Surreal Synapses: Stories – The Miracle of the Creative Mind

“Narration created humanity.” ~ Pierre Janet

The unique ability of humans to weave fact and fantasy into stories may have elevated our species more than any other single factor during our time on Earth. It’s miraculous enough that we can mentally time travel in our own minds, but to be able to mentally time travel into other minds (and thanks to the written word, even in ones that are no longer with us), opens up an unparalleled panoply of experience, knowledge, wisdom and imagination that can benefit every person alive.

The Storyteller by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo c. 1773

The Storyteller by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo c. 1773

I would even suggest that the term ‘survival of the fittest’, first coined by Herbert Spencer and published by Darwin, (also referred to as ‘Natural Selection’ in evolutionary terms), should be upgraded to something like: survival of the finest and most prolific storytellers, or survival of the most imaginative!

The literary scholar John Niles postulated that our species, Homo Sapiens, should be renamed to Homo Narrans – the storytellers.

“Fiction is as important a truth as truth.” ~ Michael Morpurgo

The sharing of our ‘mind wanderings’ has opened up whole new worlds as we collectively meander through many epochs and countless lives. History as we know it is a collection of stories about the past.

We all share a common ancestral heritage – our forebears roamed the African Savannah during the Pleistocene Period, the last ‘Ice Age’, dating from as far back as 2.6 million years ago to the last 12,000 years, during which time modern humans evolved. Storytelling is literally in our DNA! Human connection is a neurobiological need and stories connect us in a powerful, compelling way.

Albert Anker Grossvater

Albert Anker Grossvater

Tribal wisdom about how to survive the harsh conditions and not be eaten by a sabre tooth tiger would have been important information to pass on, along with the hunter-gatherer experiences of foraging for food and useful items to use and keep us warm.

Cave paintings were the earliest non-verbal stories, before conventional language developed. It was perhaps the most important of our social skills, and was usually reserved for the elders and best orators of the tribe, to ensure that their younger members learnt the techniques of hunting and about their food sources. In this way stories of individuals became the experiences of a social group.

Aboriginal art from Carnarvon Gorge

Aboriginal art from Carnarvon Gorge

Indigenous Australians have told stories dating back 50,000 years, from their first arrival in Australia after their journey from Africa. Preliterate tales of discovery and heroism prevailed through gestures and the spoken word down through the generations, until the written word became a game changing moment in humanity’s evolution.

“Stories are just data with a soul.” ~ Dr. Brené Brown

Stories are so powerful that they can create cultural beliefs and bind people together. The Aboriginal Dreamtime is one such example, and many religions developed from stories. Who hasn’t heard of Adam and Eve?

We only have to look at enduring ancient myths and creation stories that still prevail today, either in their original form or retold with with a modern spin. Such tales are pervasive in cultures all over the world.

A Tales of The Decameron by John William Waterhouse

A Tale of The Decameron by John William Waterhouse

Stories kept us alive and helped us to thrive, and they are still doing the same today, albeit in a more sophisticated way.

Imaginary adventures stem from play – an attribute that tends to be discarded after childhood, but which is essential for learning and development. My children are oblivious to everything when they are at play, engrossed in their imaginations.

The importance of childhood fairy tales cannot be underestimated. Those beguiling opening words: Once upon a time…lead them onto adventures with elements of danger that they can experience in safety and a playful environment that may stand them in good stead when they encounter an actual fearful situation in real life.

Interesting Story by Laura Muntz Lyall

Interesting Story by Laura Muntz Lyall

Stories open up new possibilities that would take many years of painful experience to learn otherwise.

A great animation about why stories matter:


It is thought that vocal linguistics grew from gestural movements, naturally using arms, hands and facial expressions. Communities could come to agree on meanings, ensuring clarity in communication. Sign language is a perfect example of a conventionalised gestural language specifically for deaf communities.

A fascinating passage from The Wandering Mind by Michael  C. Corballis:

“The vocal calls of monkeys and apes are largely useless for storytelling. The hands, in contrast, are used in a flexible, intentional way, and seem almost custom-designed for conveying information about events. Indeed, the notion of grasping still seems embedded, if only metaphorically, in our very speech. The word grasp is itself often used to mean ‘understand’, if you grasp my meaning. Comprehend and apprehend derive from Latin Prehendre, ‘to grasp’: intend, contend and pretend derive from Latin tendere, ‘to reach with the hand’; we may press a point, and expression and impression also suggest pressing. We hold conversations, point things out, seize upon ideas, grope for words – if you catch my drift.”

It’s thought there are some 7,000 languages in use around the world, each with their own set of ‘rules’ or grammar. English is classified as an SVO language – Subject – Verb – Object, but the majority of languages, such as Latin, are SOV, placing the verb last. All six possible orders are to be found in mankind’s numerous languages, the rarest of which are OSV languages, of which 4 are known: the Warao in Venezuela, Nadëb in Brazil, Wik Ngathana in north-eastern Australia, and Tobati in West Papua, New Guinea.

