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.

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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.

 

WordNerd Recommendation: Scrivener

Ah, Scrivener.

I was introduced by the recommendation of Jacob Sam-La Rose, who started an on-line poetry group that I’ve been sadly absent from for the past few months.  He said it was awesome and since he’s pretty much awesome, I downloaded the free trial on my Mac.

No surprises here, he was right.  It is awesome.  However, since I’ve moved away from my 2006 Mac, I’ve had to do with out as it was initially developed only for the Mac.    I tried to find a replacement for my PC, but it didn’t work.  No matter, it’s a new day and I just downloaded my PC trial for Scrivener.  In my word-nerd way, I’m beside myself with excitement.

Now might be a good time to tell you why it’s awesome.

Unlike with word, you can deal with each section of the document you are working with as a discrete entity.  You can rearrange endlessly, back up ruthlessly, and throw in the assorted random bits of information that pertains to the document and have your work space be just as random as the way you think, but voila, as soon as you are ready to export it into a final document, it comes out just as clean as your pearly white teeth after you’ve seen the dentist.

Alternately, check out the website and let them tell you why it’s awesome.

 

(edited after the fact because even the editor needs an editor occasionally.  Viola does not equal voila.)

A Spy in the House of Words

Why do we write?  Seriously.  Writing is not fun.  Having written is pretty awesome, but it isn’t much of a reward considering how hard it is to write.  If you’re writing fiction, you start with this imaginary situation and then you have to write yourself into it until you are completely lost, and then you have to write your way out of it until your audience is completely satisfied.

Seriously?  This gets romanticized?  I can’t figure out why.  Some days, I’d rather exfoliate with a cheese grater than sit down to do the work involved in putting words onto the page.  So why do it?

For the same reason anyone does anything: the writer wants something.

But they want an outcome like a spy wants an unfriendly regime overthrown.  They want, but they don’t want to be seen wanting.  A good author is hidden between the words like a good spy is hidden in the crowd at a protest.  Whispering.  Nudging.  Suggesting.  Creating a narrative where there was none.  A good author, like a good spy, never draws attention to the methods, the tradecraft.  They don’t drop in a word that doesn’t belong as a marker, a signpost to anyone paying attention, saying “look at this cool thing I just did.”

No, the signature move of a good spy is the same as for a good author: the narrative unfolds beautifully, the audience moves as if on its own accord, and the author and the spy are standing at the back of the room nodding sagely, unnoticed, unheralded, unseen.

Can Writing be Taught?

I had this conversation with a co-worker today.  His contention is that he’s tried to teach writing for years with minimal success.  I suspect that it isn’t teaching writing that’s the problem, it’s that the real key to writing well hasn’t been addressed.  After all, you can teach anyone to diagram a sentence.

But technical competency doesn’t make for good writing.  You can be technically competent and be completely uninspiring, unimaginative, illogical, and disengaging.  So before you get to the part that can be taught, what is the part that can’t be taught?

Giving a shit.

At least this is my contention.  It’s a question of emotional intelligence – caring enough about the audience to set aside what you need to say in favor of what the audience needs to hear.  You can’t teach that, you either care or you don’t.  Imagination can be exercised.  Style can be developed.  Plotting can be learned.  Organization can be edited in.  But the Author’s intent, the respect for the audience…  you either care or you don’t.

Maybe knowing that it matters is enough to at least make a start.

Make Every Word Count

I’ve volunteered to lead a writing seminar at work – a project that I’m sure I’ll have more to say about as the weeks go by.  Last night, I ventured into the Friends of Montgomery County Library Used Book Store in Gaithersburg, and spent $32 on books on writing.  I got a few Strunk & White’s for loaning, a Chicago Manual of Style, also for loaning (I couldn’t possibly risk loaning out my good version, could I?) and I grabbed a book by Gary Provost called Make Every Word Count.

No, dear readers, I haven’t read all the way through the book in the subsequent 24 hours.  I didn’t have to.  All it took was opening the page at random to a discussion of the word “again” and all the things it said about the writer (not the author of the book) based on how it was placed in a sentence, and I was sold.  This man clearly knows what he’s talking about and I now have a good reason to avoid washing dishes and doing the laundry when I get home.  I must read the book from start to finish immediately.

After all, it’s for work, right?

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…

Just Plain English

Once upon a time, I worked with the Chief Operations Officer at an Alphabet Soup Agency.  I was in their equivalent of an Executive Secretariat, making lucid prose out of your basic average staff-work.  The COO and I bonded after I edited something he’d already edited.  He told me to check with him the next time I wanted to edit his edits.  Apparently I was close enough to right that it left an impression, because he still tolerates me now and again.

One of the artifacts that came out of that relationship was this document: Just Plain English.  It was written in 1981 at the US Navy.  I’ve transcribed it into Word, so the type-written Courier New font and some of the formatting have been altered.  Otherwise, it’s exactly as it came to me…  a 30+ year old document touting the joys of simplicity in bureaucratic prose.  Over the next couple of days, I’ll pull some of my favorite quotes and talk about them.

For now, enjoy the document.  It makes a nice addition to your desk references and is an interesting chunk of writing in Government history.

Caveats

Like any good bureaucrat, I’ll start with the caveats:  I won’t always show up with flawless English.  No one’s perfect and those who aspire to perfection can end up boring in their pristine state.  I’m all for breaking the rules, so long as you know what you’re doing when you break them.

Otherwise, we’ll talk about epic fails, plain English, why writing matters in the age of acronyms and LOLs, and when we’re feeling frisky we’ll talk about emoticons and whether or not they have a legitimate place in professional exchanges.