Have you ever had one of those strange dreams, where you’re, say, in an airport, trying to catch your plane, but before you can catch your plane, you first need to show them not a boarding pass, but an accordion?
So the next thing you know you’re in some strange city (e.g. Amsterdam) trying to find an accordion, but then this cute little dog comes up to you and instead of yapping, starts chattering on about Star Trek reruns? And on and on it goes, getting stranger by the minute, and all you wanted to do was catch your flight.
Congratulations. You now know where the structure of one of our civilization’s greatest books, and its literary descendants comes from. When you dream, you’re basically cosplaying The Odyssey and larping Odysseus.
Odysseus is just a normal guy trying to get home to his wife and kid, but the gods keep messing with him, turning a normally two-week journey into a ten-year “odyssey,” hence the name.
Storytelling is not just something we do to keep children entertained or sell movie tickets. It’s an ability we’ve evolved over millions of years to solve problems.
That’s why Joseph Campbell’s famous “Hero’s Journey/Monomyth” in all its forms is invariably about the protagonist landing in trouble, getting out of said trouble, and growing as a person in the process. It’s teaching the receiver of the story how to solve problems, be they practical, moral, romantic, existential, etc.
This is basically the point of Jonathan Gottschall’s 2012 book, “The Storytelling Animal.”
We dream all the time, which usually involves some type of problem to work through. And not only at night. According to Gottschall, we have around a thousand daydreams a day, each lasting an average of fourteen seconds. That’s four hours a day.
And those daydreams are where our biggest ideas come from, whether we’re talking about the Great American Novel we wrote or in Einstein’s case, the Theory of Relativity.
In fact, our whole reality is based on stories. How you hold your fork at a fancy restaurant tells a story. How the receptionist in your office treats your visitors tells a story. How you price your company’s newest widget tells a story. Your motivation for starting the company in the first place is most definitely a story. Origin stories are called “Creation Myths” for a reason.
We all have these amazing inner lives. And storytelling is not only about teaching us how to confront life’s difficulties, it’s how we hold the vast amount of information about the world together in our heads.