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.


The Writer’s Ego

I’ve been having conversations around what makes good writing over the past few days.  We’ve talked about whether the issue is that people just want to check off a box, if there is a failure in intellectual curiosity, if people are intimidated by the process, afraid of getting it wrong, emotional about having their thoughts critiqued…

At one point, I made the observation that I thought people take writing personally because taking your thoughts and putting them on a page is vulnerable and definitive in a way that speaking just isn’t.  You can always dispute that you said something.  If its on the page, you’re on the record, not just for the thought you wrote down, but for how that thought followed the last one.  Writing feels like a map to the brain and to have someone critique how you write feels like being told that you’re not good enough at thinking.  Who wants to be told that they are a rotten thinker?

In the meeting, this theory was shot down, but I’m hanging on to it because I didn’t buy the alternative, which is that people don’t brave the process of learning to write better because they don’t want to work that hard.   Of course, we all want easy answers.  But I don’t think that’s the end of the story.

Writing is an egotistical act.  Let’s call the spade a spade here.  To sit down and write is to assert that I have something to say that is valuable enough to read (alternately, it’s the introvert’s answer to diarrhea of the mouth).  Paradoxically, ego is the enemy of good writing.  The hallmark of a good writer is navigating ego and humility…  You have to have the ego to show up with pen in hand.  After that, it had better be all humility.   Here’s why:  writing means nothing if it isn’t read by someone.  If you bring a need to demonstrate to the whole world how smart you are to the table, the audience isn’t going to like your attempt to make them feel stupid.

Who you are and how your ego gets fed is at least as good of a predictor of good writing as knowing Strunk and White inside and out.  (I just made that up.  It might not be true, but I think it is.)  Writing reveals character.  A passionate person is going to write passionately.  A misanthropic SOB is going to write misanthropic stuff.  No one asked Bukowski to write a romantic comedy, it wouldn’t have sold.  The writer tells you exactly who they are, not in the subject matter, not by writing an autobiography, but in word choices, style, rhythm, organization, and all of the other small choices that an Author makes that add up over sentences, paragraphs, and pages.

If you can derive pleasure, not from trying to make sure everyone knows how smart you are, but from understanding the audience, being able to see the world from their point of view, and telling the story that they need to hear, you’re already several steps ahead of everyone else.

Finding passive voice can be taught.  Grammar can be taught.  Authentic identification with your audience…  if anyone has good ideas about how to teach someone to set their ego aside in service to an audience, please let me know.  I could teach what it looks like, but the outward appearance isn’t sufficient and I’ve yet to crack the code on transferring values from one person to the next.


Writing / Thinking

“Most of us write the way we think” at least according to the author(s) of Just Plain English.  I’m not sure that this is a fact.  Look at stream of consciousness novels like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.   (Not that many would claim that Mrs. Dalloway was written as a long intellectual burp.  Maybe that it reads like that, but it is highly unlikely that Ms. Woolf just opened up her mouth/pen and the novel fell out.)  If we tried to write like we think, no one would ever bother to read it.

However, the assumption is that writing is a reflection of how the author thinks.  Indeed, it cuts both ways.  The audience judges the author’s intelligence and thought patterns based on the writing.  The author treats the writing as if it were a chunk of their brain smeared across the page.  Judgement and defensiveness.  In a professional setting, the perfect set-up for trouble.

As Authors, the Audience is the Customer, and the customer is always right.  That leaves the hard work to the Author.  First to understand that the audience is going to judge him/her based on the quality of the writing.  Second, to distance him/herself from the writing and recognize that edits to the writing are not personal attacks.  The document is not the Author.

The truth is that most of our thinking is a hot mess comprised of top forty song lyrics mucking around with grocery lists, an internal debate over eating that fifth slice of pizza, and half-formed ideas about big concepts that may start at the end instead of the beginning.  Editing and rewriting are the process of taking a draft (which may accurately reflect the way we really think) and getting it dressed up to go outside.  Put it like this: you don’t go to the office without moving from your natural state – funky breath, pajamas, and hair that sticks up in every direction – to your professional persona, complete with suit and perfectly arranged hair.

If you are lucky enough to have an editor on staff, think of him/her like your personal stylist, there to make sure that you don’t leave the house with only one sock on and your zipper undone.  We’ll just let your audience think that you were born ready…