About Writers, inspiration, writing technique

Need To Know Basis

James Tiptree, Jr. — aka Alice Sheldon — wrote a story back in 1974 called “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.” It’s a tale about memory. Scenes from a life play out one after another: a boy on his first duck hunt, failing miserably; a young man in his first, eager sexual encounter, failing miserably; a man back from war proposing, finally, to the woman he loves, failing miserably…you get the idea. Framing this jumbled litany of humiliation and disappointment is the gradual realization that all of these memories are playing out in a sort of repeating loop, observed by — perhaps even instigated by — some unknown presence: alien researchers perhaps? Or even just alien sightseers, feeding on the memories of the long gone inhabitants of a dead world? Because the earth is dead, a burnt out cinder. All that remains are memories. 

But — and here’s the gut punch — the only memories left are unpleasant ones. Only the horrible stuff, incidents our protagonist would rather forget. Instead, he gets to live them out again and again.

A hellacious vision. Thanks, Alli.

But still, a fascinating premise. Sad memories, painful memories, seem to have a disproportional staying power. Enjoyable memories can linger as well, but they are less vivid, less intrusive. It seems like we have to go looking for those, we have to coax them to the surface. But deeply unpleasant memories find us. We have no idea when they might swim into sudden focus. It’s like they’re always lurking in the shadows, just around the next corner.

There’s a good reason, of course, why we would be predisposed, genetically, to have a better memory for the unpleasant things. After all, unpleasant things are often dangerous things, and it’s an adaptive advantage to avoid danger. If a situation feels unpleasantly familiar, you’ll tend to shy away from it and not repeat it. As for joyous memories of good times, well, it’s nice to remember them, but it’s not usually a matter of life or death. Lack of joy might kill you in the long run, but it’s only a gradual death and it won’t necessarily interfere with your ability to pass on your genetic code. 

But danger? That can kill you right now, the immediate termination of your particular configuration of base pairs. So we avoid unpleasantness. It’s baked in, a survival skill.

And to avoid it, we have to recognize it. We have to remember. If I were an alien, researching the former dominant species of an extinct planet, I might focus on exactly that: what drove their worst memories? What were they so afraid of?


So how does this concept relate to stories? Does this predisposition explain why we have such an appetite for tragedy, for conflict-driven narratives? Such a fascination with crime and horror and dystopian futures? Could be. I’d admit that there are other factors. Catharsis plays into it — and the guilty thrill we might feel at experiencing someone else’s misery while knowing it isn’t our own. But it isn’t hard to see how these pleasures might have their roots in the original preoccupation. Suffering fascinates us because it’s important to our survival. We rubberneck the freeway accident because, at some level, we know that could be us. 

And if it might kill us, we need to know about it. 


Footnote:  It feels worth mentioning that some of our most persistent personal memories are of rejection and humiliation, which might not correlate directly with situations of danger or physical threat. We don’t, as a rule, die of embarrassment. But being rejected or humiliated, at least publicly, can be correlated with social ostracism, which could be almost as bad as death. In terms of passing your genetic material on to the next generation, it could be exactly as bad as death. The process of natural selection really doesn’t put a priority on our happiness. It’s only concerned with us surviving long enough to procreate. 


Another Footnote: I would accept that being joyless might be a hindrance to finding companionship and a partner for procreation. But this seems to me a very modern view of our mating relationships. While romance isn’t very new, it’s pretty new compared to our time as a species, and there’s good reason to believe that marriage probably developed more as a practical arrangement and didn’t necessarily require having a winning personality or a great outlook on life. Fortunately, we’ve progressed beyond that point, mostly — but that’s a subject for another time.



16 thoughts on “Need To Know Basis

  1. GD Deckard says:

    Good points, Atthys. Bad things happen in life. And sad, unpleasant, painful memories help us to avoid that which caused them. Happiness, on the other hand, is a pursuit.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Atthys: So glad to see a new blog post from you! And referencing one of my favorite writers: Alice B. Sheldon.