No matter how a language is structured it is a device that enables the teller to set a scene or an event in a time and place and tell stories of complexity limited only by memory, powers of description and ability to sustain attention, venturing into the minds of others. Something William Shakespeare was quite adept at!

After the invention of writing and later the printing press, epic tales were told as long poems with rhyme and metre, which were popular as an aid to memory, and the earliest known story in literature is thought to be the epic tale of Gilgamesh, about a Sumerian King.

Gilgamesh at the Louvre

Gilgamesh at the Louvre


The story of Gilgamesh provided a basis for later works of fiction, and such stories contain a full range of emotions and establish heroes and villains that act as models for the way people behave in society.

fiction (n.)

early 15c., ficcioun, “that which is invented or imagined in the mind,” from Old French ficcion “dissimulation, ruse; invention, fabrication” (13c.) and directly from Latin fictionem (nominative fictio) “a fashioning or feigning,” noun of action from past participle stem of fingere “to shape, form, devise, feign,” originally “to knead, form out of clay,” from PIE *dheigh- “to build, form, knead” (source also of Old English dag “dough;” see dough).

Meaning “prose works (not dramatic) of the imagination” is from 1590s, at first often including plays and poems. Narrower sense of “the part of literature comprising novels and short stories based on imagined scenes or characters” is by early 19c. The legal sense (fiction of law) is from 1580s. A writer of fiction could be a fictionist (1827). The related Latin words included the literal notion “worked by hand,” as well as the figurative senses of “invented in the mind; artificial, not natural”: Latin fictilis “made of clay, earthen;” fictor “molder, sculptor” (also borrowed 17c. in English), but also of Ulysses as “master of deceit;” fictum “a deception, falsehood; fiction.”

Other examples are the famous Greek poems, The Iliad and Odyssey by Homer, written in around the 8th century BC, as well as more recent iconic works: Inferno by Dante, Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, Paradise Lost by John Milton and poems such as Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Don Juan by Lord Byron.

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo c. 1773

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo c. 1773

These days we have novels, plays, radio, film and television; stories are much more varied and widely dispersed through a substantial range of media, but the structure of a story is still crucial to its popularity, longevity and influence.

It was only a matter of time before our beloved Jane Austen would be infiltrated by zombies!!

Fiction is essentially a rhetorical art – which means that the author or novelist persuades us to share a certain view of the world for the duration of the reading experience, effecting, when successful, that rapt immersion in an imagined reality that Edward John Poynter captured so well in his painting of a lady reading.


“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” ~ Albert Camus

In order to spin a good yarn one’s mind has to wander off the beaten path, it has to transcend time and space, as well as purvey these mental time travels in a way that will entertain and educate. To make a living from mind wandering is a noble calling, but it’s not as easy as one might think.

Fiction cannot be a meandering set of scenes that don’t flow on to create a cohesive, compelling story and fail to pull us into that fictive dream. I wrote down the definition of a story I found really helpful from a creative writing webinar:

A story is a single, unavoidable, external problem that grows, escalates and complicates, forcing the protagonist to make an internal change in order to solve it.

We all have books that stayed with us long after we turned the last page – because the changes that the protagonist went through and the obstacles they overcame resonated with similar emotions or circumstances in our own lives. It took us on a meaningful journey.

“Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.” ~ Clive James

A great talk by Lisa Cron – Wired for story. I love that she calls storytelling a superpower hiding in plain sight:

Moral values can be reinforced through the medium of crime fiction for example, where readers can travel through time, (thanks to Arthur Conan Doyle) with the likes of the analytical and unsentimental Sherlock Holmes into other people’s minds and motivations to encounter danger and intrigue and solve a mystery.

Charles Dickens’ stories provide a vivid insight into 19th century London and the often dystopian conditions the poor lived in. Except his fiction was drawn from reality. His theme was social commentary. Dickens was the first novelist to pioneer the serialisation of novels, leaving readers to eagerly anticipate his next book.

“We read so that we know we are not alone.” ~ C.S. Lewis teaching in Shadowlands

Some of our society’s best loved stories were created from pure fantasy, such as Star Wars, and you might think that it can only serve purely as entertainment and to escape the every day drudgery of life. I’ll let you in on a secret: there have been times when I doubted myself and had to mentally give myself a pep talk and tell myself that the force is with me!

Studies show that fiction increases empathy and improves mind-reading, making us better able to understand others. There is scientific evidence that the architecture of our brains is hardwired for story because it gives us context, emotion and feeling.


We can thank Aristotle for his erudition on the structure for engaging and memorable stories; namely an emotional connection to the main character and pity over the situation they did not deserve, keeping them reading through worsening situations, obstacles and jeopardy that they now fear from the central conflict, driving them to the conclusion and catharsis, the emotional payoff, the happiness drug that is literally released by the brain when struggle has been overcome, perhaps as fulfilling as some other recreational activities!

“Brain-imaging has shown overlap between areas of the brain activated by reading narrative stories and those involved in theory of mind. One study measured the amount of fiction and non-fiction that people read, and found that empathy was correlated positively with the amount of fiction read, but negatively with the amount of non-fiction. Another study carried the headline ‘Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.'”  ~ Michael C. Corballis

For me, writing and being creative is a combination of mind wandering and focus, and equally reading can set off ideas and mind wandering.

