Monthly Archives: August 2013

Steal a Moment

Today I was browsing the internet when a friend of mine posted a link to this article all about the way that storytelling enhances our understanding of a subject.

Having now read the article and thought about it a while, I felt like it was the perfect stepping stone for a post in this blog. After all, this whole thing is supposed to be one large examination of stories on every level, so why not go back to the basics? Not just what makes a good story, but why stories are good.

I did think the article did a great job of summing up the science of it (and I’m not going to sum it up here), but one quote in particular stuck out to me:

What’s interesting about this is that you are very likely to never forget the story of who invented the sandwich ever again. Or at least, much less likely to do so, if it would have been presented to us in bullet points or other purely information-based form.

The reason it stands out? Because it’s true. I will probably never forget the story of the invention of the sandwich. Sure, I won’t remember the inventor’s name, and I won’t remember the time period or the meat involved, but I sure will remember an image of a man playing cards with one hand and eating the first sandwich with the other. While the article looks at the science aspect of this, I’d venture that from a writing point, this isn’t so much about aiming for certain areas of the brain as it is about making a story memorable. Because at the heart of every writer’s story, isn’t there at least some tiny aspiration to be remembered?

When I was younger I remember reading a quote that said being a writer was one of the most pretentious professions a person could aspire to have because it meant they thought that they had something to say that was worth another person’s time to read. Although I can’t find that quote now (if anyone does find it, please link me to it! I’d like to give credit), I still remember it after all these years. Because while it is true some people write only for themselves, I would say that the majority of people write (or in a more general sense, tell stories) to really say something. They tell a story to make a point, or to pass on a meaning, or to create an emotion. Stories are tools used for a greater purpose, to try and convince the audience that the storyteller has a point worth making.

The thing about a good story is that it can really make a point stick. In my time I have read, watched, and listened to countless stories in every type of medium. Obviously I could not possibly recall them all if I tried. Yet if I’m talking to someone and they mention, say, that they drink a lot of coffee, stories that I’ve encountered immediately come to mind. I might mention that my favorite TV show, Gilmore Girls, has main protagonists who drink a ridiculous amount of coffee, and recount the first time we see the mother, Lorelai, beg her friend Luke for an extra cup of coffee. Or I might mention the time my theater director got me a coffee shop gift card as a thank you for being stage manager, not realizing that I didn’t drink coffee.

The reason for this? Because certain words and phrases bring up memories, and memories, at their core, are just stories that have been stored in our mind as important.

I’ve always done better in school with subjects like English and history class because at their core, they are stories. They tell fictional stories, or show history as stories, or paint a picture of life in easy to remember snippets of the past. Perhaps that’s why the only science class I ever really enjoyed was physics because every problem I solved was a story. The more memorable the word problem, the more eager I was to solve it. And it wasn’t just me who realized that; my physics teacher tended to use word problems like “If Tarzan drops Jane accidentally while 50 feet above the ground, moving right to left on a vine at 38 mph, how long would it take Jane to hit the ground?” to get our attention.

I still remember things from high school that were stories– my own experiences, stories from class, and random facts, but I can honestly say that every one of them is a story. And if it wasn’t a story to begin with, I turned it into one. At work if I can’t remember where a certain file is, it only takes one frustrating experience looking for it before it becomes a story. Then, the next time I’m looking I can go “oh yeah, I remember that one time that I took forever, and it turned out to be ___.” And the reason I can find it the second time? Because at that point, it’s a personal experience– a story.

But what does this mean for a storyteller?

Well, it means that we’re pretty pretentious for one. But let’s be honest, that can’t really be news. By definition a storyteller is trying to get another person to listen to them. Even if we’re only demanding attention for a moment, it’s a moment that we stole from a person’s ever-limited time alive.

The neat thing about stories, though, is that while the storyteller might only steal a moment, that moment can last a lifetime. If a storyteller chooses their words wisely and really nails home some sort of point in whatever means they choose, if they really cause the audience to think, then that story never goes away. There are stories still in todays society that are hundreds of years old. Stories that are passed down as “classics” because they have something to teach, or because they’re supposed to be “better” than other stories. Those stories resonated with the right audience at the right time and now they have the possibility of living forever.

The stories that I analyze in this blog are all moments that I will relive for the rest of my life. They are all part of me now. They all influence my writing, they influence what I read and what I study. They influence my life. And what those stories and this article have really made me realize is that my goal in life isn’t to write a story that lives forever.

I just want to write a story that lasts longer than the moment it takes to tell.

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Dare to be a Satirist

Let’s start with an English lesson, shall we? Today I’m going to be writing about Terry Pratchett’s particular use of satire in his writing. Before I can get far in that, though, it’ s important to establish what satire actually is. 

“It’s that English thing,” one of my college friends said one day when I asked them to define the word. “Like when an author is really mean, right?”

Another of my friends piped in and said, “It’s when they suggest horrible things like eating babies. That was Swift that did that one, wasn’t it?”

Well, while those definitions seem to be the more common view of satire, particularly in America, I prefer the official definition:

 1) A literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.

2) Irony, sarcasm, or caustic wit used to attack or expose folly, vice, or stupidity.

So basically yes– it’s a work that is “mean” about a topic. It generally specifically attacks a certain topic, or event, or prejudice of society and using exaggeration and sarcasm, points out just how ridiculous we can be as human beings sometimes.

