Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-

Finding Pine Martens, by Eric Witchey

Which way is up, says the pine marten

Finding Pine Martens, by Eric Witchey

 

This is text. As writers, we manipulate text. We fiddle it. We rearrange it. We edit it. We proofread it. We test it and rearrange it again. We do this until we believe that the text matches the story living in our hearts and minds.

While engaged in this nearly obsessive focus on forcing the text to match up with the story, we sometimes forget why we engage in this insane effort to make the little black squiggles on a contrasting background line up in pleasing orders.

We do it to cause an expansive, revelatory emotional experience in the mind and heart of the reader.

Consequently, I think of myself as a reader advocate. I am not a writer advocate, nor am I an agent advocate, an editor advocate, a market advocate, a sell it to New York advocate, or a hit the Amazon number one slot in my sub-subgenre advocate.

As a reader advocate, I don’t give a rat’s ass if the story matches my vision. I only care whether the story causes the reader to have a vision and an experience that is emotionally powerful and satisfying to them—to that individual reader—to each individual reader.

As a writer and human being, that means that I am willing to give up my vision if I can see a path through the story that will give the reader a better experience. It means that sometimes the patterns of text that interact to allow the reader’s possible extracted or projected meanings can be manipulated in ways that allow the reader to experience something I did not plan but that I can bring to light.

It’s like the moment when we are looking for an eagle high in the canopy of the Northwest rain forest. We peer upward into the tangled canopy and only see the crossing of the branches, the fluttering of leaves, the intermittent release of rays of sunlight through the foliage… Then, as if the entire moment were structured to give us the gift of a vision, our minds resolve a pattern—the voracious elfin face of a pine marten peering down at us from the crook between two branches. Certainly, we weren’t looking for a pine marten. In fact, we hadn’t considered at all that we might see a pine marten because they are so rare and so elusive. However, that moment sweeps away all thought of an eagle because the weasel-cat-squirrel face of the pine marten is so much more immediately interesting and exciting.

Working with the patterns of text and the minds of readers who will interpret those patterns requires more than an understanding of grammar, punctuation, and the linear events of the story we plan to tell. It requires the mental agility to know when the patterns that we are creating can suddenly reveal a pine marten instead of the eagle we planned on. It requires a willingness to look at what is possible and release what is intended. It also requires the ability to reinterpret all of what has been done in favor of new, richer possibilities.

When I was in grade school, I became angry at a girl who often wore dirty clothes to school. She smelled funny. She always seemed dull and stupid. I tried to tell my father how stupid she was and how wrong it was for her to be in my class. My father became quite angry. He took me by the shoulders, knelt, made direct eye contact, and almost whispered these words: “Eric, righteousness is a crutch you use to avoid understanding.”

All thanks to my father for that moment of insight and understanding. My father was a reader advocate. No. Not quite. He wasn’t a writer, but he was a perceiver advocate. He wanted me to see more complex patterns of truth than my imposed judgments and expectations allowed. He wanted me to see facets and reflections and possibilities instead of falling back on small-minded, rigid patterns of righteousness. He was a good man, my father.

I did not understand that I had been looking for an eagle instead of seeing that the girl was a pine marten. I did not understand that she was from a very poor family—poor because their father had been taken from the family livelihood in the steel mill and then from the family by cancer, poor because they had lost their health insurance, because the widowed mother was very sick with what we all now think of as trauma-induced depression. I didn’t understand that the girl’s uncle had come to live with and help them and liked to have his niece sit on his lap a little too much. I didn’t understand that the only clothes the girl had were from their church charity bins. I didn’t want to understand. I wanted the world to fit my desires, expectations, and ideals. More than that, I wanted the girl to be lower in some way than me.

She was certainly not an eagle. Yet, she was the pine marten.

By releasing my righteousness, my desire to have her conform to my desire for simple, easily understood and imposed hierarchy and correctness, I came to understand the much more complex, more powerful story of her family and its universal connection to the struggle of all families.

Our stories are often like that. In our minds, our stories are clean and simple. We fiddle the text. We fix the text in an endless effort to get them to conform to our expectations, our sense of how they should be—of how they must be if we want to sell them. However, when we release our sense of what the story should be, we discover that what could be is much more wonderful and powerful.

Every story is a long line of little black squiggles in a row. That’s all it is. We, as creators, fiddle and fix and rearrange the squiggles. We, as human beings, can sometimes release our righteousness and step back and see what is possible. Sometimes, just every so often, we can stop looking for the eagle just long enough to see the pine marten and realize that our simplistic sense of what should be is the righteous crutch we use to avoid understanding the possible—the deeper, richer, more powerful truths that our readers could pull from our text, could find in our patterns, or could bring from their experiences and project into our words.

End

A Texture Perceived by the Subconscious

by Matthew Lowes

If you enjoy any kind of art, every once in a while you encounter something that renews your sense of wonder. A couple weeks ago I came across Salome Dancing before Herod by Gustave Moreau and was awestruck by its jewel-like opulent beauty. I have been drawn back to it again and again, to take in the overall picture and to examine the incredible colors and details.

(Click for a high resolution image.)

Image: Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing Before Herod, 1876. Oil on canvas. The Armand Hammer Collection at the Hammer Museum. Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation.

Image: Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing Before Herod, 1876. Oil on canvas. The Armand Hammer Collection at the Hammer Museum. Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation.

