The Order Of The Storyteller

More than anything, we writers are bringers of order and coherence to the world

I know, I know, you’ve met writers before.  Or if you haven’t, you’ve hung around this blog long enough to get the impression of a woman who is a nervibore – mostly she lives off her nerves – and whose life can become a crisis at the drop of a hat.

So you’re looking at that title and thinking “order”?

Yeah.  Because what we do is not what we are.

At any rate, my friend Dave Freer was right in his Monday blog at MGC.  Writing qua storytelling is a total activity.  It resembles a nine to five job less than it resembles a spiritual (or physical) practice.  Given half a chance, and sometimes even without being given any chance at all, it takes over your life before you even notice it.

I remember when I read one of the very first – if not the first – book on how to write SF/F – by Orson Scott Card.  He said something along the lines that one should tell a hoplessly untalented writer to get out of the field, before it ruined “his life, his family, his marriage, his career.”

I disagree with Mr. Card on the idea that one can tell who is “talented” from who is “untalented.”  The most naturally talented people I know, one has failed to finish his book, the other has rewritten the same book ever since I met her 18 years ago.  And I’ve known total hopeless hacks to suddenly, over night, get their ducks in a row and produce not just saleable but good prose.  Mostly it takes a lot of work, a minimum of rationality and wanting to do it (which my friend who hasn’t finished is book is lacking.  He can take it or leave it, so he left it.)

More importantly, I never fully understood whether he thought that being successful in writing (or what passes for successful these days) would prevent destroying your life, your other career or your marriage.

Yes, okay, I’m married and very happy, but part of this is that my husband is a very patient man – particularly since when he married me he had no idea I shared my head with an assorted cast of characters.  It’s like thinking you’re marrying a woman and instead running away with a circus, a cast of thousands, and three trained elephants – and the other part is that our life is not QUITE absolutely normal.  For instance, there are these “GIY” (get it yourself) dinners, where the kids come over and go “Is it guy?” and I nod and keep on typing.  A few years ago it was only the younger throwing a fit on being tired of eating boiled eggs (the only thing he knew how to make) that made me realize I hadn’t cooked for two weeks.

Writing is insidious. It not only pushes all other activities out of the way, given a chance, it pushes most of your thoughts away too.  So you emerge at the end of a book and suddenly realize your library book is three weeks overdue, there’s a pile of contracts you forgot to sign and OMG, weren’t you supposed to go to the doctor last week.

This sort of creates a roller coaster of chaos in the writer’s life.  Things that a normal mother, wife or housewife would do every day and gradually, get deferred until they explode (loudly) in my face.  I’ll think something isn’t due yet because I did it two weeks ago… and it will be six months or a year.  I start projects like gardening and idea hits and I leave it half finished.  Then forget it ever existed.

This is probably why every writer I know, even those who manage to be happily married and have semi-well-adjusted children, is always dealing with something or other, usually postponed health checkups or dental work.

But this appearance of chaos and disorder is deceptive.  Beneath it all we’re working in stories, and stories are order.  More, stories bring order into the world.

Given a number of disparate events, writers – or storytellers, in this case, since we could narrate the story orally – can’t help but make a coherent story.  A dog on the road; a ballerina with tattered clothes; a worn shoe in front of a fence – any of these and we make a story and even a “moral” explanation – in the sense of a satisfactory cause and effect – behind it.

The dog is on the road and dodging cars because she escaped a cruel master who mistreated her.  The ballerina wears tattered clothes because she doesn’t care for material things, but only for her art.  The worn shoe in front of the fence was left there by peg-legged man who…

The difficult part is not for me to make up a story – the difficult part is for me to prevent myself from making up a story.  To the extent the human brain is a machine for bringing order out of chaos and creating a satisfactory chain out of random events, the writer’s brian is a well-honed machine for doing so.

It used to be, when mom sent me to get something in the store, that I had to consciously not link people I saw on the street, or odd neighbors talking to each other, or something out of place.  Sometimes I couldn’t resist, and told the story to mom as if it were all linked (and it’s amazing the number of times it really was.)  But in real life, I have to keep reminding myself that I can make as many stories as you like, but you shouldn’t BELIEVE them.

