Why Do We Tell Stories?: A Hastily Developed Sequel

SLEEPWALK by Sara Driver

VIDEODROME by David Cronenberg

A few weeks ago, I wrote about some reasons I think people are strongly drawn to stories. But I didn’t really get to the heart of the matter (a joke that’ll make sense momentarily–trust me, you’ll be literally ROFLing, just stick with me).

Lately I’ve been watching a lot of the Criterion Channel. Criterion streams a combination of classic Hollywood films, newer indie and foreign films, and everything in between. In bouncing around between them, particularly the Hollywood films and the smaller, weirder, indie films, I’ve noticed that the movies that affect me most, the ones that stick with me best, are the ones with which I have a strong emotional reaction.

Fresh in my mind is the comparison between two strange films: Sara Driver’s SLEEPWALK and David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME. They were released only a few years apart (1986 and 1983, respectively), and have similar dreamlike tones. The major difference that I walked away with is how much structure and explanation accompanies each. Because SLEEPWALK is an indie film, there is a sense of unpredictability throughout, for better or worse. VIDEODROME, on the other hand, adheres to expected storytelling elements that made the film less impactful for me.

In SLEEPWALK things happen seemingly at random. A child walks a pigeon. A woman calls her boyfriend’s empty apartment, where a strange, large machine sits next to the ringing phone, and it’s never spoken of again. The film ends with Nicole, the protagonist, falling asleep near a river while searching for her missing child, who is blindfolded and sits just a few feet away, out of reach for both of them. None of it is explained, much of it doesn’t even seem related to the main plot, but all of it is emotionally impactful.

VIDEODROME, on the other hand, dives deep into its weirdness and explains it to make a larger point about its themes. All fine, but in explaining the television signals and how they lead to hallucinations the weirdness of the film, and thereby its emotional impact, is blunted. By allowing us to see behind the curtain I found myself engaging with it on a less emotional level. While much of VIDEODROME has stuck with me, I don’t find myself returning to its images like I do SLEEPWALK.

By any objective measure, VIDEODROME is a better film. It’s well-made, with spectacular effects and strong performances throughout, inventive cinematography, and a strong story with resonant themes. SLEEPWALK, on the other hand, is like a tone poem. But in focusing solely on the emotional impact of each scene without trying to tie it all together, I found myself drawn into the movie and still thinking about it weeks after watching.

All of this is to say that storytelling is, first and foremost, and emotional experience. Emotions literally rewrite our brains. Building from that foundation, hitting the audience in the heart and them aiming for their head, I think is the most effective way to tell a story that will stick with someone.

Voice (re: finding of)

Pictured: Athena finding her voice.

Voice is one of those things that everyone agrees is really important, but no one can define really well. The best and worst definition I’ve come across is that voice is what makes you you. It’s the elements of your style, themes, grammar, character, choices, etc. etc. that make your writing unique. It’s everything and it’s nothing. Concrete, but ethereal. Chuck Wendig tried to break it down a while back.

For example, Stephen King is known for his voice. Sort of folksy, with vulgar flourishes and lots of references to music and movies. I would argue that even the translation of Haruki Murakami has a strong voice. His whimsy, the pointedness of his sentences, the normal characters thrown into fantastic situations, the Western allusions in an Eastern style. You know a Murakami book when you pick one up.

I don’t have a good understanding of my voice. There have been lots of times when I thought I knew, but would then be confronted with something that proved me otherwise. So, I asked a professional editor if she could describe it for me. This is what she said, paraphrased: “Your writing didn’t strike me as particularly voicey. I think that’s good. When I think of really voicey prose, this isn’t that. What you’re doing is worth publishing, good enough to query, but I think your voice is still in development.”

What I found interesting about that response is the idea that a voice doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Mr. Wendig up there points out that there is often a fine line between strong voice and bad writing, and I think that’s sort of what the editor is touching on. My writing style–my voice, as it were–is unobtrusive at this point in my development. Which is helpful to know as I’m working on honing those aspects of my personality and obsessions that will ultimately make my voice wholly me.

One thing that I think shows up in my writing without my necessarily meaning it to is a really dry, almost unintentional sense of humor. The novella that I had edited leans into that a bit more, but I remember in a writing group a few years ago someone told me they found my story hilarious. This was news to me, as I had meant to write a serious, dramatic science fiction story. But, on revisiting the story through his eyes I absolutely saw what struck him as funny. Even though what I was writing about was serious, the way I wrote about it acknowledged and even pointed out the ridiculousness of the situation. Sort of a wink to the reader to say, “This shit ain’t normal, is it? What is even happening?”

