Bad Stories for Good Money

I posted a quote a few days ago that was similar to this. This one talks about the concept of writing as best one can, and I think that’s something I, at least, need to be reminded about often.

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.–Paul Gallico

Writing As Empathy

I’ve talked about this before a little bit, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. This past weekend I was at a debate tournament with several fascinating people. In between debates I ended up simply sitting down and talking to most of them, hearing their backgrounds, and letting them tell their stories.

And once again I was reminded of the simple fact that stories are all around us. The people we walk by in, I don’t know, Wal-Mart have stories and stories–entire lives surrounding them. They’ve hurt and cried, they’ve laughed and rejoiced. People have stories richer than we could ever imagine. So often I, at least, find myself simply walking by these people. They’re just other shoppers. People who I’ll never see again, and probably won’t remember anything about them tomorrow.

But they’re not. They’re real people that have had real experiences. I need to remember that. Why?

My Dad will, on occasion, whenever we go to theme parks or something of the like, tell me about a game he plays. He’ll look around at the people surrounding him and make up stories about who they are, where they come from, and what they’ve experienced. Of course, he doesn’t think that these stories are really their stories, but it’s an exercise that’s always caught my attention, because it applies that basic belief: that everyone has a story. Even if we don’t know what it is, we can guess because there is one. But when we forget that, what happens?

Right now in Africa there are thousands who have died due to Ebola. But how many of us simply think of them as numbers? How many of us realize that they lived lives, that they had plans?

I know I have a tendency to simply think of numbers, and I need to stop. I need to remember that everyone has a history.

I tweeted out a link to an interview recently, and even though I can’t endorse the book or even everything that’s said in the interview, this one thing did stand out to me. The author being interviewed said this:

“There was a study done recently that shows that people who read fiction have a greater capacity for empathy, right? We all knew that; we just didn’t have the data to back it up. To learn about the lives of people who are nothing like you does teach you to understand that the world doesn’t rise and fall with you, and that you have to be charitable to others.”

In a sense, that’s why we write. It’s definitely not the only reason, but it’s an important one. Writing can help us see other people’s live, who they are, what they do, and why they do what they do. Which leads me to ask a question: is writing a form of empathy? I’ve talked before about how writing is thinking, and I still hold to that. But writing certainly doesn’t have to be just one thing–maybe it’s both thinking and empathy. I’m sure this has been talked about before, but this is the first time I’ve really examined it. So what do you think? Is writing a form of empathy?

Writing By Profession

Like the last quote I posted, I don’t agree with everything here. I do think it brings up a good point, though, about writing the best that one can, and working as hard as one can on one’s writing.

Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little overexcited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished—I think only poor Soren K. will get asked that. I’m so sure you’ll only get asked two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.–J.D. Salinger

Culture Tells Stories

Recently I read an article in The Guardian by a Cairo-based scholar named Jonathan Guyer. The article was entitled “The Arab Whodunnit: Crime Fiction Makes a Comeback In the Middle East.” I highly suggest you take a look at and read it, but I’m not going to talk exactly about what the article talks about. The article is more concerned with what caused this rise in, what Guyer calls, the “neo-noir revolution” sweeping Middle Eastern fiction.

While the article is well worth the read, what stood out to me was something much simpler. It was the basic fact that what culture is like influences, and as this article might suggest, perhaps defines what sorts of stories we get. At one point in the article, Guyer quotes another writer saying, “Cairo is the perfect setting for noir: sleaze, glitz, inequality, corruption, lawlessness. It’s got it all.”

Isn’t that sad? Because of the culture of the Middle East and its recent history it isn’t the best place, to put it lightly. In fact, there’s quite a lot of trouble and apparently that’s spawned this rise in the noir novel.

It’s been observed before, but I still can’t help but think it again when I read this article. Culture tells stories. The genres and characters that are popular seem to be determined by what the cultural conversation is. Of course, this is to be expected. The writers aren’t writing in vacuums–they’re observing, absorbing, and sometimes engaging in this conversation as well. And thus it simply fits that the stories we tell reflect who we are as a society.

Which makes me think of something else: how have my stories been influenced by the culture I’ve grown up in? How have yours? Probably a good deal of how and why we tell stories is a result of the circles we’ve walked in. Again, we don’t write in a vacuum. My stories, for example, have a slight philosophical bent that manifests itself from time to time. The people I’ve grown up with and the culture I’ve grown up in tends to be more philosophical, and so it makes sense for me to tell those kinds of stories.

I’m sure there are exceptions to this, and I don’t pretend to be making any sort of argument here. Many people have observed that writers are influenced by their cultures, and so I’m not trying to make an argument for that conclusion. I’m simply looking at the conclusion, and asking what the results of it are.

And so the question must be asked, and is asked. How does the culture of, say, the Middle East determine what stories it tells? How do the cultures we grow up in influence the stories we tell? But ultimately, I think, if we accept that cultures tell stories, we are led to two questions: What stories will our culture tell? And what will we think of them when they are told?

Describe Your Sorrows

I don’t necessarily agree with everything said here, but I think it’s an interesting perspective on writing to consider.

Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. — And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.–Rainer Maria Rilke

Write Until You’re Done

Last Thursday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal contained a fascinating article by Rachel Emma Silverman. It was entitled, “The Clock Hurts Your Creativity.” It reported the findings of a forthcoming research paper studying the effects that different types of scheduling have on our creativity. While there’s not much support in the WSJ article–it primarily lists the conclusions of the paper–what it does tell us is thought-provoking, and I think it has some interesting implications to consider in regards to writing.

The researchers, in several experiments, found that people tend to schedule daily activities in two ways. One way, which they term “clock time” is when you organize tasks based on a clock. You enter data into a spreadsheet from 10 to 11, then have a meeting from 11 to 11:30 and so forth. “Event time,” meanwhile, is when you organize tasks based on their completion. You enter data into a spreadsheet until it’s done, then email your colleague to see if he’s around for a meeting.

Basically, to quickly apply this to writing, “clock time” would be when one sits down to write for one hour, and then resolves to be finished as soon as the hour is up. “Event time” would be sitting down to write, and finishing whenever you feel like you’ve reached a stopping point for the time being.

That’s the distinction, but here’s one of the conclusions the paper comes to:

The researchers found that people who schedule tasks by the clock tend to be more efficient, but they feel they have less control and flexibility over their schedules. That’s because much of their day is controlled by an external force, the clock…By contrast, those on “event time,” who work on tasks until they feel they are done, feel they have more control over their schedules and feel happier at work. They tend to savor positive emotions more, perhaps because they move on from an activity when they sense it is complete, rather than when the clock tells them to.

That’s the first conclusion, and it seems to me that this is the application to writing: when we write until we feel we are done, we’re happier overall with our writing. And, at least in my experience, when I leave a writing session happy with the work I’ve done I’m more inclined to come back at a later time to continue. Right there seems to be one advantage to writing using “event time.”

The paper then concludes by making a suggestion:

To be sure, the researchers say that companies shouldn’t lose clocks and schedules altogether…But in more creative pursuits, such as ad copywriting or academic research, better to provide employees with bigger blocks of time and allow them to finish tasks as they see fit.[sic]

I certainly don’t think we can draw grand and exaggerated conclusions from this, but I do find that I, at least, might be helped by viewing writing this way. Perhaps I won’t get as much done in my writing without scheduling specific blocks of time in which to do it, but this paper seems to suggest that the best creative environment, the environment that best lends itself to writing, is one running on “event time.”