In my 36th year as a would-be and penniless writer, I found myself exiled to a dark rough and tumble city in the Far West, guns blazing as a steely-eyed wordslinger for hire. But then one day I stumbled upon Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story.
The book’s first pages caught my attention. But alas, the price wasn’t right for a poor, humble teacher on a Chinese salary. I had bills to pay, a mistress to please, and habits to feed. Plus there was the local research base full of giant pandas; the damn things generated reams of Chinglish prose I would have to revise for a pittance. Already my inbox was full of their propaganda clamoring for attention. I resisted the temptation to delete them; after all they gave me the perfect excuse to use something 80 proof while slicing, dicing, chopping, and splicing — a total massacre, leaving nothing but bits of black and white fur, bamboo shoots and leaves. And then to make matters worse, it seemed Amazon was colluding with other dark powers to suck humanity dry; why else would they charge more for a digital book than its paper copy?
But then I heard the ghostly voices of Morpheus telling me to choose between the red and blue pill; Obiwan Kenobi, “Use the Force”; Nike commercials, “Just Do It!”; and other such shadows flickering upon the wall of my TV room. Even Amazon.com seemed to whisper to me across all the vastness of cyberspace, reminding me of my destiny via a personalized showcase of products, and that I was not just born to buy…
So I added it to my cart. About a download and two chapters later I found that I was still happy after the post-purchase buzz ran its course.
This book should be required reading for fiction writers – and anybody else seeking an inoculation against the raging pandemic of competing narratives spewed out from marketers, politicians, pundits, religious leaders, and others posing as guardians of the truth – most of whom seem to be more enraptured than enlightened.
For writers though, Wired for Story is quite different from other “how to” books, as Lisa Cron approaches the craft of storytelling from a neuroscientific point of view. She makes the case that storytellers aren’t just entertainers: they are some of most powerful shakers and shapers of human perception.
So if storytellers are like pundits and politicians, then what is the difference? Both seem to be highly skilled in crafting story, using imagery, and evoking emotions, memories, desires. The difference is all about marketing. Pundits and politicians claim to have knowledge, skills, and expertise, claiming also to have whatever it takes to get the facts right and fix things. They market their brands cloaked in story, as if they have all the answers, or at least the can-do spirit and problem-solving experience they alone possess in order to improve the economy, save the world, whatever. It doesn’t matter that time and time again reality proves them wrong; they will always have another story to spin.
The difference between those who would use the power of story to express themselves versus those who would use it for personal gain is, perhaps, a fine red line marking the shadowy borders of between ethics and morality. Storytellers differ because they use words to hook audiences and manipulate a willing reader’s central nervous system. They make no claims to knowledge or expertise.
Indeed, fiction writers will be first to emphasize their work is fictional, and not based on any real life events or people. Their best writing leaves readers thinking, questioning, minds opening, empathizing, expanding their worldviews, the list goes on almost ad infinitum. Storytellers speak for themselves and let audiences think for themselves; politicians speak for others and tell audiences what to think.
What’s more, the art and craft of story, as well as the talent and hard time in solitary confinement required for their honing, is estimated to take an average storyteller at least 1,000,000 words or 10,000 hours – not including all the reading, language arts development, and life experience necessary to get to a point one needs to seriously embark on such a ludicrous and un-economical vocation.
This means that fiction writers who risk everything for dubious prospects of financial reward must have something else driving them – and a good day job. A politician though, who has genuinely done the time, and crafts speeches with the skill of a poet or bard, should hypothetically have the critical thinking background, moral authority, and empathy to be a great leader. But in the final analysis actions contradict words; but their ability to spin tales proves the old universal theme that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Penultimately, I would rhetorically ask how should those politicians – those many, those happy many, that band of scoundrels, whose ghostwriters, think tanks, and cronies continuously dream up ways for their audiences to shed blood in their cause, whilst they themselves remain abed fornicating with their own puny manhood betwixt fingers ever grasping. That is what I would ask. But the answer is really up to readers and voters.
Now maybe when I finish Wired for Story sometime this week, I will be one step further on this endless quest to actually sell stories for a living (i.e. stories fit for the fiction aisle of an actual bookstore, not an essay on a virtual website). Until then, I’m probably just a hypocrite acting as if a single book alone makes a smarter man, when in fact I know little of anything (that’s what happens when you major in English literature and get kicked out of medicine school) — or maintaining such a humble pretense. But I don’t know myself well enough to be certain. That kind of exploration would be a whole other story – but it would be unsafe to say that I lived happily ever after.