And you know what? I kind of like that. Storytelling is inherently silly, especially in the oral tradition. We create exaggerated versions of ourselves, step outside of who we are, to entertain and inform. That’s fun.

So, I think that’s an aspect of my voice I want to continue developing. I’ve also started to notice reoccurring themes (obsessions) in my writing that might be an aspect of my voice. Things like what governments are and how they should interact with citizens, death and its repercussions, fathers and sons, and deferred dreams.

Maybe one day I’ll have a firm grasp on what makes my writing unique to me. The only way to do that is to pump out words and then sift through the mess until patterns arise. Eventually that mess could coalesce into something more, and that something will be me.

The Politics in Politics

It’s no longer a fox at Congress, but wolves.

Even before the January 6th coup attempt there’s been something about how our political systems have operated that’s bothered me deeply, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I read this sentence in a CNN article: “Impeachment could also force the Senate to consider the impeachment articles in a trial at the same time Biden was being sworn in and would need the Senate to confirm his Cabinet.”

When I read that I asked myself, “Why wouldn’t the Senate confirm Biden’s cabinet because we impeached a criminal President?” But the answer is obvious–there is no sense of justice, fairness, or truth in politics. We like to pretend there was in the past, and maybe there was at specific times in our history, but mostly it’s always been like this.

Politics is all optics and relationships. Politicians don’t do what’s right for people based on facts, or perceived truth, or reality, but based on their feelings and how they think people will see them and what relationships they have with other politicians.

There’s long been a quiet understanding that in order to succeed in politics one has to be egoistic. Without a healthy ego no one would ever willingly subject themselves to the scrutiny and bullshit that comes with power. A person has to sincerely believe in themselves, for whatever reason, to run for office. As an optimist, I like to believe that the belief stems from a sense of wanting to do good, even if that good is only good for a minority of people.

But that’s not true of every politician. Some do only get into politics for power. Because they’re bullies and like to assert their influence over others. Right now, much of the Republican party seems to be made up of these types of people.

There is no good system of government because there is no objective, nuanced way to find good leaders. We have to make a determination of who might make a good leader based on those who step forward and apply for the job. In the name of free and fair elections–Democracy–our political system doesn’t even safeguard against known grifters or criminals. That’s how you end up with a con man and rapist in the White House, and pedophile protectors (and nearly actual pedophiles) in Congress. Arby’s has more stringent hiring standards than our political system.

And that’s how we end up with a political party that potentially confirm an entire cabinet and allow our government to run like it should because they don’t like that their President was held accountable for his crimes. Because they had a relationship with him that isn’t based in any objective truth or reality, but only their perception of power.

Hopes for 2021

The last photo I took in 2020. I think it’s a good preview for 2021.

2020 is over. Finally.

2021 is here. A bright new year full of possibilities and (maybe) wonder.

I don’t think there’s a particularly good reason to make new year goals, and in fact I tend to revisit my goals every three months (planning pyramid FTW!), but there are some things I hope to accomplish this year. Putting them out into the world, at the very least, will hold me somewhat accountable.

Creative Life

I have several goals in this arena, barring another pandemic or something silly like having a child:

  • Dedicate words toward more stories and less blogs: I usually always set word count goals and I always miss them. Last year was 5,000 words per week, with the understanding that I can write 1,000 words per hour before work if I know what I’m trying to do. But… work didn’t end up being that predictable and this website and blog took up a lot of my creative time. So, having learned that lesson I’m doing two things: 1) going down to once per week blog posts instead of twice per week and 2) setting a goal of 4,000 words per week. In addition, I’m more closely tracking my word counts day-to-day and week-to-week to actually see how I’m progressing. So far… not so great. But we’ll get to that.
  • Publish one or two things: My novella is nearly ready to publish, now that it’s gone through a professional editor. She gave me a lot of confidence that I’m not the terrible writer I secretly suspect I am, while also pointing me in directions I hadn’t considered. Once those edits are done, I’m going to get a professional cover made and release it into the world. I would also like to collect the vignettes on this site and package them with longer original stories by the end of the year.
  • Revise my novel: This story has vexed me in so many ways, but I think I may have figured out the story-related thing that’s been bugging me. Turns out, it’s something a beta reader pointed out nearly two years ago that has stuck with me. I’ve resolved to do something about it. I don’t know if this novel is traditionally publishable since I don’t even know how to pitch it (which is more a fault with me than the novel), so we’ll see how my self-publishing experiments go.
  • Write a new novel: It’s outlined and much of the research is done, which is where I need to be to really hit my word count goals. Can’t say much more than that.
  • Miscellaneous: Let’s call these stretch goals. I want to finish a screenplay I started at the end of last year, and possibly enter some contests. I also want to start a newsletter to coincide with the release of the novella. We’ll see on that one. Finally, I’d like to be more engaged with the writing community. I could use the support and learning opportunities. This one is difficult. I’m not an socially outgoing person, and I don’t like social media. But I have some ideas.

