Why does writing matter?

I’m not sure that I am the right person to answer this question because at the core, my feelings about this are about as inarticulate and visceral as someone who has deeply held religious beliefs.  And like a religious argument, it probably comes down to a question of values, emotions, and faith.  Again, like a religious argument, it has no meaning if we can’t come to an agreement about basic priorities and a common understanding of the world.

Which is to say that I’m not sure I’ll convince anyone of anything.  Perhaps better to try to articulate why writing matters to me.

As previously discussed, there has been a trendy consensus about our ancestors and the assumption that they sat around the roasting mastodon telling each other tales.  About what, we can only imagine.  But lacking Standard Operating Procedures and text books, I imagine that some of the content included the best places to find the stone for arrow-making, how to identify the most vulnerable flesh on the prey de jour, and all the reasons why your ancestors were superior to the ancestors of the guy at that other fire over there.   They were limited by proximity and memory.  We have the written word.

Perhaps Harry Potter’s wand doesn’t exist in the real world, but there is real power in imagination.  And throwing yourself at the task of sparking that imagination, sneaking past the barrier of skin to get inside someone else’s body and take them on a journey.  Is there anything harder?  Is there anything more fascinating?   Anything more powerful and therefore potentially dangerous?  This is magic, or at least as close as we get.  Creating a spell with the right words, the chosen cadence, the swell of action balanced with emotion.  Inhabiting another world in your mind and giving that world to someone else.

Anyone can destroy with words.  You don’t have to be particularly good to spread fear and hatred.  But to create comfort where there is none?  To reach out to people who you will never meet and, even briefly, let them know that they are not alone, that there is beauty in the world, to take their hand and say “come with me”…  How could that be anything less than one of the most amazing gifts ever?

Going back to Religion…  How many people have made it through the day with the voice of the Psalmist speaking to them “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”?  That idea, that voice is over 2,000 years old.   And it still gives me goose bumps today.  Not out of any particular religious feeling, but from the sheer power of the words.

Peter S. Beagle has never met me.  He may know vaguely that I exist, but only because he sent me a book a long time ago.  Before I was even born, Mr. Beagle had written a story called The Last Unicorn.  He didn’t write it with me in mind, he didn’t know that I’d be a thirteen year old in 1991 facing a very difficult day and that his words would serve as the thread that I’d follow out of the dark.  He didn’t write the book with a mind to saving me.  But save me he did.

The ability to take what you think and put it down on the page, not in a format that speaks only to you, but with the intention of extending that comfort and encouragement to a stranger you can’t possibly even begin to see…  It is the best gift I know how to give.

And since one shouldn’t give sloppy, half-assed gifts, it is incumbent on you to do it right – both in motivation and in using the tools of the craft to the very best of your ability.  Which is why writing matters.

Of course I’ve used fiction heavily here, but it applies equally across the spectrum of written products.  A well written memo is heard in the head of the reader just as a short story or a poem is.  The demands on the Author are the same.

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I Never Lie, I Story

You hear the word “story” thrown around a lot these days.  Proposal writers, management consultants, fiction writers, marketers…  The ubiquity of the story as the fundamental explanation for everything, from human behavior to the success of a startup means that the idea of story is begging for someone to slash its tires.

I only say this because every trend gets its comeuppance, not because I disagree.

So Merriam Webster definition of story includes: history; an account of incidents or events; a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question; anecdoteespecially : an amusing one; a fictional narrative shorter than a novel; the intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work; a widely circulated rumor; liefalsehoodlegendromance; a news article or broadcast; or mattersituation.

I might define a story as a narrative told to express identity, share culture and/or values, entertain, or inform.  That’s a pretty broad definition.

As a writer and human, I’m interested in what gets left out of those stories.  The apocryphal events that get left out because they disrupt the flow of the narrative, distract from the point, or contradict the identity the storyteller wishes to convey to the audience.

In no particular order, some observations:

  • Storytelling assumes an audience.  Can a storyteller be completely truthful to an audience, even when the audience is him/herself?
  • Notice how the language around story is incredibly slippery and self-referential?  Somehow we all know what story means, but I dare you to give it a solid definition that can’t be modified and isn’t somehow lacking a critical component of what a story is.
  • The one word can apply equally to a straight up fabrication and the verifiable truth.
  • The definition doesn’t specify a structure, but we expect one: beginning, middle, and end.  Acts one, two and three.
  • Perhaps a story is like pornography: we know it when we see it.
  • Does story really apply to everything?  Can you change your story about what you like to eat in order to dramatically alter your physical presence?  I really don’t think weaving a narrative in which I like Lima beans is genuinely going to make me into a rabid Lima bean eater.  There are limits, aren’t there?
  • Can you really write  a report to Congress with such compelling narrative that it changes the legislative tenor of a bunch of lawmakers?

There is no doubt that narrative has changed the world.  MLK’s I Have a Dream speech isn’t exactly a story in that it wasn’t fiction, it didn’t follow the three-act format, and it touched on a variety of topics all in the same piece.  But it also, through the sheer genius of the writing &  rhetoric, wormed its way into the imagination of millions of people and solidified his standing with the great American public servants.

Those of us who love words might try and assert that the only reason why the human learned to speak was to add to the firelight with a story that pushed the darkness just that much further back.   We might argue that the only reason to write was for the sheer pleasure of making something up and being able to keep it.  A merchant might point out that keeping ledgers was a more practical concern.  But I write, so I like my theory.

I’ll leave you with my favorite euphemism for dishonesty…  I never lie, I just story.

Born To Lie

Or to tell stories, depending on your view of fiction…

Ms. Lana Del Rey, formerly Lizzie somebody.  She’s a singer with an album recently out, an album and a tangled story that serves to illustrate my point – we don’t buy stuff, we buy stories.

Our girl Lana has a rich daddy.  She wanted to be a singer when she grew up.  She had some stuff out on youtube, then one day she took it down, changed her name, regrouped and put out an album.  This album, at least to my ears, is lovely.  Lana had many fans, some of them rather enthusiastic, however these fans turned on her when they discovered that she had the backing of a record company.  Did the music change?  Nope.  The product was exactly the same.  The only thing that changed was the story.  Or perhaps more to the point, the audience’s faith in the veracity of the story.  Indie darling vs. produced industry output.  The song is irrelevant, which story do you want to buy?

Ultimately, it isn’t about her or her music, it is about the story her audience wishes to tell about themselves.  They want to believe that they are more authentic, more discerning than the average listener because they heard greatness way back when.  They want the exclusivity of obscurity.

There are several lessons here for the aspiring writer, no matter the genre…

  1. The audience doesn’t care about you.  Harsh but true.  The audience cares about themselves.  What does buying your book say about them?  How does reading your briefing keep them out of trouble.  How can they use your article to make them look smart?
  2. Who you are as a writer and how you approach the business of writing is just just as important as what you write.
  3. Mess with the consistency and/or authenticity of your story at your own peril.