Thursday, December 9, 2010

Living Enlarged, or Why I Write

If you want to understand something, tell its story.

Notice the verb I just used.

I didn't say listen to its story or read its story or memorize its story. I said tell it.

And it doesn't matter what your subject is, whether it's the current geopolitical situation on another continent or the jar of homemade jam in your refrigerator or the reason your old buddy from college is getting his third divorce while you’ve never even been married once. Whatever your subject is, you have to tell its story to truly know it.

I really believe this.

And there's considerable scientific backing for my belief. To quote a recent online article in New Scientist, "the full collection of one's internal and external narratives generates the self we are intimately acquainted with. Our narrative selves continually unfold."

In other words, we are the stories we tell ourselves.

Now, anyone can pick an entry in an encyclopedia and memorize it, just as I can call forth from the recesses of my own disheveled mind the famous equation "E=mc2". But my rote knowledge of the mass-energy equivalence made famous by Einstein is no real indication of my true understanding of physics, just as the ability to pull up the Wikipedia article on a given subject and recite what’s been written there means you have any real idea of what you’re talking about.

And even if you're telling a true story, you still have to use your imagination to create it. You still have to choose what details to tell and what to leave out. ("Is it important whether the cop's uniform was black or beige, or what kind of sidearm was in her holster?") You still have to weave the right layers of context so that your story makes sense. ("Does the weather have any bearing on what's happening?")

And your telling of the story has to have some relevance to your audience. Indeed, it's usually better to piss your audience off than to leave them cold and disengaged. (Hence, the popularity of insult comics like Don Rickles.)

So your story has to be aimed at someone. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that his intended audience was always his sister, even after she died. Writing for her is what fired his imagination and gave it a target. Having an intended audience helps shape your story, even if that audience isn't real.

My own imagined audience is a small showroom full of slightly bored drunks. I'm up on stage, trying to express myself in a way that won't get beer bottles thrown at my head. I'm always looking for a way to wind things up so I get a little applause and maybe get booked for another night. Someday, I hope to headline.

At the beginning of this year, I started a blog. Over half of the entries I've written aren't what you would normally consider stories. They're reviews.

Yet, when I write reviews, what I'm really doing is telling the story of my experience with a particular piece of art, whether it's a movie or a book or a meal. The review becomes my way of coming to an understanding of what I just went through.

Creating fiction also works this way. When you make up a story, you can tell you've succeeded when your story has the shape, the weight, and the consistency of what people feel is real.

Of course, in order to do this, you have to have some idea about the shape, the weight, and the consistency of what is real. This is why you never find savant novelists. They're always mathematicians or card-counters.

And even the most fantastic, unrealistic story has to follow this rule. You can create a completely alien world with its own physics and history and culture, and you still have to follow this rule. For the story to work, the world you create has to feel real.

This may sound strange from a guy who's written a vampire novel, but even that novel helped enlarge my capacity for understanding. By projecting my imagination and sympathies into the mind of a fictional, blood-lusting monster, I enlarged my capacity for empathy and creativity. Whatever you may think of the end product, in creating it, I enlarged myself.

Now, if only I could enlarge my bank balance. Then I'd really be accomplishing something.

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