If it’s common now for men and women to be friends, why do we so rarely see it in popular culture? Partly, it’s a narrative problem. Friendship isn’t courtship. It doesn’t have a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories about friendships of any kind are relatively rare, especially given what a huge place the relationships have in our lives.

William Deresiewicz. Alexander Nehamas talks about this in his Philosophy Bites interview (also in the book):

It is close to impossible, for example, to recognize that a painting depicts two (or more) friends without a title to that effect or some similar literary artifice or allusion. The reason is that friends can be doing anything together and no single event is ever enough to indicate the presence of friendship.

He goes on to make useful analogies with the arts in general. You come to know a friend like you recognize a painter’s style: you can’t predict them necessarily, but you can see how things fit the pattern, once the friendship has “time to develop in the first place and time to flourish.” There’s also the idea that friends, and art, are things we use to become our individual, differentiated ourselves. Like Deresiewicz said elsewhere,

Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person.

Via Matt Thomas’ weekly NYT Digest, for which I am always grateful.

Real life is messy. And as a general rule, the more theatrical the story you hear, and the more it divides the world into goodies vs baddies, the less reliable that story is going to be. […] One of the central problems with narrative nonfiction is that the best narratives aren’t messy and complicated, while nonfiction nearly always is.

Felix Salmon. I was so glad to see this article this afternoon. I just created my life is messy tag last night. (via)

Art is cognitive play. Humans and other intelligent species engage in prolonged periods of physical play as children—mock combat, feats of balance and coordination—in order to train themselves to deal with situations they will face as adults. Art, beginning with the songs of mothers and infants, trains our minds. Cognition is, first and foremost, pattern recognition, and art is concentrated pattern. But humans are also intensely social animals—the source of our evolutionary success—and the life of small human groups, as primate studies suggest (and everyday experience confirms), requires a constant effort of social cognition: eye contact, shared attention, awareness of status hierarchies, sensitivity to what others may be feeling, intending, discovering, believing. That’s where storytelling comes in.

Louis CK Q&A – JonahWeiner.com

Well, this is awesome. (via) Here we have an edited transcript of Jonah Weiner’s interview with Louis CK that was used for the Rolling Stone profile last fall. Lots of good stuff here. Here’s Louis CK on the importance of those early failures and growing experiences:

Stand-up, I didn’t know what that was going to feel like. I guess I thought it would feel like it does in TV shows or movies: they’re going to laugh. That’s part of it, right? You tell a joke and then they laugh. It has this feel to it that I knew, and boy, when you realize how wrong you are, that’s a fucking cold slap in the face. I think that’s true of anybody’s first time. […] You need to enter stand-up with that cold slap in the face, or you’ll never really understand what you’re doing.

This next part rang really true for me. I thought for a long time that I was headed to grad school right after college, but each fall afterward I just couldn’t bring myself to do the paperwork. That’s me sending myself a message. CK on resisting college and keeping a day job while he chased his dreams (cf. Steve Reich):

An old teacher of mine got me an interview at NYU film school, and I brought all these videos I’d made, and photographs, a portfolio – I’d gotten into photography and stuff, and they said that they would accept me to go to film school. So I quit my job with that in mind, and I’d been doing stand-up, but not well or successfully, and then I never filled in – I got these forms from this guy to fill in, on the floor of my apartment somewhere, but I couldn’t get my brain to…I was supposed to go back to my high school and get my transcripts, and the idea of doing all that, just that paperwork – going to NYU film school was this dream come true for me, but I couldn’t fill out the thing, couldn’t fill it out and go to the Xerox machine and put a stamp on an envelope, all that stuff. It made me want to vomit. That sort of thing has always been the case for me, I can’t get that done. That’s why I have an assistant. Now if I just dream up shit I want to do, I have her to take care of it.

So I decided, “Fuck it, I’m a comedian. I’m just going to do that, I’m going to stay in Boston.” That’s when I worked at the garage. I stopped working at local-access cable. I drove a cab for a while. I started taking shitty jobs so I could do stand-up, I didn’t want an all-encompassing job. I liked that, I just liked having dead-end jobs and doing stand-up. I thought, “Fuck it, that’s what I’m going to try to do.” I had an instinct that if I just kept hammering it and hammering it, I had a head start on people, I was very young, and I was resilient, I didn’t mind living stupidly, I wasn’t anxious about making a living, just played it close to the bottom for a long time, and I knew how to do that, it didn’t bother me. I liked the freedom, I didn’t have a job-job, I’m not working for a company, I’m not going to a school, I live on my own.

And, wow, on the typical sitcom plot:

With a lot of these shows, I know what’s going on, and I think the audience does, too. Here comes the part where they’re going to walk in the door while the credits are still rolling. They’re going to trade quick barbs, “What did you do?” “I went to the store to get a coffee and they had the Michael J. Fox coffee today, so they spilled it.” “Oh, ha ha ha.” “What happened to you today?” Kind of inconsequential jokes. Joke, joke, joke, then somebody goes, “Somebody was here to ask you about this” – here comes the story, and it gets quiet, and then, “Oh, I can’t go, because I have this thing,” “He’s only in town for one day,” and now we’re laying pipe and it’s getting quiet. “What are you going to do about that?” “I don’t know,” because here’s a joke about the character that is an outside world joke or observational joke, and then the blow, the big fucking blow to get out of the scene – you have to have a blow, a big enough laugh, and it’s something really contrived: people sat there in the writer’s room, fucking eating fast food and going, “Where’s the blow for this scene, I want to go home.”

