(Epistemic Status: Works with a cost, practical advice, dangerous technology. This method can alter the way you relate to your memories.)
Let me tell you a story. It’s about the time I hypnotized a pickup artist.
There once was a time when I was accosted by a pickup artist on the train. He tried a few times to start a conversation and eventually I bit. We proceeded to talk awhile and without really realizing what happened, I gave him my phone number. It took me a couple stops but I eventually realized that that was, in fact, literally pickup and I analyzed the hell out of it. Shortly after, I got a text from my new, ah, friend. So now I had to decide what I wanted to do; being a novelty seeker, I decided to roll with it. So we go on a first date (after some wrestling over time and place). Now, see, I am a novelty seeker and I enjoy trying things that others might not, but I’m not stupid. I took some…precautions against game being used on me. The first was, of course, knowing he’d show up 5 minutes late; I showed up 15 minutes late in response. The second was opening the situation with the filter of the Demon Queen. I made myself big, powerful, and generally controlled the conversational flow. Anything he said was responded to slowly, carefully. I only gave him what I fully consciously wanted to give. The third was, of course, a conscious decision that this was absolutely not ending in sex. All three of these preparations were useful but it turned out only the first was necessary.
When I showed up 15 minutes late, it was clear he was disoriented. He did a weak power play by having his drink already but I just mostly ignored that fact. Conversation was fairly anemic at first as he tried to find a thing I gave a damn about. It was like a cat playing with a mouse. Eventually I relented and actually allowed a conversation flow to form. The piece de resistance was later though, when I finally outright called him out on his behavior in our initial meeting. It went a little like this:
“So, I know what you did Thursday.”
And dude is looking a bit embarrassed, like he’s been caught, but tries “Well, before I tell you what I did, why don’t you tell me what you think I did?”
Since I’m a sucker for a good monologue, I do exactly that. In exacting, precise detail. At first the dude has this kinda horrified expression but as I keep talking, it’s almost this perverse pride as I change from a target into something that almost looks like a “colleague”. So the rest of the date is spent talking about this stuff. This is all set up for the real story, the second date.
So, second date. The initial plan is to see how pickup works (I mean, it would be novel – thankfully, this didn’t work out). It turns out that the night we chose is a poor night to try to find a nightlife. So we wander a bit and have actually decent conversation. I almost feel a bit bad at this point…but then we decide to stop somewhere for a drink, at his suggestion. It’s this bar, it’s got a good vibe and we get seated and get some menus. The guy lets me know that he tried doing the pickup thing with the waitress in the past. I’m like, well, ok, that seems kinda sketchy but whatever. Then we get…a different waitress to take our order. She checks his ID and only takes my debit card; she’s looking real close at that ID. A couple moments later, this big guy comes over, says “Excuse me sir, I’d like to speak with you” and this poor guy just, like, flees. I get my stuff back, cancel my order, and go after. This guy basically is dazed. You just don’t recover from being kicked out of a bar. We find another place to get a drink and he’s still not very communicative. I’m more or less laughing at him because, like, what else can you do and also I’m kind of Demon Queenish here.
So, at this point, I’m going to mention an interesting thing about hypnosis. Hypnosis can be used when someone is confused, it’s one of several ways to induce a state of trance. As you might have noticed, my date is just a bit confused and off his footing.
So, you know, I do what’s perfectly natural in a situation like this. I start a hypnotic induction. I am mildly surprised when it takes, but I keep my flow and I take him into trance; in a rare fit of kindness, I don’t make him do anything weird, and then take him out. He’s pretty much back in his stride after that and the date ends. At that point, I’m pretty satiated with the novelty seeking, so I basically tell him it was fun but, you know, we’re done. And that’s the story of how I got picked up, proceeded to outgame the pickup artist, and then hypnotized him when he made a critical social mistake.
I told this story to create an example of a concept I want to express. That concept is narrativizing your life. There are several key steps to turning any experience into a story. These are having a clear hook, context, a rhythm, a climax, and a conclusion.
The clear hook in my story is simply the first two sentences: “Let me tell you a story. It’s about the time I hypnotized a pickup artist.” I’m establishing an expectation, this is going to be a story, not wool gathering, not a memory, a story of an experience I had. The second sentence sets the tone and gives the listener the option to accept or refuse the hook (in spoken conversation, it’s usually with a bit more of a questioning tone, to let people know they have a choice.) I have a few stories with clear hooks like this, it’s usually just in the form of “the time I did X”. This concept does double duty, it doesn’t only cue the listener into knowing they are about to be told a narrative, but it also cues up your own memory of the storified experience.