    For those of you who don’t know, Alice Sheldon—who published under the masculine pseudonym of James Tiptree Jr.–turned the science fiction world on its head in the late 60s and early-to-mid 70s with a series of unflinching, tautly written tales that . . . well, let WIKI instruct us:

    Many of her stories have a milieu reminiscent of the space opera and pulp tales she read in her youth, but typically with a much darker tone: the cosmic journeys of her characters are often linked to a drastic spiritual alienation, and/or a transcendent experience which brings fulfillment but also death. John Clute, noting Tiptree’s “inconsolable complexities of vision”, concluded that “It is very rarely that a James Tiptree story does not both deal directly with death and end with a death of the spirit, or of all hope, or of the race.


    Alice B. Sheldon, writing under the pseudonym Raccoona Sheldon (black-masked Sheldon: we get it, now) penned one of the most lacerating, ferocious, and angry tales I have ever read addressing the theme of male violence against women: “The Screwfly Solution”.


    I would also highly recommend the bio James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. (I have written of the book elsewhere on this site, so won’t repeat myself now.)


    But back to your larger point:

    “But danger? That can kill you right now, the immediate termination of your particular configuration of base pairs. So we avoid unpleasantness. It’s baked in, a survival skill.”

    Indeed! How many of us are aware that the “mystery” of dream content has been solved—in fact, has been staring us right in the face all along, so obvious that most have overlooked it in favor of more exotic theorizing on the nature of wish fulfillment, random hallucinatory visions, ego-centric lurid escapism, etc. (Please note: I am not referring here to the well-known regulatory/physically refreshing aspects of sleep; that has been well understood for a century or more. I am referring to the dream content itself.) To put it directly: dreaming is the mind’s virtual reality chamber, in which we routinely practice fight-or-flight strategies that aid us in our waking hours. When tracked on a statistical basis—for instance, people awakened under laboratory conditions whilst experiencing REM sleep—the preponderance of people’s dream experiences concern heated verbal altercations, fighting, fleeing, etc. In a word: conflict.

    To cite but one source for this theory: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dream-catcher/201411/dreams-virtual-reality-simulations

    Re: “So how does this concept relate to stories? Does this predisposition explain why we have such an appetite for tragedy, for conflict-driven narratives? Such a fascination with crime and horror and dystopian futures? Could be. I’d admit that there are other factors. Catharsis plays into it — and the guilty thrill we might feel at experiencing someone else’s misery while knowing it isn’t our own. But it isn’t hard to see how these pleasures might have their roots in the original preoccupation. Suffering fascinates us because it’s important to our survival. We rubberneck the freeway accident because, at some level, we know that could be us.

    And if it might kill us, we need to know about it.”

    I think you’re on to something there, friend Atthys. If I were to try and formulate a theory on the necessity and centrality of fiction in all our lives (And I do mean all: for do not even the most unliterary amongst us devour movies and television, radio plays, narrative songs, etc.?) it would go something like this: We are entranced by fiction because we are story-telling creatures. Ask someone how they are doing, what happened last night—week—month—year: they will oftentimes launch immediately into story. And what is the engine of story? Conflict. What sustains our interest in story? Suspense as to how the conflict will be resolved.

    I don’t think the theory of catharsis has much credibility anymore (re: long-lasting psychological impact re: the diminution of violent impulses), save as an English Lit. definition of what the temporary relief of tension built up by story-telling art and artifice is properly termed. However, I think you are on to something when you remark on our fascination with “rubber-necking”: that seemingly perverse compulsion to gawk at gory crime and accident scenes in life, as well as art. But after all, bearing witness serves an educational function: This is how it happens—this is what it looks, smells, sounds, feels, tastes like—this is reality.

    Thus we learn. . . .

    Liked by 4 people

    • victoracquista says:

      Carl, you have once again offered worthwhile and stimulating comments and insights. My response to Atthys represents the questions provoked in response to both of your thoughts and observations. Much to ponder…

      Liked by 3 people

  3. mimispeike says:


    I’ve had two pieces sitting in ‘Drafts’ for weeks. Is that not the way to submit? (Didn’t it used to be?) Somebody clue me in.