If you’re sitting at a diner counter and the person next to you is saying something like “they found everything but the head.  They’ll never find that.  I know what I did with it, but I’m not telling anyone” – did you just sit next to a murderer?  Or was he talking about a recording device part, or a hundred of other things called a “head?”  Heck, even the page has a head.  (Presumably you didn’t sit next to someone who hid a whole bathroom, though you might have.)

But so long as you don’t mistake truth and imagination for each other, you can and will make stories.  And you might even be sure they’re true.  But if you find an add in the local craigslist for a “Clever Girl” Velociraptor you might “know” it is a code between thieves, but you shouldn’t call the police on that basis.

The thing is, our writers have the same sort of mind, only they’re not always – or they’re not most of the time – as good at making up the chain of order and sequence as we are.  But we’ll still love books that start with a seemingly random event that suddenly becomes far more significant.

In one of my favorite scenes of They Walked Like Men as they’re driving along, they see behind them a car with only one headlight… and then they realize the headlight is in the middle, which is when they know the car isn’t real.

The truth is driving a rural road, you might come across stuff like that (and we have) and it’s just someone whose truck headlights quit, and they hung a lantern in front to drive the five miles or so to get the truck home.

But I could see Clifford Simak in that position and thinking “Um… what if it were aliens pretending to be a car?”  And that is somehow more satisfactory because a truck with a lantern hanging mid-hood is just crazy, while aliens pretending to be a car makes sense, makes a pattern and can be a story.

In turn, humans are the stories they tell themselves. If you go far back enough in time, you find plots that are either unorganized and things seem to happen at random or as the result of the gods whim or some other device that seems to obey only the promptings of a restless subconscious.

Then, they slowly acquire organization and a sense that things happened for a reason.  And then readers (or listeners) integrate this into their lives.  And this makes it easier, in turn, for humanity to organize, particularly when the idea of what causes what effect becomes more or less universal.

Stories mold our minds, our relationships, our societies.  All because some story teller couldn’t hear a random phrase like “And then I found out they were aliens” and think “Oh, yeah, foreigners” but instead looks over the very normal girl who said it and thinks “She met aliens?  How did she escape?”

Oh, we’re imagination too, but most of all we’re bringers of order, of rationality, of sense into the world.

Now excuse me while I go get the cat out of the bookcase and tell the kids arguing in the hall to shut up.  There’s a story that needs my brain as an engine of order for the world.

52 responses to “The Order Of The Storyteller

  1. Martin L. Shoemaker

    See, I thought the point was to work the dog, the ballerina, and the old shoe into a SINGLE story that connected them and made sense of these disconnected, nonsensical concepts.

    And ya know, I’m starting to see that story in my head. It’s a very sad one…

  2. 'nother Mike

    er… what book was the cat looking for? Just wondered.

    • Ah, and here I thought that the cat’s molecular structure has somehow gotten co-mingled with the book case.

      • um… the house is now 90% Havelock fur. Havelock eats as much as the other cats combined and produces fur abundantly. I’m sure the bookcase has fur IN its structure, too.

        • Wayne Blackburn

          I’m pretty sure that if I collected all the hair in the house from my Jack Russell Terrier, we could make at least a blanket for our king sized bed.

        • Mittens, the Gray Cat, Overhead and Underfoot, Purr-bucket, Lead-bottom, formerly called Jake used to shed at least a whole cat every week.

          I wonder: maybe there is a particular sub-set of aliens who pass themselves as cats, but have not mastered this shedding thing?

          • we just say Havey is a machine for turning tuna into fuzz.

            Meanwhile Miranda looks alien — she’s a cornish rex.

          • Athena spite sheds. She goes to the cat-wash once a month and they get a half-cat at least out of her. Then for the next two days she dumps an even greater amount of fur all over the place, just to show us who is the real boss. Although she still has not topped GiganCat (25 lb, 36″ nose to tail tip), who could emit a fur-field, especially when sitting in sunlight. You’d watch the hair rising off of him like an orange cloud. It was awe inspiring, and often “aww *&$#” inspiring as well.

    • The cat (Havey) gets locked in the glass front bookcase by his arch-rival the other cat, aka D’Artgnan, Lord of Evil evilness. Then he meows piteously.

  3. And this is why Irish poets were part of the native Irish system of government, back in the olden days. Poets represented the order of the world (and God, medieval Ireland being Christian), reminded everyone what it was, and praised those who did the right thing. They were also expected to be entertaining and full of wordplay (because that was part of the order of things), and to speak up with moral authority if things were wrong. So they were important professionals in the court of any king or wealthy lord, as well as having a certain amount of mystical oracularness associated with their profession and the hereditary poet families.

