You don’t have to be an author to tell a story; we can all learn from what it takes to tell one effectively.
You’ve never written a book. You’ve not so much as made a blog post, kept a journal, or made a contribution to the local newspaper. You’re not a writer, you’re not a storyteller, you say to yourself, or have it told to you (as if you needed it) by others.
I’m here to tell you today that this is incorrect.
If you’ve ever sent an e-mail, told someone what you did with your day, explained how something works to a co-worker, or had to expound something to a teacher at school, you at some point have had to exercise the human capacity to tell a story. Even the conveying of facts, is explaining the relationship between one or more things that are perceivable to the senses or is explainable through mathematical principle.
Why is this important? I could likely make a bigger post than what I have planned already, to expand on that question alone. What I am going to focus on today is what I see as the biggest problems in our culture with our relationship to words, language, and storytelling: the way we downplay and diminish the power of words and storytelling in our everyday lives, and why much of the toxicity that exists in the modern world is owed in part to our abuse and misunderstanding of stories.
To the first point… is there a good reason, or reasons, why everyday communication is so much more lackadaisical than what ends up in published works, like a novel? Sure. One of them is time. How much time do you have to think about answering a question someone asks you? Usually, it’s a matter of seconds before things get awkward. If you’re responding to a colleague at work by e-mail, maybe you’ll have a few minutes to ponder it. Generally though, our conversations and daily interactions are messy. Have you ever tried to diagram a typical bit of dialogue between two or more humans? You’ll get lots of words or pauses such as “um” or “uh,” stuttering, half-sentences, meandering, and stories held in suspense as the teller tries to recant with accuracy what is stored in their memory but struggles make it find their tongue.
I think back to a conversation I had with another writer this morning. He and I are practiced in this craft, and we still lost our trains of thought, struggled to find the right word to describe an emotion or an event, and had to fall back on an internet search when a certain name or term slipped our memories. That’s a normal thing, it is a human thing. We are strange creatures, born with naught but the capacity to feed, shit, and breathe. Other beings are ingrained with the abilities they need to survive and communicate from their parents. Some creatures can walk straight away out of the womb. We’re different. We’re almost tabula rasa from when we’re born, needing input in order to learn functionality. The flip side of this weakness is that we gain a creativity and ability to tell stories that other beings either lack or accomplish in ways that we either don’t understand or don’t comprehend. Yet even for all of our practice in telling stories, in learning how best to use words to convey an idea, my friend and I hit points in our conversation that to an outsider might have looked like a dead end.
When you write a novel, or an article that you’d like to come across as decently written, or perhaps an essay for school, you think about it beforehand. You (ideally) are careful with your word choice, optimizing everything so that you convey your idea or your story as concisely as you can. Why do you do this? Think about what catches your interest. If you are watching a movie and are bored 15 minutes in, you might be inclined to leave the theater, to change the channel if it’s on cable, or to not recommend it to friends. If by the end of the first chapter in a novel you’re bored to tears, you’re not likely to finish it. A television show that fails to capture its audience after the first few episodes usually finds it way toward cancellation. The reasons for this are of course, profit, as something that is boring or not an effective bit of storytelling isn’t going to make money. The other reason is time. If we had unlimited time and didn’t have to worry about a little thing called death, we could perhaps be more casual in our approach to taking in the works of other humans. Since we don’t have that luxury, we need to spend the time we have on things that resonate with us or add meaning and nuance to our lives.
So storytellers need to be meticulous. To win the attention of others, to make them listen, you can’t charge in with lots of “ums” and “uhs” and lose your train of thought. Think about the first storytellers in our history, who were orators. Sure, if they had a great voice or a lot of charisma that helped, but if they weren’t practiced or in some way gifted in using words to convey the proper ideas and meanings, would they have succeeded? I doubt it. The reason us authors labor so hard in the editing process (well, one reason) is because good word choice can make or break whether someone will keep reading our book or set it back on the shelf. It’s why we excise passive voice when it’s not needed, why we toss out whole sentences and paragraphs even if we loved them, why that damn first chapter of a novel probably gets rewritten more than any others. With all of the information and media out there in the world, we only get so many chances to hold someone’s attention, to plead our case to be worthy of their time and their money. We all have stories we can tell. It might behoove all of us, myself included, to try harder, to think more before speaking, to practice the art of language to not only be a better communicator in general, but to tell the stories that ought to be told.
That brings me to the crux of what I mean by the downplaying of language and storytelling in our culture, and by extension, abuse of it. How often have you ever heard or seen various forms of media written off as invalid, as childish, as unimportant, as not mattering if it isn’t part of our “real” world? I will have to call bullshit if in some way or means you have never experienced a story written off as unimportant. I’ve beheld arguments whose points hinged on a movie being meaningless compared to a real subject like science, religion, politics, or mathematics. I see and hear people dismiss video games as being for kids or a dangerous distraction (by the ignorant). I know of those who scoff at books as either being antiquated or not playing any roles in their lives.