      • mimispeike says:

        Yeah, I goofed up. I put it in ‘Drafts’, but under ‘Pages’ not under ‘Posts’. I have it under ‘Posts’ now.

        I just added the last couple paragraphs to my last chapter of story. The chapter’s long, 2500 words. Do you recommend I post it here, or part of it? I’m so excited! Done, for all intents and purposes. I have to think my way through an issue with italics. I’m researching it now but have come to no conclusion. Then I finish up the cover and I’m done.

        Maybe folks here could help with the italics?


  4. victoracquista says:

    Thank you, Atthys for a thought provoking post. A random tune into the news or scroll down a news feed and the balance between bad news and good news seems disproportionately in favor of negative. Is this what we crave or is this what we have been conditioned to accept as “normal”?
    One could argue, as Tolstoy eloquently stated, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Is the happy (good) just a little mundane and boring and consequently not interesting enough to write about?
    I don’t know the answer to these questions, but these are where my mind meanders in processing your post. Part of me wonders how the disposition of writers and readers plays a part in what is written and read. Are we collectively more prone to think about the negative more than the positive, the half empty portion of the glass? What does the standard distribution curve of “level of happiness” tell us about what books, stories, news items, etc. we are likely to consume? How does the distribution and consumption of “bad” or “negative” content affect that distribution curve? Do we remember the bad stuff because it is somehow being reinforced disproportionately or is this the currency by which we exchange personal narratives and such currency has value and meaning (at least more so than the good stuff)?
    I think Carl’s comments about our nature as story-tellers, conflict, and conflict resolution are very insightful.
    “Think on these things…”

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Great post, Atthys. We are story-telling (and story-liking) creatures because we give a narrative to our own lives, which gives us a sense of continuity and identity. But when it’s not about our own lives, we’re mostly drawn to stories of conflict and danger, preferably overcome at the end. A story where two people meet and buy a nice house and live happily ever after? Hard one to write, that. And yes, I think your explanation is spot on. Like fear, it’s hard-wired in for the purpose of survival. If we weren’t afraid, we’d just go back to sleep and be dinner for a sabre-toothed tiger.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. DocTom says:

    Very enjoyable post and discussion. But let me add a cynic’s take on this. First, I don’t deny the possibility of things being hardwired into us. Adolescent males (at least those of the nerd persuasion) often dream of gloriously taking one for the team (dying a glorious death to save others), and this has been related to adolescent male baboons being forced to the periphery of the troop (thereby being first to be invited to dinner by lions, jackals, etc.). This, of course, parallels the alternative of drawing the sword from the stone and gloriously leading the group to success (I love to mix metaphors!). In either case, through success by self-sacrifice or leadership, the individual rises to the level of hero (as often happens in story telling). But the other side of the coin is the simple fact that seeing others suffer often gives us a sense of superiority. (That person had an accident, but I didn’t because I’m the better driver.) It’s often also delicious to savor the (perceived) deserved suffering of others (again, because we’re much better).
    And to put it simply, the nice stuff is boring! (Consider the following: everyone’s read Dante’s Inferno, but few read the Paradiso. I rest my case.).

    Liked by 4 people

    • Glad to see you checking in, Tom! Riffing on your point: sociologists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists have noted the curious, seemingly contradictory tug of two different sets of hard-wired traits. One set of traits we might deem “the light side”–the impulse toward self-sacrifice for the betterment of others, a high degree of empathy, metacognition, etc. The other is “the dark triad”: traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Dynamic tension (sociologically speaking) and cognitive dissonance (psychologically speaking) is created between the “light side” traits, which allow for one society and culture to triumph over another, and the “dark side” traits, which favor the survival of the individual. A continual struggle is thus played out between these forces: both on Battlefield Earth and within our evolving DNA.

