At least twenty years after their appearance in pop culture, or intelligentsia culture, I discovered memes. Huh? Richard Brodie’s seminal book The Virus of the Mind, despite its rather intentionally sensational title, is the study of the meme. He gives appropriate credit to the word’s originator, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins (in The Selfish Gene, 1976).
According to Dawkins, a meme (rhymes with dream) “is the basic unit of cultural transmission, or imitation” (Brodie, p. 27). In fact, the word stems from the Greek mīmēma, imitative thing. Brodie aims for a larger definition: a “meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds” (p. 32).
Translation: Like genes biologically transmitted, memes are culturally transmitted verbally, visually, behaviorally, even osmotically, through words, phrases, catch-phrases, statements, lyrics, melodies, ideas, philosophies, truisms, styles of anything (clothes, cars, buildings) . . . . Memes aren’t necessarily facts, although they can be grounded in them. Or nonfacts, like racial or gender stereotypes and prejudices. With the Internet, of course, the velocity and replication of transmission become that much faster and far-reaching.
In fact, starting this piece, I was shocked to see a home page headline, “New Beyoncé Meme Threatens To Take Over The Web” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/06/beyonce-meme_n_4400379.html). Six to eight photographs followed. The meme? The pop singer’s particular style of jumping as she delivered a song. In all my years of stalling, er, surfing the Web, I have never before seen a headline using the word “meme.” Suddenly, the Internet seems awash with the word.
Memetics has its detractors, who decry it as gibberish, label it a pretentious synonym for “concept,” and reject the analogy with gene imitation. And more—with the definitions above, memes can refer to almost anything at all. Well, okay, maybe.
But I found the concept of the meme (not to get too cerebral, a meme itself) both fascinating and useful. As Brodie points out, whether we like it or not, we are all “infected” from infancy, and maybe before, with memes, from our parents, families, cultures, races, humanity. Memes govern our expression, behavior, thinking itself. Brodie doesn’t advocate eradicating memes, like polio, and we can’t anyway. Many memes are helpful and noble (“End world hunger,” “Give kids a good education”).
But Brodie’s purpose is educating us to become aware of the memes all around us (think advertising, television, song lyrics) as well as our own internal memes. His “agenda,” he straightforwardly acknowledges, is “to make a difference . . . . Understanding memetics can naturally help increase the quality of people’s lives” (p. 18).
Becoming more conscious of the memes that run us, we become more alert to their usefulness or detriment in our lives. We can then choose to “uninfect” ourselves or, at best, get the virus under control. How does all this help us increase the quality of our writing lives? Glad you asked . . .
The more aware we are of our dominant memes, the more we can identify and examine them to see if and how they need to be corrected. We can harness our erroneous assumptions and beliefs, especially those transmitted, replicated, repeated, and inherited from other writers and the many writers’ aids, and put them out to pasture. The harmful memes can skulk like negative affirmations, insidiously pervading our activities and lives.
A few: “I can’t leave my day job.” “Self-publishing can’t be very successful.” ““Where’s that damn muse?” “I’m in constant competition with other writers.” “I’ll never catch up with ____, her Guggenheim, National Book Award, Oprah spot, movie-optioned series, Meritorious Ribbon of the Daughters of American Decoupage.”
How do we disinfect ourselves and inject new memes? Brodie asks, “What new memes would you choose to reprogram yourself with, given the chance?” (p. 19).
One remedy is to rewrite those pernicious rascals. “I am doing what I love.” “There’s enough room and time for me.” “No one else can write what I write.” “No one else would write what I write.” “There’s always room for someone good.”
Even if you don’t quite believe these new healthier memes, repeat them. The mind is not only wonderful but foolable—when we visualize doing exercises, the muscles respond (within limits—don’t cancel your gym membership). When we reprogram our memes, repeating statements that may at first seem wholly impossible, we find an eventual sliver of belief, a small burst of wonder, seeping in. Could it be true? Really possible? Why not?
Sound like affirmations? Maybe. But as you come to really believe these more nourishing memes, they become part of you. You begin to live them, act on them, and transmit and replicate them to others, to their better nourishment and yours. Then you’re spreading not viruses of the mind but purposeful, health- and life-promoting cures. This is what we should meme.
Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne writes fiction and nonfiction, having published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Writer’s Digest, The Writer, ReadLearnWrite, Women on Writing, Transformation Magazine, 11.11, and Unity booklets. Her monthly column, “Bloom Where You’re Writing,” appears in Coffeehouse for Writers. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has helped doctoral candidates complete their dissertations (finally), with a practical-psychological-spiritual handbook in progress. In her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books; one of ten best 2011 ebooks), she draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. With Trust Your Life, Noelle appears in the Unity Books 2013 “Summer of Self-Discovery.” Discussions appear on Goodreads: http://www.unity.org/publications/unity-books/summer-reading-series, Her webinar on the book of June 26, 2013, can be heard and seen on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?V=95EeqllONIQ.