    However, poets stopped being allowed to be brehon lawyers, because they used a little too much wordplay and abstruse poetic vocabulary in interpreting the law.

  4. I said once here that I told stories to myself to go asleep. Plus I used to tell stories to my brothers. Since chemo I don’t speak as well as I used to, but when I write the words are all there. So I write.

  5. And that, boys and girls, is why postmodern deconstructionists are Evil.

  6. In turn, humans are the stories they tell themselves.
    There’s a lot of danger in this – I am baffled by the things people believe because of the stories they’ve been told all their lives, but which are completely contradicted by facts (and not difficult-to-obtain facts, either, but by the evidence of everyday life). But stories are more fun, they raise emotions and that seems to trump rational thinking.

    • That suggests in part that the people who have the facts need to become better, as in more engaging, story tellers. And it shows just how invested people can become in certain stories, how much meaning they find in the tales.

      • And we human wavers are working on it, right?

        • We’re trying, one story at a time, fiction and non-fiction. I’m bracing for screams from the review readers over some of the sacred cows that the data turned into chopped sirloin.

          • Personally I have never understood letting a cow wander into your house, but I understand the appeal of top sirlion quite well ;)

            • I once heard David Weber order steak “Bring a cow in from the meadows. Show it the fire. Let it get scared. Cut a steak. Put it on my plate. that’s how I want it done.”

              I hadn’t been warned and sprayed half the table with m drink.

              • LOL. My favorite description thereof belongs to the great Brad Shelton: “I like my steaks the same way I like my women: dark and dead, like Whitney Houston; not pink and thrashing around, like Lady Gaga.”

      • That was the basis for the success of Ronald Reagan, and the core of his ability to speak to the people over the heads of the MSM. Seek out the “Ronald Reagan in his Own Voice” collection of his 3-minute radio speeches and listen to the incredible economy and effectiveness of his story-telling.
        [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lo7WTBlo86s ]

      • Martin L. Shoemaker

        Heh. That reminds me of a paragraph from my novel, one that I love but I’m sure the editor will cut…

        That one even I knew. First Law of Memetic Transfer: “The most interesting idea spreads the fastest and farthest.” But that’s how Helen taught it to me. Most people know it as “Boring doesn’t propagate well,” or simply Bruno’s Law. Emile Bruno, the man who first proposed it, formulated both versions; and it delighted him that the “non-boring” version was better known, proving his point. I know, because he told me so when Helen invited him to speak at McAuliffe. He was over 90 at the time, but still could hold a crowd in the palm of his hand. He even made a non-geek like me understand his more esoteric points. Before he left, he confided in me Bruno’s Corollary: “Boring doesn’t propagate well, even if it’s true. It’s not enough to be right, young man. You must sell it!” And that was the last conversation we had, before he returned Downside, and before the stroke that finally cut short his career.

  7. My family, or a chunk of it anyway, comes from the Appalachian mountains back east. There is a family custom of story telling that dates back so far, no one really knows who started it. Not one family event went by without everyone sitting around telling stories. Some were true, some weren’t. The old stories were teaching stories, mostly. And some of the new stories were quickly taken in as family lore. Some storytellers, like my great grandmother was always a serious story teller, but my brother, Ed, can make the smallest event into a hilarious romp. Just telling the story of getting drunk in Okinawa when he was in the Marines turned it into what would make a wonderfully funny slap stick movie that has everyone laughing out loud.
    It has to do with his way with words. The turn of phrase, timing, and knowledge of his audience is vital. Just so, the same thing must happen with a written word. What is often funny in the oral telling, may not be in the written telling of a story. It all depends on how the writer phrases everything.

  8. I sometimes tell myself stories, too. The problem with that is sometimes I get so engrossed in the story I’m telling myself that I can’t get to sleep, and I’m up at 3:30 in the morning trying to get the basic outline down before I forget it.

  9. Sorry I missed the fun here today. Woke up at 6am with a part of the Latest Story which just Had. To. Be. Written. and thus did the day disappear: 14 pages (sngle-spaced).

    Sadly, on reviewing it now, I’m not sure I like the direction it’s taken the story. May require rewriting. Gah.