      (A fascinating side note re: “cognitive dissonance” made by Yuval Noah Harari in his book, A Brief History of Humankind: “Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture. (emphasis mine)

      Liked by 2 people

  7. atthysgage says:

    Hey folks. Thanks for reading and chiming in. Sorry I’m so late to the party. I was out of town for the last three days or so. I find the theme of Tiptree’s story resonates with me because I am always so acutely aware of my most unpleasant memories. I assume we all have our own personal thresholds for this, but I have vivid memories of embarrassing or painful events from 50 years ago, but very few of joyful moments. I know they were there, but they mostly seem to have melted into wallpaper. They don’t mean that much to me. But some incident from elementary school can still sting me like it just happened yesterday. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever seems to be suggesting that these are the events that really define who we are. These are the tent-post memories of our personalities. It’s not a very pleasant picture. She never specifies who is watching these memories (of even for certain that anybody is) but it’s clear that this hypothetical “they” has identified these as the defining elements of experience.

    Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think we all experience the whip-lash burn of guilt and shame from private memories of personal failures, especially those that occurred in our youth. I would note the happy facts that (1) you are literally a different person now, biologically and cognitively speaking, (2) a person is not fully cognitively developed until age 25, (3) these memories do indeed have survival value, (4) the happy memories are there, too–you just have to dig deeper for them!, and (5) if you didn’t have any such painful memories of shame and guilt, you would be a functioning clinical psychopath or sociopath.

      I’ll take my sane, decent, possibly guilt-tormented Atthys over madman Atthys any day, heh!

      PS. A possible epiphany and question: Might it be that relatively pleasant memories of personal success, triumph, or accomplishment are harder to recall than guilt and shame because if it were otherwise we might fall prey to the dark-triad trait of narcissism: over-weaning, unfounded, unearned self-regard, which could cripple us, socially? Considered in this light, shame and guilt are goads that drive us to work alongside others ever-mindful of “pack” judgments and opinions, and our productive place in the pecking order (if you’ll forgive the alliteration). Of course, this is not always a positive thing! After all, what good is a “good nazi”, morally speaking, howsoever productive, other-focused, self-sacrificing? Society as a whole–its actions determined by its value judgments, codified laws, and moral reasoning (or appalling lack thereof)–bears the weight and responsibility for much that is expressed on an individual level in the way of either comity or enmity toward others.

      Liked by 3 people

      • atthysgage says:

        Carl. I think the notion of our own predilections being driven by societally acceptable behavior is a good one. An interesting paradox. At some level, all of our impulses are self-serving (or self-preserving), but once we began banding together into larger societal units, fitting in to those units became an imperative to survival, which sometimes meant putting our more selfish impulses at odds with what preserved the society. Over the course of millennia, we become so attuned to those societal imperatives that they become as natural to us as our more “primitive” impulses. I see it happen in my family dog, who desperately wants to go chase the deer but wants, even more desperately, to establish and maintain his place in our pack.

        As far as sociopathy goes, yup, I’ll take the tormented conscience any day. Perhaps it does make cowards of us all, but it’s better than the chaos of the howling darkness. I assume.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. It’s an anthropological commonplace that over the millenia we have domesticated ourselves, by weeding out the would-be alphas (people – mostly male – who throw their weight around in forager societies get two warnings and are then killed by the band). Cooperation, togetherness is a defining human trait (again – put 50 chimpanzees on a plane and you would pour a bloody mess on to the tarmac at the end of the flight). Yet our stories go against this, with their noble heroes/heroines, dominant figures winning out against/over the backdrop herd. Is this a counter-movement or a born of some Jungian nostalgia?

    Liked by 2 people

    • atthysgage says:

      Intriguing question. For which I do not have an answer. Jungian nostalgia would be my hope. I do not think hero culture is the best fit for the future of the planet. But I’d rather we keep asking ourselves these questions rather than accepting either as a settled answer. Some of my characters do some pretty heroic things, but for the most part, they do not go willingly into that fray.

      Liked by 1 person

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