Writing is lossy. A writer cannot convey to a reader an exact idea as they envisioned it in their minds. If they describe white sands and turquoise seas, the reader will contribute to this construction: some might borrow elements from Greece, others from Jamaica. If a woman is described as beautiful, they will subconsciously triangulate — What did the writer have in mind? What do I personally consider attractive? What is the averaged-out standard of beauty in my society? What makes sense in the context of this story that I’m reading?
Perhaps the writer should be exacting in their description — precise about the composition of the sand, the exact temperature and crispness of the air, the hue and shade of every last colour in the sunset sky… but suddenly a sentimental rendezvous would become a geographic survey.
One might imagine that the situation is better in film. The image that we see is exactly the same image that the producers approved and released — the camera focus is on the intended place, a cognitive load is lifted off of everyone’s backs. However, this image, like the written word, is merely a different kind of midpoint. Consider, again, the question of beauty. Period pieces, when dealing with the challenge of a beautiful man, are faced with the choice of either being faithful to the beauty standards of the period in question, or casting an actor considered beautiful today, so that the spirit of his role in the story carries through. Or consider dialogue: an idiom can be artfully translated into the closest possible natural equivalent, or it can be translated literally, or it can be simply broken down into prose. What does “crouching tiger, hidden dragon” mean to you?
Telling a story is always a series of compromises between emitters and receivers. The resulting story that is conveyed in any given interaction is always the result of a collaborative process of construction. In the same way movie-makers are readers of a script before they issue images for audiences, and actors memorize lines before they enunciate them, we are all always transforming signals into meaning at every step of communication. Our memories even imbue low-fidelity experiences with vivid and novel detail, both visual and emotional. We tend to then celebrate “creators” for providing the seeds for such lush imagination, but I think us gardeners who nurtured them into blossom also deserve credit.
Scientists have a charming and true phrase: “All models are wrong. Some are useful.” What this phrase conveys is the sense of wonder that, for example, planetary motion can (sometimes) be approximated by the physics of billiard balls, shockingly stripping away all of the rugged geography and complex chemistry of far-away alien worlds, nevertheless allowing us to make predictions about their trajectories. We’re speaking here of “assume no air resistance”, “assume this cow is a spherical obloid”, “assume all terms other than the first in this series round-down to zero”, “assume perfect insulation”, etc. This makes each of these models fall short of fully capturing reality, and yet we all agree that they nevertheless prevail if they deliver on some predictions. Seen this way, fictional storytelling is not so different from science after all.
Now, imagine you are put on the spot, and asked to tell a story. What kind of story would you tell? Perhaps you’d try to unensnare yourself with the first thing that comes to mind: Dog bites man. Perhaps you’d punish your interlocutor with the most vulgar story you could manage. Perhaps you’ve got a really good personal story you’ve never had an opportunity to get off your chest. Perhaps it’s a political manifesto. No matter how little effort you put into your story, however, I’m sure interesting insights could be drawn by just following it up with questions, if there were an opportunity to do so. If the story was short, why was it short? If it was long, why was it long? Why a dog and not a jaguar? Why a man and not a child? Why a bite? Where are you from, and how did that affect your choices? Why am I even asking you this question? Why are you reading this essay?
Engaging in such a quest would be very different than simply declaring that your story was a mere invention on your part. All of these questions have answers, and some of these answers might be revealing in spite of you not intending to reveal anything in particular. In truth, not only can I make some assumptions and answer some of these questions for myself without your input or permission, we all inevitably do so as part of the process of communication.
Just as audiences need to take more credit for the role that they play in the process of creation, they also need to take more responsibility. The speaker is reaching out, best as they can, but the listener always meets them at some midpoint. It’s a process that takes work and effort on the part of both. The listener has to realize that they, too, are creating, all the time. Their creations might even be strict improvements over the source material, at which point it’s a downright shame if they stay private. They need to take a step forward too, and speak. Collaboration in communication needs to be encouraged and recognized. The more this process is brought to the fore, and made explicit, and made conscious, and made democratic, the better our stories will be.
All stories are true. They all hold within themselves the story of why they were told. Or, perhaps more correctly: All stories have truth. Some are useful.