Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Label_Developed

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

Finish What You Start?

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Last week I heard two friends mention that once they start reading a book, they read it to the end, no matter whether or not they like it, are interested in the characters, or find any value in it at all. One said that she committed to the end once she passed 100 pages. The other one finished the book once she started. No matter what.

While I believe their dedication is a virtue, I am exactly the opposite. There are just too many good books out there to be read. The stack on my night stand is impossible, and it doesn’t take into account all the books on my “to read some day” list. I’m not going to waste my time with a book that isn’t to my taste, or isn’t up to my level of literary scrutiny, or a book that I find distasteful.

Life’s short.

And yet… when I write something, I find it nearly impossible to abandon it, even if it has no real value to me, or anybody else.

Sometimes the things I write turn out to be mere exercises in this or that—exploring a topic, manipulating a personality quirk, toying with a relationship. They are not all meant to be expressions of literary genius.

And yet… what if I just messed with it a little more? What if I just devoted another year to it? What if I took it out of its dusty box, revisited it, and found gold?

Unlikely.

I’m now of an age where I am just starting to recognize that there are things that are destined, from word one, for the creative compost heap. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value in them for me, as a writer. They are as an artist’s sketch pad: worth exploring but not necessarily ready for the reading public.

I am breaking up with some of my half-finished novels. I have several. They aren’t working for me, and they won’t work for you, either. But it’s hard. It feels like I wasted time, even though I know in my heart that it was not. But like every relationship that needs to come to an end, there are things to reflect upon, a little gratitude for what we gleaned, and then we move on.

Writing is much like reading: there is always more out there, and there is always more in here. I’m not going to waste my time reading a book that does not thrill me, and I’m not going to waste my time writing a book that doesn’t thrill me.

This is hard.

But hey. Life’s short.

Whose Ride Is It?

by Eric Witchey

I read fiction because I love a ride through unexpected twists and turns.

Opening a new book is like settling in under rubber-padded restraints in the fiberglass shell of a tiny capsule shaking under the pull of a chain as it rolls up an inclined rail toward the peak of a hill beyond which lies the unknown.  With each word, my adrenaline surges. I anticipate the moment the chain lets go and I hurtle through time and space, pressed and pulled by the ups and downs and twists and turns of human experience molded by the g-forces of plot, sociology, and a cosmology I discover for the first time with each page turned.

It’s my father’s fault, this thrill addiction.  He put me on my first ride when he opened a dog-eared copy of A.E. Van Vogt’s “The Silkie” and read to me by the light of a camp fire.

That’s why I read.

I write for the same reason engineers build faster, scarier rides.  Somewhere along the path, the fascination with the ride became an obsession, and the obsession led to study and analysis of where each tiny, savored thrill was born.  The need to know how fast, how far, how much it took to make a scream erupt from the lips of a rider became a new kind of thrill.

But whose ride is it—the reader’s or the writer’s?

Every writer who has written a first draft has handed their work to someone only to see the tale evoke the same reaction as a ride in a wheel-barrow pushed by a limping man.  Of course, a first draft may have moments of scream generating power, but it also invariably has gaps and dead end forks in the track.  A reader thrown off the ride offers the writer no second chances.

During revisions, we writers often find the story has lost its emotive power over us.  No longer thrilled at the discovery of new hills, new twists, new nuances of character psyche, we may abandon the work or begin new work.  Often we assume the reader will feel the same absence of power what we feel, so we begin creating a new ride in which we can find new highs and lows.

This is a moment of truth for a writer. It is the moment at which the writer has to decide to whom the story belongs, for whom the writer is building the ride.

If the ride is for the writer, the ride is over.  There are no more surprises—no more thrills to be found in the writing.  The emotional power of the images in the writer’s head is complete, fully crystallized and experienced.  The writer has ridden the ride to its end, squealed in delight, screamed in fear, cried at the pain of sacrifice and the ecstasy of love born in their dreamer’s soul.  The writer is exhausted and ready to head for their favorite watering hole for a drink and a sit in the shade.

On the other hand, if the ride belongs to the reader, then the writer is just starting.  The writer knows where the reader should throw up their hands and scream.  Will the reader do it?  Will the reader cry?  Will the reader laugh out loud while sitting in a work place cafeteria turning pages to get to the next dip and the next twist?

Probably not.

About the time the writer is finished developing their own sense of the ride, the reader is only just beginning to be able see framework that suggests the possibility of a ride.  Peaks and troughs and twists and spins in the mind of the writer can be a long, flat track up on stilts to the reader.  It may be high and long, but it is ultimately boring.

To pour the adrenaline into the blood of the reader, the writer has to decide that it is not enough to ride their own vision.  They have to decide to make that vision live in every soul-catching, tear-wrenching, scream-generating detail in the mind of the reader.

To do this, the writer has to come back to the fiction with dual vision: the memory of the ride they have ridden and a self-imposed discipline of innocence that allows the writer to admit to only the images and evocations created by the words on the page.  This discipline requires that the writer ruthlessly revise the text to grab and drive the heart of someone who is coming to the story for the first time, someone who is caught in the restraints looking up the track to the peak of the hill and anticipating the best ride of their life.

The writer has to give up ownership of the ride and give it over to the reader so when the chain stops pulling, when the car hovers at the peak in a meta-stable moment of Newtonian decision, the reader looks out over the track unfolding below in hoops and twists and curves and loops, and the reader screams and reaches for the corner of the page to turn it.

We have to go back to the thing we have built and check every scene for rising stakes, to see that each character is affected emotionally by their experience on the page, to strip away words that flatten the peaks and fill in the troughs the reader craves.  We have to look past our own memory of intention and see how each word adds a beat to or takes a beat from the heart rate of the reader.  When a scene opens on a peak, it has to feed the reader into a trough and bring them to the next rise.  When a scene opens in a trough, it has to fly upward and spin and twist and dump the reader, screaming, crying and laughing, into a turn they could never have anticipated.

When every rider screams in delight, when the most stone-faced rider blanches and smiles as he takes a wobbly step away from the car at the end of the ride, then the writer can smile and head for the drink the shade and begin to dream a new ride, a bigger one, a scarier one, one that will set fire to the blood of a child inside the circle of magic light cast by a camp fire.