Context is the next thing. A story that lacks context is not engaging. The reason I spend so many words on the first date is to establish the relationship I had created with this guy, as well as foreshadow future actions taken by me. It would be much faster to say “So I went on a date with a pickup artist. He got kicked out of a bar, so I ended up hypnotizing him.” It wouldn’t be a good story though. It’s very closed, it only invites a few questions. I also provide context for how hypnosis works later, further foreshadowing the very next scene. If you’re creating a story out of an experience, it is important to consider what context you have to include in the story to make it legible. Another related thing for context is leaving pauses. It’s not really conveyable in text but things that might not be understood (such as why I showed up 15 minutes late to counter his 5 minutes late) deserve a pause, to invite a question if one is there, or a minimal encourager if your conversation partner is following. Knowing what needs context is often the breakdown in trying to tell a story you haven’t told before about your life.
Rhythm is also very important, and very difficult to convey through text. It’s all about how you pace your words, how responsive you are to the back and forth of a conversation. I would be extremely droll if I just rapidly read aloud everything I wrote about; when I pause to invite questions, or throw in the occasional filler word to make it more relatable, it becomes much more of a back and forth, a game of catch where the story can change direction based on the feedback of the person you are speaking with. Even in text, though, you can see some of the rhythm. My paragraph breaks are points I want to draw attention to, my language is informal, each piece is a chronological shift, to a degree. Adding a rhythm to your experience can increase the engagement level because it keeps people hooked in the story.
Now, when telling a story, you need a climax. This should be alluded to in your hook, foreshadowed by the rising action before it, and then when you hit it, you have to go. You have to make it clear it’s the climax and that you are not to be interrupted. From “So, second date”, this is where I’m going to drop my tone a bit, be a bit more conspiratorial. This is the good stuff. I’ve placed most of the information for the punchline already and now I just have to pick up each piece and show you why it was important. This is the payoff. This is where I place the heaviest frames, because this is the part I want people to remember. The reason I explain that I’ve gotten this guy to see me as a “colleague” is so that it makes sense for him to tell me he used pickup on the waitress. The reason I mention my Demon Queen filter is to make it clear that I am being very zero-sum with this guy and the action of hypnotizing him makes sense despite me normally being a much nicer person. The reason I mention my dominant approach towards him is to set the state for you to expect him to be less smooth than I am, which makes the bar event almost, but not quite, predictable. The entire set up is all to foreshadow this climax. I think a lot of experiential stories fail because they weren’t really going anywhere, they were just This Thing That Happened, which isn’t bad, but it’s not as engaging.
Finally, the conclusion (and the aftermath). You have to close the loop. Letting a story hang is pretty uncomfortable. It can be used to great effect to hold someone’s attention for a bit but it won’t last indefinitely and eventually they’ll rationalize against your story; they didn’t want to hear the ending anyway, of course. So you explain how it ends, or explain that it’s still ongoing. You resolve the tension from the climax. When I finish with the hypnotism, I explain that the game is basically over and why. I give the satisfying conclusion that I no longer talk to this guy and to increase the impact, I refer right back to my hook, closing the space I’ve opened by telling this story.
Now, you might be asking why I think this sort of thing is dangerous. It’s just basic storytelling, right? I mean, you’ve been taught this in high school English, how to write a good essay or analyze a work of literature. However, if you’ve been reading my blog, I think it’s pretty clear why this can be dangerous. You are rewriting your experiences by making them stories. You don’t really remember what actually happened, you remember the most compelling spin on what happened; the story that makes you look best. Worse still, storytelling is socially rewarded. It’s mildly addicting and it’s easy to start doing it to more and more of your experiences, iterating faster so you’re prepared for the next social interaction. Eventually, you start narrativizing your experiences while you are having them. At this point, you aren’t living a real life or learning lessons, you’re imposing frames on your experiences and closing yourself out of things outside your self image. From here, you become rapidly less interesting because you aren’t experiencing anymore. Everything becomes the expected story that you’ve told a million times, just with different context; it’s bland. So you have to strike a balance between experience and narrative if you want to maintain the social feedback loop. If you can manage this, though? You become a much more interesting person at parties, to say the least.
Overall, narrativizing your life is a useful social tool once in a while. You don’t need a story for everything, but having a few key notes that really express what kind of person you are, or can be, can be a useful tool for socializing and relating experience in an enjoyable way. The important thing to remember is that it is a tool, though, and one of many. Once you start narrativizing every experience, you’ve gone too far and are tracking truth/reality less and less; you stop learning and being interesting and start being samey and fixed because it’s about how you look. Striking a balance is key, but very rewarding.
Discussion questions: Can you think of an experience that you have narrativized thoroughly, i.e. a go-to life story for any party? Does your story follow an arc? Is it heavy on detail or very light? Does it invite questions and eventually dialogue? Can you make your story better?