Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Why Are Storytellers Important In A Society?

I've been writing professionally for 21 years, and I've been teaching writing classes for almost as long. Currently, I'm teaching at the University of Oklahoma and I've got students in classes asking me questions that I was asking when I was their age and finally ended up creating answers for myself.

The caveat to this blog is that I don't know everything, and even worse, I'm convinced that I know some things. Over those years I've learned that thinking you know something can be very detrimental to your development as a writer. But if you're not confident about what you're doing, how can you do it? So that process alone requires a lot of give and take.

With the recession going on right now, people are again screaming that the death of the book is upon us. Bookstores are closing, sales are down, people don't have time to read because they're working two jobs. The funny thing is, when I got into this business professionally 21 years ago, people were saying the same things. And that was before the cable TV reality show explosion and the succession of video games over Hollywood movies as the largest grossing entertainment field.

So that begs a couple questions. Number one, why--when there are so many other entertainment venues--do people continue to read books? Number two, why--when there are so many other jobs that pay better, offer better hours, and and don't offer rejection so personally--do people still want to write?

To me at least, the answer to the first question remains the same as it has always been when regarding reading stories. Although stories can be read in groups and even discussed, stories lend themselves best as a gestalt between a writer and a reader. Working together, a writer and a reader create a unique experience.

John D. MacDonald was one of the most prolific and best writers I ever read. I grew up reading his stuff for enjoyment, then went back to re-read it as a writing professional. I loved his Travis McGee books for the first person narrative and action that MacDonald always included when I was a teenager. But it wasn't until I read them as an adult that I understood how much of himself MacDonald put into those novels.

He had a theory that he called Creative Trust. By this, MacDonald said that a story wasn't balanced until the writer gave 50% and the reader gave 50%. He believed that no matter how hard a writer worked, he couldn't present the whole story. The writer depended on the reader to build sets, cast characters, and work the special effects. No matter how good the idea, it didn't work until the reader provided the energy to make it move.

This is why, MacDonald said, every reader can have a different experience with a book than every other reader. Movies aren't that way. Generally you see what you get. Some emotions or gags may affect one viewer differently than another, but so much of the work is done that all the viewer has to do is simply take it in. The same is true for video games. The game is laid out level by level, and the player knows what must be done to achieve the different goals that the designer established.

Not only that, but the sheer driving pacing of movies and video games prohibits most deep thinking about the characters or the subject matter. You're simply along for the ride, not a component, not a part of, simply a consumer.

Music often digs more deeply into a listener's heart and soul. In three or four minutes, a song can touch emotions and memories, unlocking experiences that the listener can imagine or has already experienced. But three or four minutes isn't enough to fully engage a person. Also, music is a purely auditory thing, unless you count the percussive part that vibrates through you. Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers definitely slams out the percussive delivery.

The world we live in is constantly filled with visual and auditory stimulation. We see stuff every day without really seing it, which is a lot like movies, television, and video games. I don't know how many times I've been playing a video game and had to call my wife and son in to help me watch what was going on because I didn't see it all. And since we've added DVR, I tend to hit the rewind button liberally because I wasn't paying attention. And, honestly, a lot of television's offerings don't need close attention.

So a song on the radio doesn't leave much of an impression either in the long run. Think of how many conversations you've had at the job, at home, or over the phone and simply coasted through them. Later someone may bring something up to you that you discussed, and you can't even remember it. Unless it had a driving bassline like "Ice, Ice Baby."

The written word is and always will be (no matter what form it may take, from printed page to Kindle or some other cyberbook) the last bastion for a reader to sit down and match wits with another party while having enough time to think about what is being said. That's why so many readers consider favorite writers as their best friends. The reading experience always touches on subjects/experiences/beliefs near and dear to both.

When you read a book, there is no frantic auditory or visual stimulus that spins your mind into overdrive. There are no restraints on your imagination. You're only limited by how talented you and the writer are together. Readers who love books often find that reading is the most relaxing thing they do all day. Even when it's spent with a page churning Jeffrey Deaver suspense thriller, a James Lee Burke mystery, or a Stephen King horror tale.

It's this experience, this sensation of being an equal in a totally involving, submersive production, that draws readers back again and again. In the early days of storytelling, storytellers basically had a captive audience. Maybe they had to compete against guys who learned how to do really cool shadow puppets on the cave wall (maybe early video games? my shadow puppet sabertooth against your shadow puppet mastodon?), but it couldn't have been really interesting without a story.

I mean, it would be interesting watching shadow puppets scamper across the cave wall, but wouldn't it be more interesting if there was a reason for all that scampering? Suppose that a shadow puppet man had a shadow puppet cow and a puppet dog and maybe a few other shadow puppet livestock. Then some evil shadow puppet monster came by and started eating shadow puppet man's livestock. Shadow puppet man would have to find some all important shadow puppet magic ring or shadow puppet magic sword to defeat the shadow puppet monster.

Or maybe a lonely shadow puppet man spies a lonely shadow puppet woman in a lonely shadow puppet forest...and that story could be a romance story or a Letter to Penthouse.

You get the idea. Stories just make things work better.

