What stories do you tell yourself?

anansi-spider
Anansi the Spider-Man

About a week ago, I had the pleasure of attending a storytelling workshop at CBS with Ryan Gattis of Chapman University.  He spoke about five essentials to create immersive fiction. Basically those include arousing the audience’s curiosity, subverting expectations and using the way we process information to the writer’s advantage. He recommended a few books, including The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall. If you haven’t read it, please do.

A relative, Sir Philip Sherlock, wrote a collection of Anasi stories and I grew up on those and other myths. We’ve told ourselves stories as long as we’ve been a species and the old myths still hold power.

But it’s not only about what you create for an audience. It is also what you create for yourself, day in and day out. What are the stories you tell yourself about your creative life? Can you see how those stories might shape your success, failure or perception of both?

Here is Gottschall on his book:

What is the storytelling animal?
Only humans tell stories. Story sets us apart. For humans, story is like gravity: a field of force that surrounds us and influences all of our movements. But, like gravity, story is so omnipresent that we are hardly aware of how it shapes our lives. I wanted to know what science could tell us about humanity’s strange, ardent love affair with story.

What inspired you to write this book?
I was speeding down the highway on a gorgeous autumn day, cheerfully spinning through the FM dial, and a country music song came on. My normal response to this sort of catastrophe is to turn the channel as quickly as possible. But that day, for some reason, I decided to listen. In “Stealing Cinderella,” Chuck Wicks sings about a young man asking for his sweetheart’s hand in marriage. The girl’s father makes the young man wait in the living room, where he notices photos of his sweetheart as a child, “She was playing Cinderella/ She was riding her first bike/ Bouncing on the bed and looking for a pillow fight/ Running through the sprinkler/ With a big popsicle grin/ Dancing with her dad, looking up at him. . .” And the young man suddenly realizes that he is taking something precious from the father: he is stealing Cinderella. Before the song was over I was crying so hard that I had to pull off the road. I sat there for a long time feeling sad about my own daughters growing up to abandon me. But I was also marveling at how quickly Wicks’s small, musical story had melted me into sheer helplessness. I wrote the book partly in an effort to understand what happened to me that day.

But don’t you worry that science could explain away the magic of story?
I get this question a lot. The answer is “No! A thousand times, no!” Science adds to wonder; it doesn’t dissolve it. Scientists almost always report that the more they discover about their subject, the more lovely and mysterious it becomes. That’s certainly what I found in my own research. The whole experience left me in awe of our species–of this truly odd primate that places story (and other forms of art) at the very center of its existence.

all in all you’ve hit the wall

What are some of the reasons for stopping? In his book (which I recommend) on writing, IMMEDIATE FICTION, Jerry Cleaver makes the case for conflict and continually raising the stakes: “Happy lives make lousy novels…. If the characters are having a good time, the reader is not.” What if, on the other hand, it’s about you and not the page?

There are some problems that can cause you to hit the wall, creatively speaking. Things like myopia when it comes to the work, being totally rule-bound (though please know the rules before you begin breaking them), forgetting to play, concentrating too hard on the outcome you want, fear, difficulty taking risks, lack of perspective, not listening to other opinions, worrying too much what others will think, and writing for the entire world. Newsflash, you can’t please everyone. Open up your process and let it breath. Have a good time. Get to your point. Have a reader in mind and write to them. Go out and play once in awhile.

The solutions for you as a writer are remembering your playfulness, striking that balance between what you want to say and getting helpful input from others, clarity, resourcefulness, research, persistence, flexibility and a willingness to go with your strengths while developing your weaknesses. If story isn’t your strong suit, do some writing exercises that focus only on the story. Honing your pitch would be one of them. The National Storytellers Network has lots of resources. There are more here. Visit Toastmasters. Yes, Toastmasters – tell a story to a room full of people. Write a play. Take an acting class. Get out of your comfort zone and improve your writing.

Can you play through pain? Are you stuck because it’s just too difficult? Marathoners (and for the record, that in no way describes me – blew out my knee playing soccer when I was a teen) talk about hitting the wall around mile 22 (26.2 miles in a marathon). There are plenty of sites and books to tell you how to prepare for the wall, but if you’re going to compete physically at a certain level – if you are serious about it – you learn to play (or run) through pain. In a sense, the same is true for writing. You have to learn to write no matter how you’re feeling (within reason – time off for major life events). In other words, it does not matter if the subject matter is uncomfortable psychologically or if you think the first three chapters stink or (whine, whine) you just don’t feeell like writing today, keep at it. When I talk to other novelists about it, our mile 22 is usually in act 2 (what is it with the number 2?) The fun and agony of it is that no one can save you, the writer, in Act 2. You have to find your own way out. Steven Pressfield and the always-opinionated David Mamet have been there and written about it. More on getting unstuck by Michael Bungay Stanier. Now that you are, go write!

all in all you've hit the wall

What are some of the reasons for stopping? In his book (which I recommend) on writing, IMMEDIATE FICTION, Jerry Cleaver makes the case for conflict and continually raising the stakes: “Happy lives make lousy novels…. If the characters are having a good time, the reader is not.” What if, on the other hand, it’s about you and not the page?

There are some problems that can cause you to hit the wall, creatively speaking. Things like myopia when it comes to the work, being totally rule-bound (though please know the rules before you begin breaking them), forgetting to play, concentrating too hard on the outcome you want, fear, difficulty taking risks, lack of perspective, not listening to other opinions, worrying too much what others will think, and writing for the entire world. Newsflash, you can’t please everyone. Open up your process and let it breath. Have a good time. Get to your point. Have a reader in mind and write to them. Go out and play once in awhile.

The solutions for you as a writer are remembering your playfulness, striking that balance between what you want to say and getting helpful input from others, clarity, resourcefulness, research, persistence, flexibility and a willingness to go with your strengths while developing your weaknesses. If story isn’t your strong suit, do some writing exercises that focus only on the story. Honing your pitch would be one of them. The National Storytellers Network has lots of resources. There are more here. Visit Toastmasters. Yes, Toastmasters – tell a story to a room full of people. Write a play. Take an acting class. Get out of your comfort zone and improve your writing.

Can you play through pain? Are you stuck because it’s just too difficult? Marathoners (and for the record, that in no way describes me – blew out my knee playing soccer when I was a teen) talk about hitting the wall around mile 22 (26.2 miles in a marathon). There are plenty of sites and books to tell you how to prepare for the wall, but if you’re going to compete physically at a certain level – if you are serious about it – you learn to play (or run) through pain. In a sense, the same is true for writing. You have to learn to write no matter how you’re feeling (within reason – time off for major life events). In other words, it does not matter if the subject matter is uncomfortable psychologically or if you think the first three chapters stink or (whine, whine) you just don’t feeell like writing today, keep at it. When I talk to other novelists about it, our mile 22 is usually in act 2 (what is it with the number 2?) The fun and agony of it is that no one can save you, the writer, in Act 2. You have to find your own way out. Steven Pressfield and the always-opinionated David Mamet have been there and written about it. More on getting unstuck by Michael Bungay Stanier. Now that you are, go write!