Needless to say, I adore satire when it’s done well. I have never known any other words to both infuriate and inspire quite so poignantly as those by a satirist. There’s just something about extremes and double meanings that gets people up-in-arms, and it’s wonderful. Because when it comes down to it, what is a story really about? Is it about existing in its own quiet bubble, or is it about being listened to, engaged with, and responded to?

Well, each author has their own preference, of course, but I’m inclined to say it is the latter. If you create a story and at the end nobody feels any differently, what was really the point? Every good story has at least one element that will stick with the audience. It might be something happy, or sad, dramatic, or especially clever. But it should be there.

For satire, it basically takes that one element and makes it the subject of the piece. It uses wit to cleverly make the reader think they aren’t reading about social change or the dismal condition of whatever group that our society has forgotten this time– it tricks them into thinking they’re just reading for fun.

The problem with satires, of course, is that they aren’t always understood. They aren’t universal. A reader must both pay attention closely and already have a background knowledge of the subject to fully appreciate a satire. Otherwise it comes off as anywhere from unnecessarily harsh to downright barbaric.

Take perhaps the most famous satirist, Jonathan Swift. His famous (sometimes infamous) work “A Modest Proposal” is the hallmark of everything I love about satire. It shocks, pokes fun, and generally plays with the reader’s emotions throughout, then sweeps in at the end with the “real” solutions. For those who haven’t read it, go google it right now and read. It will take you 20 minutes max, and if you aren’t hooked by the first page by means, put it down. I doubt you’ll be able to.

For those too lazy for that bit of reading I will sum it up in a single sentence. Swift’s persona suggests that the Irish poor get out of poverty by selling their overabundance of children as a food source and status clothing source for the wealthy. Yeah, delightful, right? But as you actually read the work, hopefully you’ll be able to see the humor in the scathing sarcasm. Short jabs at the landlords, wealthy, and those uncaring about the Irish poor make the whole piece really come together as a clear satire rather than a serious suggestion.

Even so, after this essay came out, people were outraged. Nobody seemed to get the joke, and those who got it were not half as loud as those who didn’t. Which of course meant that by the time everyone got it, most people felt embarrassed by the excessively poor plight of the Irish as well as by their own lack of understanding.

This is a good place to pause and point out why many people consider satire to be overly harsh or “mean.” Satire is rarely understood by everyone it is read by, and I am certainly not a person who claims that anyone who doesn’t understand is stupid. Certainly satire requires a very specific audience, and if parts of that audience still fail to grasp it, it’s as much on the writer as on the reader. Satire should be written to the point that if you look for the humor, it should be easily found. Granted, you have to start out looking. Someone has to tell you “No really, read Swift again. He’s hilarious!” before you really start looking for the jokes, but as long as they can be found on a second read, the author has done their job well.

Which brings me to a more recent author: British writer Terry Pratchett of “Discworld” fame.

For the last year a good friend of mine has been trying to get me to read books by Terry Pratchett. She knows of my excessive love for satire of all sorts, and had I not been swamped with all of my reading for English classes, I probably would have gotten to her suggestion sooner. As it was, I ended up reading two of his books this summer. And let me just say, they are fabulous. 

Granted, I’ve only read two, and they aren’t his “best” according to most, but they are amongst the greats. So far I’ve read Small Gods and Guards! Guards! and both were awesome and special in their own way. Apart from being brilliantly written novels which had strong characters, pacing, and plotlines, they both acted as a satire of particular things.

 

Small Gods was a satire primarily focused on religion and some of the silly things that come up there (like wars, rules taken out of context, how prophets are made, etc.). It was great because it was the sort of thing just about anyone could understand. Everyone has had some sort of dealing with religion, positive or negative, personally involved or just as an observer. And since Pratchett was focusing on an imaginary religion that mimicked just about every religion out there, there wasn’t any direct offense to be made except by those easily offended by anything religion related in general.

Similarly, the book Guards! Guards! focuses on satirizing the typical role of guards in fantasy novels. While this one is certainly funnier to someone who already knows about the fantasy genre and can relate to the different elements being made fun of, it’s not necessary to read and appreciate the book. For instance, I’m familiar with the cliches of fantasy books, but far from an experienced reader in the genre, so I was a little concerned starting. As it was, while I got most of the references and satire that was in the book, there were plenty of things I didn’t need to have any prior knowledge of to understand.

That would be Terry Pratchett’s brilliant poking fun at the English language itself. He uses common phrases and sayings to really subvert the reader’s expectations and remind them that anything can follow the start of that phrase. Honestly, I might in the near future do a post all about Terry Pratchett’s word use in enhancing his stories, but for now I’ll just end this very long post with a few choice examples:

“The reason that cliches become cliches is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.”

“If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life.”

“They felt, in fact, tremendously bucked-up, which was how Lady Ramkin would almost certainly have put it and which was definitely several letters of the alphabet away from how they normally felt.”

“You had to hand it to the Patrician, he admitted grudgingly. If you didn’t, he sent men to come and take it away.”

“A number of religions in Ankh-Morpork still practiced human sacrifice, except that they didn’t really need to practice any more because they had got so good at it.”

“Thunder rolled . . It rolled a six.”

That’s all for now! Thank you to anyone reading this blog. No idea what the schedule for posts will be here but hopefully more frequent than it has been!

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