I won’t attempt to describe all the amazing elements of this painting, nor articulate its effects on my imagination. But I think a part of its magic lies in the layered accumulation of all those fantastical colors and details. The texture creates a feeling arising from the subconscious. And the effect is more amazing than all its amazing parts.

This layering idea came to me through a book about the making of Blade Runner, one of my all time favorite films. In the book, Future Noir, Paul M. Sammon describes how Ridley Scott was obsessed with minute details of the sets and costumes. For example, newsstands in the background of a city street had to have made up future magazines in their racks, with real covers and articles and artwork. Nobody would ever see them on the film, but they had to be there. He called this process “layering”, with the idea that although every detail would not be consciously perceived, they would create an overall texture perceived by the subconscious.

Blade Runner

Photo by Warner Bros./Getty Images – © 2011 Getty Images

To this day, Blade Runner is one of the most influential films in science fiction, and one of most visceral and mind-blowing visions of the future. Nothing about it seems dated or superficial. In fact, it looks better than most recent science fiction films. I wish they still made them like this, with physical sets and models and matte paintings. But I think part of the magic of Blade Runner is also in the layering of so many incredible visual and auditory elements.

The same process can be used in fiction. The layers are built up through details, scene elements, word choice, language, structure, tone, et cetera. Bit by bit, they create the texture of the fictional world. But it’s not an easy task in any art. It took Gustave Moreau two years to paint Salome Dancing before Herod, and Blade Runner was one of the most contentious and troubled shoots in Hollywood history. But the results speak for themselves. Arrange the layers just right, and they create a dream-like reality that resonates with heartbreaking mystery and meaning. As an example of layering words, I leave you with a few by Clark Ashton Smith:

“Tell me many tales, but let them be of things that are past the lore of legend and of which there are no myths in our world or any world adjoining. Tell me, if you will, of the years when the moon was young, with siren-rippled seas and mountains that were zoned with flowers from base to summit; tell me of the planets gray with eld, of the worlds whereon no mortal astronomer has ever looked, and whose mystic heavens and horizons have given pause to visionaries. Tell me of the vaster blossoms within whose cradling chalices a woman could sleep; of the seas of fire that beat on strands of ever-during ice; of perfumes that can give eternal slumber in a breath; of eyeless titans that dwell in Uranus, and beings that wander in the green light of the twin suns of azure and orange. Tell me tales of inconceivable fear and unimaginable love, in orbs whereto our sun is a nameless star, or unto which its rays have never reached.”

– from “To the Daemon” by Clark Ashton Smith

Those Golden Moments

By Elizabeth Engstrom

I have spoken and written about the golden moments of an author before. These are the twinkling little tiny gems that happen amidst the angst and insecurity that creates fiction and comprises most of the life of a writer.

Most of the time, I’m a writer. Sometimes, I get to be an author.

I was privileged to enjoy an extended golden moment two weeks ago, when I was invited to be on the set of the film production as they shot the movie of my book, Candyland.Candyland book cover art

Rusty Nixon, the screenwriter/director and I have talked about this for almost ten years, and it is finally a reality. He wrote an excellent screenplay.  Much of this story takes place within the characters’ heads, so he had to craft original scenes that dramatized that internal action. He did a stellar job.Rusty and Liz

I arrived in Vancouver (and was a guest of the gracious Judy and Ken Nixon) and went to the set that had been constructed inside a vast warehouse space. A complete apartment had been built inside the warehouse, complete with “wild” walls—walls that could be moved to accommodate the camera.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The crew of about thirty went about their business as complete professionals, from Jan Wolff, the Director of Photography, to Malin Ottosson, the Assistant Director, to the hair and makeup people, to the wardrobe people, grips, gaffers, set decoration, sound, lighting, and craft services (caterers). And, of course, Marena Dix, Blaine Anderson, and Marc Petey the producers, busy all the time making it happen, fixing glitches, and putting out fires. The stars, James Clayton and Chelah Horsdal, total professionals, rehearsed tirelessly in that cold warehouse, and then got out of their down coats, undressed, and made movie magic.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For the most part, I watched the actual filming from a tent outside the set on a monitor with the others who were not required to crowd those doing the filming, and was amazed, take after take, as actors spoke the lines that I wrote, and I believed them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There were nesting owls in the warehouse, and every day I got a glimpse of one or the other. Pueo. My ’aumakua. Magic.

Nobody on the set initially knew that I was the author of the original material, and slowly, as word got around, those tiny golden moments happened over and over again for the three days I was on the set.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It has been said that the most exciting day in the life of a writer is the first day on the movie set when a book is being filmed, and the most boring day in the life of a writer is the second day on the set. I did not find that to be the case. In fact, the second unit shoots in April, and I hope to be there, at least for part of it, because it is amazing beyond belief. Yes, there’s a lot of down time, but there is always something interesting to do, someone interesting to talk to. While the actors are working, the makeup, wardrobe and other people are not, and when the actors are relaxing between takes, the other people zoom into action. There is always something going on.

It was my job to keep my mouth shut and stay out of the way (I promised to be an adult and behave myself—this is not my book after all, it is Rusty’s movie), but I certainly took it all in.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Those golden moments. I tell ya, they make all the angst and the insecurity (financial, social, mental and all the rest) worthwhile.