What Do You Meme?

by Noelle Sterne

September 2015

At least twenty years after their appearance in pop (or intelligentsia) culture, I discovered memes. 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, an imitative thing. Brodie aims for a larger definition that has taken hold today: 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: Memes aren’t necessarily facts, although they can be grounded in them. Or nonfacts, like racial or gender stereotypes and prejudices. As genes are 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).…With the Internet, of course, the velocity and replication of transmission become that much faster and far-reaching.

In fact, a while ago, I was shocked to see a home page headline, “New Beyoncé Meme Threatens To Take Over The Web”. 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 never before saw a headline using the word “meme.” Suddenly, the news seems awash with the word.

Memetics (study of the meme) has its detractors, who decry it as gibberish, label it a pretentious synonym for “concept,” and reject the analogy with gene replication. And worse, given the definitions above, memes can refer to almost anything at all.

Whatever the disparagements and overgeneralizations, 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”).

Brodie’s purpose is to help us become aware of the memes all around us (think advertising, television, song lyrics, movie titles), as well as our own internal, maybe inherited, 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).

When we become more conscious of the memes that run us, we become more alert to their usefulness or damage in our lives. We can then choose to “uninfect” ourselves or, at best, get the virus under control, and, as a result, to increase the quality of our writing lives.

The more aware we are of our dominant writing memes, the more we can identify and examine them to see if and how they serve us or need to be corrected. We can harness our erroneous assumptions and beliefs, especially those transmitted, replicated, and inherited from other writers and the many writers’ aids, and put them out to pasture. Harmful memes can skulk like negative affirmations, insidiously pervading our writing 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 has an answer: “What new memes would you choose to reprogram yourself with, given the chance?” (p. 19).

One option for adopting new memes is to rewrite those pernicious old 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 can be fooled. For example, 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 discover an eventual sliver of belief, a small burst of wonder. Could it be true? Really possible? Well, 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 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, in which our memes encourage and sustain us.

Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor,·Noelle Sterne·publishes writing craft and spiritual articles and essays in print and online. With a Ph.D. from Columbia·University, Noelle assists doctoral candidates wrestling with their dissertations to completing their tomes (finally). Based on her practice, her new handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties in Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, mid-2015). Excerpts appear before publication in several magazines. In Noelle's first book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go·after Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com.

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