Getting Lost in a Story

Did you ever get lost in a story? I mean really lost, as in the places and the characters so dominate your waking mind that it’s hard to focus on other things? Where characters become so real to you that you think about them, worry about them, talk to them in your head and spend time formulating solutions to their problems that you would share with them if only you had the opportunity?

Naturally, I’m asking because that has happened to me. It can be a weird, even jarring experience, almost like a dissociative state, to be conducting the business of a busy, professional life and be more engaged by thoughts of people who don’t exist than you are by the work or the people in front of you.

I guess I did this kind of thing all the time as a kid. I never paid attention in class. I was formulating stories in my head, daydreaming about adventures. “Steve Wilson, you look like you’re a million miles away,” my Calculus teacher would yell across the class. In fact, I was light years or universes away most of the time. Although occasionally I suppose I was mentally no farther away than the nearest private spot, if my thoughts were focused on whatever classmate I found attractive that week. But that’s a different story.

Come to think of it, as an adult, I’ve never been much good at meetings that go over an hour, either. I believe the adult attention span is about twenty minutes. If you expect people to sit and listen to you talk for longer than that, you’re probably going to be sadly disappointed. You going need to engage them, to keep them actively participating, doing something, if you want them to stay focused on whatever business it is you have at hand.

Still, most of the time I can stay focused if I’m the one doing the presenting. But when I’m lost in a story like this, my mouth is running, saying all the right things–let’s streamline the operation, let’s increase safety, let’s nail down a project plan… grown-up, professional stuff–while my mind is thinking, “Gee, I hope Cynthia finds a way to get out of the monastery in the next chapter. Things are bad for her there.” (If you don’t get the reference, you’re dramatically illiterate. Seek professional help, like a course in the history of American theater. If you do get the reference, send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope and I’ll use it to send you some autographed junk mail. Apparently, there are a lot of international sweepstakes, and we’ve won all of them! This offer could be worth millions!)

Fortunately, this condition I’m describing doesn’t strike me that often. If it did, I’m not sure I could function. Not to mention, well, stories end. Or at least, if they go on for a long time, in series, you may have a long wait between volumes or issues or whatever. I’m sure rabid Harry Potter fans can understand what I’m talking about. When a story you’ve really gotten caught up in ends, well… let’s face it… It’s depressing. No matter how much you enjoyed it, it’s over. Sure, you can go back and read it again (and, if you’re like me, you will), but that’s not the same as living it the first time. Indeed, reading it through again too quickly my dull its sheen in your mind. So you feel sort of incomplete, restless.

But would you rather never have an experience like this? Hmmm?

Pardon me, but, if you said yes, well… you’re a boring little tit. Invasive as this kind of experience may be, anxious as it might make me, as much time as it might take away from the things I should be doing, I’m glad to be able to experience something like this. Especially at my age. Not that I’m old, but, let’s face it, Fifty is looking at me and chuckling. Loudly. Rubbing its hands together like a chef sizing up a prize bird. I’m not too old to feel wonder or amazement. I believe I’ve made the claim that science fiction fans never get old because they can still feel those things at any age. But when your marriage is decades old and your children are grown or almost, there are a lot of sweet little dreams of your youth that have been exposed as fantasies. A lot of exciting possibilities that you thought your life might include that it, well, didn’t.

So sometimes it feels good to have that level of obsession with a fantasy that you thought was reserved for little kids.

I asked you a question. Has this happened to you, as an adult? Before getting your answer, I’m going to assume it’s happened to some of you out there. That’s the kind of guy I am. I know I’m unique, but I tend to believe my experiences rarely are. If it’s happening to me, it’s also happening to someone else.

So… Why? Why does this seemingly counter-productive madness take hold of otherwise rational, responsible adults? I have a few theories.

We need to escape – I like my life. I built it, and I’m proud of it. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get me down sometimes. There are things I have to deal with that are difficult, and there are situations and people which cause me mental and emotional pain. I need a break from that. I need something to pull me away from that. I need to think about other people and other people’s problems. When I get back from this vacation in fantasy land, my problems are still there, but I’ve cleared my mind of some of the stress and the garbage so I can maybe take a fresh approach. Ever been to a Chinese restaurant where they serve Sherbet between courses to clear your palate? Yeah. It’s like that.

We need heroes – Now, not every story has a hero. Some are just about people coping with problems. But heroism can show up in the darndest places. And I think we all need to sometimes look at someone and think, “I want to be more like that!” or “That’s how a person should act!” Heroes inspire us. Just knowing there can be good people gives us the energy to make things better in our lives. Even if your life is filled with heroes–hell, I work with firefighters!–you sometimes need to see an ideal that’s not part of your everyday life. I’ve often blamed my Dad for my addiction to Superheroes and Space Opera. He was so larger than life as a role model that I needed someone even larger to star in my fantasies.

We need safe emotional outlets – I can get all worked up about how the monks mistreat poor Cynthia. I can tremble in fear as she rides that zip line over the Tibetan peaks to escape their clutches. (Totally invented that. No source at all!) I can feel apprehensive, between chapters… what if this is that kind of story, told by an evil genius like Joss Whedon who thinks that the story decisions that make him cry are the ones to go with? What if Cynthia dashes her brains out on the rocks where they’ll be eaten by mountain goats? (Are there mountain goats in Tibet?) The answer is… it doesn’t matter. Oh, it matters to you, because it will cause you emotional pain. And it matters to Joss Whedon if you then send him a fan letter that ticks. And emotional pain is real pain. But, at some level, you know you can distance yourself from the pain because… this story isn’t real. It’s kind of a sloppy point. It glosses over an important question: “How real are fictional characters to us?” Some of them are pretty real to me. Maybe the right statement is, “It doesn’t have to matter.” There are sad stories that have really torn me up. But they didn’t, um, really… um, tear me up. Physically. It’s harder to fully invest yourself in real people, because they can really hurt you. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Just means fictional people are good practice, and good outlets for emotion.

Catharsis – I hate catharsis, but, in keeping with the above, I thought I’d mention it. I hate sad stories. I avoid them like the plague. But some people love to read or watch and cry their damn eyes out over a sad story. I believe them when they say it helps them deal with life, I do.

Meeting some other emotional need you didn’t know you had – sometimes we don’t even understand what’s going on in our heads. Our emotions can confuse us, and we might even hide from them to avoid getting hurt. So sometimes a story can reach in and scratch an itch you didn’t know was there, or you were pretending wasn’t there because it might not be an itch, it might be a brain tumor or a flesh-eating amoeba. By fulfilling hitherto unseen needs, a story can…

Help you learn something about yourself – I doubt there’s any more interesting landscape in the universe than that which is inside your own head. I know I never get tired of exploring my own mental landscape. It’s not just about filling your brain with someone else’s thoughts so you don’t have to think. It’s about engaging yourself with something your id and your ego find tasty upon which to chew. So, while you may shake like an addict between chapters, and you may feel horribly distracted, while you even ridicule yourself for letting a silly piece of fiction affect you in this way… you may also be learning something about how your mind works. You might even, by example, find some insights into how the minds of people around you work. And, just like that, you’ll be better equipped to handle “The Real World.”

I’m sure there’s someone still out there thinking, Isn’t it wrong to focus emotional energy on fictional people when there are real people in your life? Or, if there aren’t, there should be? Maybe your obsession with the fictional is keeping you from having real relationships! Maybe. But I think an active, healthy fantasy life is a sounding board and a proving ground for your real life. A rehearsal, if you will. A virtual reality simulator, maybe with prettier graphics than you’re going to see when you get out in the field, just to keep you interested.

What do you think? I’d really like to know.

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