Begin at the Beginning

Of course, that is what we were always told by teachers about how to start a story.

If it were only that simple.

And where would that beginning be again? Long ago and far away…

Could you be more specific?

Once upon a time… Still a bit vague.

It is generally understood that Zeno’s paradox regarding the existence of motion, of Achilles racing with the Tortoise, is in fact absurd. The paradox concludes motion is impossible because of the infinite number of distances Achilles must traverse before catching the tortoise.

However, when observing thought, that paradox could indeed be true despite its absurdity.

I once inadvertently illustrated Zeno’s paradox in a story I wrote.

In the story, a character created a Rube Goldberg contraption whereby the fire alarm could not be triggered before the glass was broken. In order to break the glass, a hammer was needed. To get the hammer, one needed a forge, which needed heat from a fire… and so on.

Everyone knows that a critical mass of population is required in order for a civilization to advance beyond subsistence hunting and gathering. Until there are enough people to dedicate themselves to providing food, defense and housing for all, there is not free time for other individuals to develop and refine skills toward the arts and sciences.

Occasionally, I find myself caught in a Zeno-ian train of thought where I am confounded at the cumulative effort required to generate the most commonplace objects.

For instance, have you ever considered what it would take to create a paper clip from scratch? The tools and steps required to find, mine and refine the ore, fashion the wire, and bend it into a consistent, repeatable shape are astounding. It is obvious in hindsight.

But what unsung generations of inventors made it (and everything else) possible? The chain of innovation has extended to such an astronomical length, one can scarcely trace it back to the source.

And don’t get me started on the steps needed to manufacture the paper you intend to clip with the clip.

How did we ever get to this impossibly complex technological world? We swim submerged in it, day by day, hardly aware of the soup we inhabit.

Curiously, storytelling precedes our arrival to that cultural critical mass. Our earliest stories were fashioned by the hunter/gatherers eons before anyone contemplated a smart phone. And those ancestors had only ephemeral words with which to spark the imagination.

The paradox of our complex world springing from a humble story told beside a camp fire (distant in time but not in space), may be absurd but is nonetheless true. Plato in his cave could not have predicted this.

Yet a story also has a structure. To be effective, it cannot just be pieced together from Lego bricks scattered on the floor.

The effective thrust and counterpoint of a story’s rising conflict is not accomplished haphazardly any more than a random collection of notes creates a pleasing melody. The seeds of our stories lie embedded deep within our DNA.

An inverted proof of this is a friend of mine’s habit of telling a story (such as it is) by starting at nearly the end, and just before getting to the simple point of the matter, he veers off topic into a series of tangentially related anecdotes that trace matters ever further away from that receding mirage of a finish.

I have heard him go on at appalling length, with an urgency and pressured speech that barely allows for the intake of a breath, never to reach a satisfying conclusion. I suspect he adopted circular breathing techniques developed by jazz saxophonists to extend their notes.

“I called about the picnic. I would have called sooner but Sam threw your number out with the trash. Did you know that garbage collectors only work four days a week? But they get paid a lot! I once…” And off we go.

I have observed others sink into resignation and passively ride his verbal river, as if floating dreamily downstream on a holiday, while buoyed by an inner tube.

His incessant flow of words reminds me of a camping trip I took in the Rocky Mountains. The white noise created by a waterfall eventually erased the annoying disco song which was stuck in my head for days. I was finally at peace.

My friend has lived an exciting and varied life filled with world travel and interesting characters. He effortlessly injects many fanciful and extended accounts of his outlandish exploits into his unmapped detours around his stated purpose. (What about the picnic?)

One could easily listen as long as the need for sustenance or for sleep did not intrude. But unless one interrupts with a pointed question, and guides him toward the original point of the call, one suspects with time, he will single-handedly braid his intertwined stories all the way back to that primitive campfire around which the very first story was told.

And then where would we be?

At the beginning.



One thought on “Begin at the Beginning

  1. A very clever rendition of R.D. Lang’s “Knots” meets Maslow’s hierarchy of needs meets Lucy (not as in “I Love …”, but rather the cavewoman on display at the La Brea Tar Pits). Fun!


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