On Origin Stories

Another semester, another series of blog posts. This new set tagged ENGL 3834 is for Intercultural Issues in Professional Writing, so expect to see a lot of writing on race, class, gender, power, and privilege in the context of communications. It’s gonna be heavy but interesting stuff, and I’m looking forward to the kind of conversations it will generate.

This week’s topic: origin stories, including our own. Whether you’re talking about superheroes or scientific principles, backstory is essential to put a person or a series of events in context. History is a kind of road map that explains why things are as they are today, and oftentimes it’s best to start as close to the beginning as you can.

Here’s my take on that.

1.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 13.8 billion years ago, there was nothing, until very suddenly there was something, which exploded outwards to form everything. Everything was, at the beginning, a chaotic sea of atoms which, herded together by gravity and electromagnetism, started to gradually form larger and more complex ways of organizing themselves. Some groups got so large and dense and hot they became stars, while other smaller groups became planets, and as those stars and planets settled into the dance the fundamental forces wrote for them. On some of these planets, chemicals near a hydrothermal vent or soupy pool catalyzed by lightning decided to get together and make something of themselves. Atoms organized into molecules, molecules into cells, cells into organs, and organs into living creatures. Some of those living creatures self-organized into what we know as people, and then into tribes, and then into cultures, until we land back in the present, where we find an individual sitting at their computer, thinking about where they came from and how they could even begin to answer that question.

This person knows they are a close cousin of violets, viruses, and vultures, and that the computer they’re typing this piece on is powered by electrical impulses and mostly made of carbon, same as them. When it comes down to it, this person thinks, everything has the same origin story if you look back far enough, which kind of makes this a family history, right?

And that, they think, is pretty cool.

2.

Asking me where I’m from will earn you different answers on different days. I was born in Detroit, grew up in the suburbs of Charlotte, NC, return to Ohio on holiday breaks, and spend most of my year in Blacksburg. I’ve lived in a tiny town in southern Switzerland and with a pack of marine researchers on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. I’ve taken enough road trips that I measure I-75 by landmarks rather than by miles, and I’ve done enough flying that all airports are a kind of home. I cannot point to any one of these and say here, this is where I come from.  I am, I suppose, a sum total of all these places, and all the other places in between. Points of origin are harder to define than I had thought.

3. 

There are thousands of origin stories in a single person’s life: what set them on their career path, how they came to convert to a new religion, an accident that changed their outlook, what made them want to be a writer. Which of these, exactly, were you looking for?