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Infranarrative: or, story is everything, but what is story?
I have travelled the passes and peaks of midwit mountain many times in my life, in many areas of my life. One of those trips has been a decades-long trek centered around “Stories are Fundamental to Life.”
A big part of my shift has to do with a change in the way I think of “what a story is.”
When I was younger and thinking about stories, I was thinking in fairly literal ways about it. I thought about how the literal, actual fictional stories we’re presented with—novels, television, ‘true stories’, movies, religious tales, etc—can shape culture, can shape how people feel about their lives, etc. It seemed like the artist had a duty to write stories of greater depth and complexity, providing frameworks for people to structure their lives more meaningfully.
By “stories” here, I didn’t exactly mean “the structured plot of a particular tale,” but my thinking was only a step or two removed from that.
And based on my readings of other people talking about Story, I wasn’t particularly unique in starting there. When I see some tweets, essays, even books that riff on the importance of narrative in day to day life—they often tend towards fairly literal, top-down versions of What A Story Is, and of where they come from.
If I had to define the view of “story” or “narrative” in this usage, it would be something like “the mental structures we have on hand with which to make sense of our experience.”
The view here goes something like “our environment provides us with a number of templates for making sense of experience. Many of these templates are communicated through culture, family, religion, and media. If we become aware of these templates, we can use them more skillfully, and perhaps even add new ones to our storehouse.”
This view isn’t necessarily false, but it is very limited, especially when it gets art-coded (“we can make up new stories on the fly!” “I can live like I’m a character in a movie!” etc.)
There’s a top-down feel to this view, where we are accepting and tinkering with pre-made structures (albeit flexible ones) that were made before us and then given to us. We can also deconstruct these structures, these narratives, these stories—but the responsibility then comes to replace them or make new ones to live by.
(Note: I’m aware that certain people and traditions believe that you can deconstruct them and, if you go far enough with it, reach some state of Story Zero. I’m not going to really deal with that here except to note that that idea itself is a story.)
So if that was the view I had on the left side of the mountain, it’s a view I moved away from in the years I went up the mountain. I started to see the whole idea of stories and narratives as silly, ephemeral, lazy, facile. Even accepting the frame of life-as-stories was a way of shrinking life down, shearing away the unseemly or out-of-place bits, deceiving ourselves.
The entire frame of “Stories,” I came to believe, was a helpful metaphor to let youths begin grappling with patterns that would show up in their lives. But the frame isn’t appropriate for later stages of life.
Which brings us to now—I’ve swung back to “Story is everything.” Why?
It’s harder to talk about this—both because the language gets difficult, and because it’s harder to talk about any experience that you’re standing inside—but I’ll paint some broad strokes.
First of all, to distinguish what I now mean by “Stories” or “Inner Narratives,” I’m going to use the term Infranarrative. Hopefully the reason for that term will become clear.
The first step towards clarifying that: I’ll be using the metaphor of cymatics:
The shapes of the sand are largely what I was talking about above: structures we’re shown by our environment to help make sense of our experience. Being powerful looks like this. Unrequited love looks like this. Being a father looks like this.
You can see the problem with viewing this in a top-down way. The attitude becomes one where you’re using your fingers trying to consciously re-shape the sand into the pattern you want. This process can take a whole lot of time and a whole lot of work—and the second your old “vibration” comes back, all the sand goes back where it was anyways.
In this way, what I was calling “narratives” before were more like symptoms of the true narrative, the infranarrative. They were just epiphenomenal outward signs.
The infranarrative is the vibration itself—the underlying force that imprints its pattern into the sand; the underlying force that imprints its pattern onto our lives.
In the same way that “vibration” and “sand shapes” are fundamentally different things that require different methods and different types of perception—so too with “Stories” and “infranarratives.”
Infranarratives are beneath words, beneath structures, beneath culture or family or art.
When I say “everything is stories” or “myths drive human experience” or other things that sound similar—I’m pointing at infranarratives.
There are impulses deep within people, deep within cultures, that reliably create the same patterns again and again and again. The message of these repeating patterns is not that we should be chasing or utilizing or riffing on those patterns; it’s that the underlying force, the structuring vibration itself is available. The twin messages, if we listen closely, are that
if we want to create something Good, True, or Beautiful, we must build it by getting in touch with the underlying vibration that makes such things, and
if we want to tear something down that is no longer Good, True, or Beautiful, we must destroy it by silencing or changing the underlying vibration that sustains it
In both cases, if we either try to build something by pushing sand around, or destroy something by pushing sand around, we’ll lose. The infranarrative will re-assert itself, and our efforts will dissolve.
There’s a lot more ground to cover, but I’ll leave this here for now. I’d like to get around to explaining how I see infranarratives interacting with “Stories,” ways of working with infranarratives, cultural and personal infranarratives, the role of somatic depth in recognizing and shifting them, the foundation of imaginal practice being rooted in a deep understanding of infranarrative, etc etc etc.
But for now—quite frankly it’s bed time and I have a painful calf injury that needs tending, so: farewell.
(I’m literally not going to edit this, someone DM me if edits are clearly needed, I’ll do that tomorrow)