(Plus a bonus writing pump up!)
Remember that time when you were a kid, perhaps seven or eight, and you had a killer idea for a story? It may have been loosely based on The Six Million Dollar Man or Wonder Woman or The Facts of Life (unlikely), but it was such an awesome concept that you HAD to get it down. You rushed to find your favourite, least-chewed pencil and some good paper and began writing your epic. You were on fire! The words flowed like cracked fire hydrant and soon you had your epic: the amazing story of THIS THING THAT HAPPENED! followed by THIS OTHER THING THAT HAPPENED! to this really, really, really cool hero and his super duper funny friends. It was such an awesome great tale, so scary or funny or sad or brave.
Oddly enough, though, when it came time to read your masterpiece to mom or your friends it didn’t quite come across. You read louder, with more enthusiasm, and perhaps a few explanations but it was like trying to resuscitate a fish. With your mouth. Somehow, what had washed up on the page was not half as glorious as the rumble and flash between your ears. What was wrong? you wondered. Why was your awesome story so boring? More monsters perhaps?
If your experience was anything like mine, you probably swore off storytelling for a while, or at least kept your efforts hidden. I’m just not good at telling stories, I told myself. And I continued to believe that for a very long time, even though my English teachers gave me top marks. I still had fun daydreamy ideas floating through my head, but it was frustrating because I had no way to share them. (Robot monkeys from Jupiter, people!!) Eventually, though, I realized that being able to write well is not a gift you’re born with, like blue eyes or an ability to curl your tongue. Writing is more like juggling, a skill that can be learned, but only through practice.
One of the first bits of advice any writing student is likely to hear is: SHOW, don’t TELL. In other words, don’t tell me it was a rainy day. I can’t really see that. Instead, show me the boiling puddles, the buses splashing pedestrians, the squeaky wipers on frenzied full. Make me feel the cold water in my boots, the heavy wet jeans sticking to my legs, the difficulty walking, etc. Showing engages the senses and lets readers experience a story. It’s the difference between telling you that this cup of tea is hot and pouring it in your lap.
“Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
– Mark Twain
On January 3rd, just as I had mostly recovered from the holidays, a friend posted an article to Facebook. I admit to ignoring most things that people post (partly because FB is an excuse to procrastinate, and partly because there are soccer scores to check) but this particular story caught my eye: “Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person.” I guess a title like that pretty much defies you not to click on it, and click I did.
The article opens by challenging you to name five impressive things about yourself. “Write them down or just shout them out loud to the room. But here’s the catch — you’re not allowed to list anything you are (i.e., I’m a nice guy, I’m honest), but instead can only list things that you do (i.e., I just won a national chess tournament, I make the best chili in Massachusetts).” From there the article goes on to argue that our value as human beings is defined not just by what we do but, specifically, by what we can do for others. Any inherent qualities we might have (I love my children) are meaningless and irrelevant. The author drives his point home by linking to a harrowing, expletive spangled scene from the film Glengarry Glenn Ross, in which Alec Baldwin tells his staff of realtors that they as people, their personalities and their personal lives, don’t count for shit. The only thing that makes them valuable is their ability to close a deal.
On first reading, I thought, yeah, this has a lot of truth in it. Of course others will value us by what we can do for them. No man is an island, and who would want to be? But the more I thought about the piece, especially the Alec Baldwin bit, the more something about it bothered me. No man is an island, and yet if I were to follow the logic of the article, I would focus on doing for others but only in as far as it directly serves me. My happiness and value are defined by what I produce, which in the case of Glengarry Glenn Ross is an ability to buy an $80,000 car and a $20,000 watch.