The telling of stories is unique to mankind, allowing us to expand our mental and emotional lives to unlimited horizons. Storytelling is the imaginary portal between our past, present and our future.


“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ~ Philip Pullman

Austenland on my Doorstep

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’  This keen observation from Jane Austen is universally acknowledged as the brilliantly articulate opening line to the classic romantic novel Pride and Prejudice. It was first published in 1813, and over two hundred years later it remains one of the most popular novels ever written. I am no Jane Austen aficionado, but I do admire her greatly.

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

reflection of Dashwood HouseFor all her wit and wisdom, her fertile imagination and her publishing success, especially during a time when women were considered soft furnishings in men’s establishments – Jane Austen had to endure her own personal heartbreak.  If only she could have known how she would come to be so adored in every corner of the 21st century world, by those still blessed with a romantic heart and a thirst for understanding human foibles.

I ponder what it is about her writing that has made her such an icon of British literature. Certainly her prose is beautiful and her insights into affairs of the heart erudite. Her heroines are willful, passionate and intelligent (women after her own heart), and her settings are magnificent, and to a large extent from her own world. Love is in the air, but only after an interminable amount of suffering, heart ache and introspection on the part of her vividly drawn characters; before being fully realised and experienced as a happy ever after.

Her true story is both inspiring and tragic.  However, we will return to reality a little later on.

view of West Wycombe ParkThe reason for my sudden Austen mania is that I’ve just watched ‘Austenland’ on Sky Movies. It was released in 2013, and filmed entirely on location at the Dashwood Estate, West Wycombe Park – only five minutes from my house.  I ask myself, how could I not know this was happening? I would have been down there like a shot, gate crashing the crew.

Emily and RubyI did however, take my girls there in February this year to explore Lady Dashwood’s snowdrop trail. We had a ball, and the grounds are every bit as beautiful as portrayed in the film. I took rather a lot of pictures, which I have scattered throughout this post. The Music Temple on the island in the lake is the image for my current header.

Austen has inspired no less than 21 movies and television miniseries, here are just a few of my favourites in order of preference:

  • Pride and Prejudice – the stunning 2005 film adaptation by Joe Wright starring Keira Knightly as the spirited Elizabeth & Matthew Macfadyen as the brooding Mr Darcy (and a gorgeous piano soundtrack by Dario Marianelli). I have watched this version no fewer than five times.
  • The 1995 P&P miniseries with Colin Firth as the dashing but aloof Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as the charming Elizabeth.
  • The ITV drama Lost in Austen with Jemima Rooper, Elliot Cowan and Hugh Bonneville combined old with new in a wonderful twist on P&P.
  • Death Comes to Pemberley – the continuation of the P&P story was penned by P.D. James and, quite frankly I doubt whether any other author would have been up to the task of continuing Austen’s legacy. The BBC adaptation was also superb.
  • Sense & Sensibility – the 1995 Ang Lee film features Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet as the hard done by Dashwood sisters with Hugh Grant, Greg Wise and Alan Rickman cast as the main men of the story.  In fact, it’s an all-star cast, totally sumptuous, heart breaking and visceral.
  • Emma – Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller are fabulous in this tale of mischief and matchmaking.
  • Becoming Jane – with Ann Hathaway as the feisty author and James McAvoy as her one-time love Thomas Langlois Lefroy.

Ruby at the houseUnfortunately Austenland isn’t in the same league as the above adaptations, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it does have a marvellous setting for the lonely Jane Austen obsessed protagonist to lose herself in: namely a palladian and neo classical style house and gardens as the backdrop for her copper package regency experience, complete with stereotype actors paid to romance her in the manner of a bygone era.

swanWest Wycombe Park was built between 1740 and 1800 and was home to Sir Francis Dashwood 2nd Baronet, a notorious and licentious English politician and founder of the Hellfire Club.

List of TV programmes & movies shot at West Wycombe Park

The estate is now run by the National Trust.

And now, if you’ve got this far, thank you for having the patience to bear with me! Let’s delve into the fate of the lady who started it all – Jane Austen.

I visited her home/museum in the village of Chawton in Hampshire a couple of years ago; it is wonderfully preserved much as it would have been in Jane’s day. She began living there in 1809. The museum contains lots of information about her day to day life, her devotion to her sister, her letters to her brothers, wider family and friends, excerpts of her hand written manuscripts and personal items.

Sadly, Jane’s own love for trainee barrister Thomas Lefroy was not to result in marriage, as his family did not approve of the match. They never saw each other again and Jane died a spinster aged a paltry 41 years of age. Had she married Lefroy it is almost certain we would not have benefitted from the rich literary legacy she created from a life dedicated to writing. She is buried in the north aisle of the nave at Winchester Cathedral. There are many suppositions as to the cause of her death, which range from Addisons Disease, to bovine Tuberculosis to Brill-Zinsser disease, a recurrent form of Typhus (which Jane had as a child).

Wonderful interview with author P.D. James about her Jane Austen sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley:

‘But for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.’  ~ Jane Austen