions of it. We wouldn't be able to tell each other anything if we had to include every detail. Instead of seeing everything we would see nothing.

I certainly don't think we should stop telling stories. They are part of who we are as humans, how we think, and how we perceive reality. They make us laugh, inspire us, and give us hope. The challenge is to avoid cliche, one-sided narratives that keep telling the same story over and over again.

Normally I'd like to finish a post like this with some sort of grand lesson or moral, some clever quip that encapsulates all of my thoughts above. But I don't have one. I still haven't figured this all out for myself. I haven't ventured forth to vanquish some fiery dragon. I haven't walked away victorious with some crowning new insight to celebrate.

I guess that means this wouldn't make for a very good story.