Robin Dunbar, in his excellent book Grooming, Gossip, and The Evolution Of Language, pretty much acknowledges that storytelling is the glue that holds a society together. Stories provide a cultural heritage, goals and ideals for a group to move toward, and the concept of social responsibility.

In my opinion, a storyteller's primary value lies in remembering what has gone on before for everyone that cares to read, to find words to express emotions and values that individuals in societies need, and to think sideways about decisions that are rendered or could potentially be rendered within that society.

As a storyteller, writers are charged with providing education, entertainment, and empathy for readers. Oral storytellers told tales to teach young hunters, young fishermen, young builders, and others ways to do certain crafts. They also offered stories that told what not to do based on experiences that they themselves or others had had before. And they have to do this in a way that does not alienate the audience. In other words, they have to be good at their craft.

How often have you as a parent, or as a friend, stepped away from simply telling someone else how to do something to illustrating the lesson through a story about another "friend?" And isn't it weird how many times you can help someone by simply telling a "story?"

If you take a stroll through best-selling nonfiction, you're going to find that a lot of those books are told as stories, not presentations of fact. Many readers that don't like fiction still love stories, which is why they read these nonfiction books that are set up to read as stories. This is why true crime readers come back again and again to the writers they love who present truth as fiction. Story is not fiction. It's a process, a way of laying out ideas and events for readers to grasp and enjoy.

I don't think writers are born. I think writers can be made by anyone who desires to learn how to do the craft. But, I also believe that there are few people temperamentally suited to this job. Unless you love writing, you're not going to take the time to sit down and learn how to do it. It's a self-correcting field. A lot of people claim to want to write, but give them a piece of paper or a computer with a blinking cursor and they just get too lonely or bored or intimidated to stay there long. True writers are people who can imagine the audiece on the other side of that page.

A lot of people get the gist of stories. They know how stories are supposed to work. They know what characters do what things in the stories, such as the hero and the villan. So often in college, I see many students who have this grasp of story, that they have no grasp of the craft it takes to bring that story to life. They read for enjoyment, but they don't learn to read closely enough to figure out a writer's skill set. Every writer that really learns the craft has a unique skill set. No one can pass that skill set around. No one can teach that skill set to someone else. It's only learned through long and serious practice.

For me, and other writers I've talked to, I never imagined being anything but a writer. That's the way it is for editors I've come to love working with. Writers and editors are a lot alike. Both love the idea of story and how it comes to life on the page. The difference is that writers bring story to life on the page and editors midwife it. The love is the same, but the skill sets are vastly different.

I think there'll always be a need for story. And since there's a need for story, there'll always be a need for writers. The end product may change, maybe paper will be as dead as the dodo one day and books will take on a different form, but the job the storyteller--the need for the storyteller--will never change.


  1. While I agree with what you are saying here, I have to add that music does much more than unlock memories. Over the past few years, working both as a musician and a writer who covers music, I have found that music often plays an extremely important role in the way some people define themselves. Take the early punks of the late 70's and early 80's for instance. While they probably would have found a way to rebel and express themselves, the music of that sub-culture was a catalyst for an explosion of artistic and social expression.

  2. You're right about the way they identified. Music does that too. Think about the number of hats at country music fests and the packets of rolling papers at a Willie Nelson concert.

    But was it the music, or was it the "story" of the tragic outsider (what novelists call the "fish out of water" story) portrayed by the dress of the musicians that shaped them?

    A lot of times the way a person dresses tells a "story" too.

  3. Thanks for the thought-provoking words. I'll be reading and following along.

  4. Enjoyed your comments Mel. I think story telling will always exist, and with it writing. Writing, in all its forms, imposes on the ugly chaos of reality a shape and clarity. We need that.
    I remember in the 1950s writing was dead. Professors told us there would soon be no more books or bookstores. TV was a national obsession in the 50s, after all. Then came the sudden introduction of mass market paperback books. Titles from Mickey Spilane to Penquin Books' high quality history series...short story collections..It was wonderful! The books fit in your pocket. They cost less than what you made an hour as an office worker...YOU could own books! Lots of them! It was a revolutionl.
    I believe soon will come along some other innovations. Civilization rights and heals itself, after all, no matter how it may seem to wobble.

  5. Thanks for your wonderful insights. Being a newbie who is just now starting to figure out what I don't know, I can relate to what you are posting here. Maybe there is hope for me yet. Can't wait to read more.

  6. And as long as our society is comprised of individuals as singularly different as the unique snowflakes that softly float across our windshields of life, then the storyteller will always have a tale to tell and society will always be ready to receive it...whether or not they are even conscious of this desire.

  7. Syliva is exactly right about the ability to OWN books. Where to put them while owning them became the next problem!

  8. Mel,

    This is great stuff. I hope you continue writing on this blog.


  9. I absolutely love the way you have described the essence of story telling here. I'm currently and undergrad and I'm planning on writing my Honors Thesis on the role of storytelling in current society.
    I do, however, disagree with the movies and television aspect. I think that a movie or television series, if written and directed well, has just as much ability to draw a viewer in and make them a part of the experience. It does so through creating characters that we can relate to and develop with. Written stories have a freer and more open ability to involve the reader in a wider range of ways, but I don't think that the audience-involvement aspect is entirely absent in movies and tv.

  10. Thanks for this. Just what I needed to read.