I extend my middle fingers in your general direction if you hold to any of those notions. I am excited to see Thor: Ragnarok next week. No, I don’t expect it to be Citizen Kane. I don’t have hopes that it is going to break any new philosophical ground for me. But I feel confident that I will glean something from it that will either make me a better storyteller, that it will offer a different way for me to look at a mythological event, or that there will be some good dialogue and character development to experience. It’s not just a movie. It’s entertainment, yes, but it’s more than an excuse for me to put my ass in a chair for two or more hours. Someone (or a group of someones as is the case here) is telling a story that I am interested in.
Movies can shape our lives and show us different ways of thinking. Video games can challenge the way we interact with the digital world. Books are gateways to other worlds, or to the past of ours, or they are the author inviting us into their head for a stay. Our ability to tell stories and convey ideas is the cornerstone of the human condition, and to write this off as child’s play, as unimportant, as entertainment only, as a hobby, as “something to do if you had more time,” is to me abhorrent, ignorant, and ultimately damning. Sure, I grant you, if the only movie you ever watch is Sharknado and the only book you ever pick up is 50 Shades because it’s popular, odds are you’re not challenging yourself or going to learn much about humanity, about stories or why they are important. But if you think stories ought to play second fiddle to “real” things like politics or religion, I have something to tell you: that shit started with a story. The Judeo-Christian Testaments are stories written by men. Whether they are true or myth is left to your own personal belief, but they are stories. The United States Constitution? Written by men who had ideas, and declared to the rest of the world what they felt an ideal nation ought to be. They told a story of what their country was to be. Don’t believe me? Chew on this:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The Preamble tells you, the reader, what the subject of the story, the People of the United States, are going to do, and why. That’s a story. Whether we’ve succeeded in living up to those ideals or accomplished what was declared, is, to humorously appropriate the phrase, “another story.” The Preamble may not be the whole story as intended, and is of course better served as part of the document from which it is gleaned, but it does convey meaning and intent. While the verbiage is arguably open to interpretation, it is far more concise than saying “we’re gonna go and make a better place to live. Where, how? I dunno. You got any ideas? We’re just gonna do the thing. I forgot the word, let me Google it.”
You may think I’m pushing that last bit too hard, and to be fair, I am trying to wind you up a tad for a chuckle now and then. But stop and listen to the way we talk to each other sometime. It’s a fucking disaster. Me, standing in line behind someone at an eatery that lets you pick your toppings? A nightmare. It’s as though the person in front of me has never given the slightest bit of thought as to what they want on their burrito. Maybe they were too busy posting on Instagram or making themselves look like a dog on snapchat. Someone calling in for support by phone? “I was just calling to…” I fucking know you’re calling me, that’s why I picked up the phone. Now what do you want? Getting the average person to the point of why they even called or what they need help with is functionally equivalent to pulling teeth. Maybe you should read more books, watch more movies, and try your hand at the writing craft yourself before you vomit words out of your mouth next time.
Yes, now I’m being a bit of an ass. I know we all have done this at some point. If I find myself cornered into a conversation or phone call I wasn’t expecting, I stumble all over the place like a drunken boxer without the training. Or at least I think I do; I’m not stopping to record every last thing I do and say because a lot of it isn’t important.
This is what I want to you to take away from this article if nothing else: we live in a culture that does not place value on communication and storytelling. Or, in aspects that it does, it is skewed and biased. Being able to understand stories and words, to be able to read and write well is not something that is just for authors, academics, or a skill for one to use to look down their nose at others. It is an essential part of being human. Instead of berating someone over a story they’re passionate about by dismissing it as “it’s just a tv show/book/movie, get over it,” instead of blowing off writing a journal or reading a book as something that would be nice to do if you only had the time, we ought to laud these things. What would the world be without the printing press, without education, without stories that shaped our lives, gave us meaning, hope, that conveyed ideas that built upon one another, until humanity achieved feats our ancestors might have thought only possible by the gods in myth? By the same token, a little more care ought to be considered for what it is you put out into the world. The undisciplined communicator, the unpracticed writer, the person who never really puts much thought into the words they speak, these oft are the trolls, they are the ignorant spreading their stupidity across the internet, they are are those who are best at propagating venom and negativity into the world. They may not even do it intentionally, but the people who put the lowest value on stories, communication, who have the lowest levels of empathy and understanding for the way other people and cultures think and live, these are the ones who are best at fostering animosity, misunderstanding, negativity, and outright hate in the world. Don’t believe me? Try reading the comment section on a subreddit, a Youtube video, or a political Facebook post sometime. Compare the thoughts and expressions of those well versed in stories (in whatever form they take) versus those who write such things off as trite compared to what’s going on in their life, which, odds are boyo, probably isn’t all that important.
We are all storytellers. We all have our part to play in the larger canvas that is human civilization. I ask of you to take time to consider your role more carefully.