Then here comes the funny character, the guest star, who’s in town, and we find out what the lead character hates about him, and then there’s the guy, the character, that carries all the jokes. He says dumb things and keeps it going, there’s this energy, he’s like a circuit or something, just does this one thing. […] So there’s a guy on every show that does that, he has his one way, he has his variety, about eight different joke formulas, and you refill them with different stuff. He’s either the dumb guy or, like, Lisa Kudrow’s character on Friends or whatever. “I thought coffee was from Brazil.” “Ugh, no the guy’s name is Coffee. He’s from Italy.” Garbage like that. Then you start building the story, then you go away on an act break. Then you build a third act that just is the train wreck of not really much fun, but it pays everything off, it leaves everybody feeling exactly the same way they left, that they felt before the show started. That’s what shows are meant to do, is leave on par and leave a few jokes behind, to be printed in Entertainment Weekly’s sound bites.

On kids and growing up:

Having kids, you don’t escape from it, you seize onto it, it’s a big, stressful, exhilarating, real life thing. And it’s permanent, it’s something that you have to evolve for. Some people don’t, but I think you have to actually change your values system, and you have to revolutionize yourself in order to do it properly, because kids can’t raise kids, and I think you’re somewhat a kid until you have them, then you really have to grow up.

Lastly on being in control, experimenting, being wrong, being interesting:

I’m not a dictator, because I’m not in control of anything, I’m just deciding what to try. To me, it’s not that I control a bunch of people, it’s just that nobody controls me. There’s nothing above me except responsibility to the product. That’s the ultimate responsibility, is if the show sucks, then what was the fucking point of being in charge? I’m right about these things on the show, and when I’m not, it’s interesting to watch me be wrong. I don’t think you have to be perfect, you just have to be compelling in the work you do.

Louis CK Q&A – JonahWeiner.com

[Transcript] Tyler Cowen on Stories – Less Wrong Discussion

I’ve long thought of Cowen’s talk as a must-listen and listened to it multiple times. And now it’s been transcribed. And thus, a must-read. Filed under: storytelling.

Stories, to work, have to be simple, easily grasped, easily told to others, easily remembered. So stories will serve dual and conflicting purposes, and very often they will lead us astray.

[Transcript] Tyler Cowen on Stories – Less Wrong Discussion

Does cheater deserve a second chance? – Carolyn Hax – The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax tumbles are going to become a regular feature here. On the dangers of storytelling:

My advice is to discard whatever narrative you’re tempted to superimpose on yourself, your boyfriend, your relationship and whatever else, and just live by the reality you have in hand. That means recognizing that your partner is a temptation-wrestler or birthday-forgetter or stress-eater or emotion-bottler or whatever other trait just isn’t going away, no matter how much better life would be if it did. And it means choosing to stay with someone only if you can see these things as the price of a life that suits you well, not as temporary obstacles to some imaginary better life.

Does cheater deserve a second chance? – Carolyn Hax – The Washington Post

The confidence that people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence, it is not a judgment of the quality of the evidence but it is a judgment of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.

Misinformation in TV Drama Gains Credibility Over Time – Miller-McCune

New research finds we’re more likely to believe a piece of false information conveyed in a television drama after two weeks have passed.

Okay yeah yeah yeah you can find any number of things “a recent study” will tell you. But I like this because it makes me think of Tyler Cowen’s talk on being suspicious of stories, which I have listened to probably 6 or 7 times and will do so again starting… now. (via)

Misinformation in TV Drama Gains Credibility Over Time – Miller-McCune

I was on the streets for more than half of my life from the time I was thirteen years old. People sometimes say that now I’m so far away from that life–now that I’ve got businesses and Grammys and magazine covers–that I have no right to rap about it. But how distant is the story of your own life ever going to be?

Before we learned to tell stories, we learned to read them. In other words, we learned to track. The first letter of the first word of the first recorded story was written–“printed”–not by us, but by an animal. These signs and symbols left in mud, sand, leaves, and snow represent proto-alphabets. Often smeared, fragmented, and confused by weather, time, and other animals, these cryptograms were life-and-death exercises in abstract thinking. […] The notion that it was animals who taught us to read may seem counterintuitive, but listening to skilled hunters analyze tiger sign is not that different from listening to literature majors deconstruct a short story. Both are sorting through minutiae, down to the specific placement and inflection of individual elements, in order to determine motive, subtext, and narrative arc.

John Vaillant in his excellent book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. Great storytelling and lots to learn about tigers and Russia. I also liked this bit:

Evidence suggests that the reason tigers and their kind continue to capture our attention is because, over time, this has proven the most effective way to prevent them from capturing us. Maybe this is why it is impossible not to wonder what Markov and Khomenko saw and felt in their last moments–an experience so aberrant and alien to us, and yet strangely, deeply familiar: there is a part of us that still needs to know.