Tell Me a Story

It should probably come as no surprise that I am a passionate person. Most writers are, and for good reason. Caring about the details of writing demands passion if you’re going to enjoy it, and I love writing. I love the experience of it, sitting down and working at it for an hour or more at a time and walking away with a piece of a universe that didn’t exist before sitting at the page. I get moody and angry for days when I lose work to the malicious gremlins that live in my computer, and I’m a bit compulsive when it comes to my backup scheme.

My mom carries a jump drive in her purse with all of my work on it. I’m not sure she knows that, but it’s there.

More than writing, though, I’m passionate about stories.

For the last four years, I’ve participated in NaNo, the national (international, these days) novel writing month, a massive, worldwide festival of celebrating writing fast. I tell time in years by which NaNo project I worked on in that year. I can tell you what was going on in my life by book, and those four Novembers stand as signposts that tell me how far back something really was.
My first NaNo was devoted to the first four books of Sam & Sam. I wrote the first one, Rangers, in sixteen days, and was finished with the last of the four by the end of February. Since then, I’ve never matched that level of speed and persistence, but I have had ‘on’ seasons since then where words were easy, and my appointments with my computer happened every night like they were supposed to, and I’ve been happy with those big chunks of world that appear out of nowhere day after day.

Sure, those aren’t the stories you get to read, when it’s all done. Some are a lot closer than others. I got to the end of one last year and JJ read it and told me that half of it was missing. Actually, what he told me was ‘well, you know, it’s a good story, but… I don’t know, it was just kind of simple and I liked the other one better, you know?’ And with some wheedling and careful inspection added to some writerly fill-in-the-blanks, I came to the conclusion that half of it was missing. I’m adding in the other half, now.

But that long downhill run of writing the first draft. Man, oh, man I love it.

Every year at NaNo, the internet is littered with articles written by writers, agents, and editors about NaNo and it’s terrible, burdensome consequences. Well, the corners of the internet that writers trawl, anyway. Editors and agents bemoan the mountain of slush that’s coming their way (I’ve heard two explanations of the term ‘slush’ for unsolicited submissions – one, that writers used to leave their manuscripts outside of publishing houses’ doors for the editors, and that they would get rained on and turn to… slush, and two, that writers would poke their manuscripts through the mail slots at those publishing houses, leaving a sledding pile of manuscripts and unattached papers inside the door that invokes the same image. Either way, these are the stories that writers send in that no one asked to see. Less-than-gracious members of the industry consider them to be a burden.) Writers express their concern (or outright disdain) for writers who write fast and think that the work that they’re producing is of any quality at all.

I don’t want to step into the revision wars here. (Think I’m kidding? I don’t know anyone who draws battle lines more often than writers, and the revision wars are among some of the loudest, concerning how many times one must revisit their words before they’re worthy of submission or publication. I’m going to leave that well enough alone.) I do think that these writing professionals are totally missing the point, though.

In the professional industry, the goal of writing words is to sell them. From an acquiring editor’s position, a writer who has written words that aren’t worth selling is only a potential waste of that editor’s time. And, taking a step toward her, looking at it from the perspective of her December, sure, she’s got a lot of pages coming at her that probably shouldn’t have turned up.

Again, this isn’t the point.

The point is that, regardless of what the industry thinks of the results, everyone – everyone – should write a story.

Key words.

Everyone.

Should.

Write.

Story.

I’m not going to blunt that down. I’m not going to walk it back. No excuses, no apologies.

If the act of writing is too troublesome (and for some people, that’s legit), they should at least tell a story.

What follows is my opinion mixed in with some science of questionable quality (question everything!). But this is what I believe, and this is what I’m passionate about.

Empathy isn’t something that the human brain is capable of experiencing until three or four years old. Before that, there’s simply no concept that someone else’s goals aren’t the same as yours. (Think about that the next time you complain about the two year old over-there. They can’t comprehend that you don’t want the exact same thing that they do. That is, they want that cookie, therefore you want them to have that cookie. There is no other way of thinking about it. For real. How confusing would the world be?) The first stage of empathy comes from the ground-shaking realization that other people have their own goals. Parents and other older role models are central to this paradigm shift.

The second stage of empathy comes from consuming stories. From an early age, we tell our kids stories. Mouse wants a cookie. Hansel and Gretel are afraid. Dora is curious and happy and whatever else it is that she does. We teach each subsequent generation of ourselves to see the world through another set of eyes through story.

The third stage of empathy comes from telling stories. Because to tell a good story, you have to understand the characters. You have to understand how they see the world, what it is about them that makes them see it that way. You have to know how they will react when the world around them changes, and why. For a good storyteller, it’s instinctive. That empathy is so deeply rooted in how they experience the world themselves that they don’t need anything other than their own mind to create a real character. (I’m not slamming character worksheets, which are more about keeping track of details and sparking inspiration.) Not only that, but a really good storyteller is running on empathy for their reader. They know what their reader is looking for, and not only keeping track of what the reader is feeling as they read, but actively creating those feelings.

This is not a virtue of writing. It isn’t even a first-order virtue of words. This is the virtue of telling a story. Writing is simply a form of discipline to fill in the gaps of a story, in the same way that you must fill those gaps in by telling it verbally. Writing a story down makes you work through the little bitty details of what goes in the story and what doesn’t, what is actually true and what you’re just putting in there because you want it to be there.
Because stories are also about truth.

Empathy, though – this I believe – is the foundation of functional, mature human interaction. You don’t have to have empathy to be a functional person. The rules of human interaction are hardly that complex that you couldn’t simply apply them, the way you would with a robot. Don’t hurt humans. If preventing it doesn’t hurt others, don’t let yourself get hurt. So long as it doesn’t hurt yourself or others, recognize who your appropriate authorities are and obey them. (Asimov’s three rules of robotics, if you’re curious, reordered and reworded a bit. Asimov was a cool guy.) Empathy is what turns rules into instincts. It’s what makes people want to treat each other well. You can tell a kid (or a grownup) all day long that they should treat other people the way they, themselves, want to be treated, but you put a cookie in front of them and they’re gonna grab it every time until they look the other kid in the eyes and know that he wants it too, and actively feel his disappointment at not getting it.

When you want people to advance beyond cookie-level recognition of the people around them, you stretch their empathy. Teach them to see, feel other people’s needs, and they start anticipating them. They start meeting them. The world becomes a better place.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not counting on the virtues of man to save the world. I believe that men are fundamentally selfish, and that the various social structures in place that put external forces on them to keep them from doing bad things are absolutely necessary. But I do believe that men can be improved, one by one. I passionately believe that.

So screw the detractors. NaNo your brains out.

Tell me a story.

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