A bit ambitious, I think, considering what my professional and personal life will look like. Speaking of…

Professional

My professional life is one that I don’t really make obvious goals for it. Most of what happens is outside of my control and requires flexibility. I want to survive, mostly, and maybe continue to put myself in leadership positions.

I think that’s the big one. I don’t really care about certifications or anything like that because they’re largely meaningless to my day-to-day work. Sure, there are learning opportunities in getting them, but mostly I find the ROI to be pretty low vis-a-vis time and effort. Being a good teammate and leader, though, is important to me. 2020 was tough because I was running up against issues with my first hire and had to do some tightrope walking to balance my employees needs with that of the company.

This year will be more of that, since I’m growing my team and we’ll all have more responsibility as the company continues to grow. In short, I want to be the type of manager I always wished I’d had when I was starting my career.

Personal

Nothing I do this year (or the next 18+ years, really) will be as important as Elijah. Nurturing him is my priority above all else. Sure, I have some goals, but I think it’s important to set them with the expectation that Elijah will come before any of them, so they may not get done. That goes for my creative and professional goals, as well. Little dude is gonna take over my life, and I’m perfectly ok with that.

All that said, I have set some personal goals for the year that are separate from my creative goals:

  • Money money money: I’ve never been a money-oriented person. It is the root of all evil, after all, so why would I want anything to do with that? As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve had a realization: my family needs money to live. Weird, I know. Caught me by surprise, too. Over the past few years I’ve gotten much better with money, but there’s always room for improvement. Like actually filling out expense reports so I’m not leaving money on the table. Setting up long-term investments. Paying down debts. That sort of thing.
  • Get in some sort of shape that’s not an amorphous blob: When I was playing hockey I didn’t worry as much about my health. Three to four times per week I was doing strenuous activity, which was enough to make me feel pretty good and keep my weight down. COVID has demolished all that. So I need to be disciplined and work out on my own.
  • Prioritize my mental health: I tend to think I’m stronger than I really am, so I allow myself to take on a lot until I reach a breaking point. I don’t want to do that, anymore, because it’s not good for me and it’s really not good for my family. Permission to take breaks, to step away from work when I’m overwhelmed, and generally giving myself permission to enjoy the life I’ve built without the guilt of my own ambitions.

***

That’s probably a lot, but I also try to aim high in the hopes that even missing will be progress toward my long-term goals. 2020 was unpredictable and weird for lots of reasons and 2021 promises to be even more of that, so I’m gonna keep that in mind. Hopefully, though, by this time next year the goals will be a little bit bigger because of the progress I’ll have made on these ones.

Reflections on 2020

This is the first photo I took in 2020. The rest of the year did not live up to this moment.

Wow. Thank God 2020 is over, yeah? Nowhere to go but up, and things will never be that bad again…

… is the joke everyone is making.

I recognize that in the long arcs of our lives, dates and years are arbitrary and only useful as an organizational tool. There is no reason to make goals just because it’s a new year, just as there’s no reason not to make goals at any other point in the year.

That said, mentally there is something nice about feeling like we get a fresh start because the calendar switched over. In that sense, I wanted to do an epic(?) two-part blog post to reflect on the things that happened to me this year, personally and professionally, and then talk about my hopes for 2021. 2020 was a strange year, obviously, in nearly every part of my life. There were lots of stressors, but I have to admit that, given the circumstances, things went pretty well in my creative, professional, and personal lives.

Creative Life

I came into the year with big plans–BIG PLANS I TELL YA–and failed to meet most of them. There are plenty of reasons for that which I’ll go into when discussing my professional and personal life, but it wasn’t devoid of progress.

First, this website. I started it back in December of 2019, with the idea that it would help me to be more disciplined, build an audience, and help me to develop my “brand.” I was fairly disciplined this year, updating the blog twice per week every week except for a *ahem* nearly three-month period where I only managed two blog posts total and purposefully didn’t update during a two-week vacation I had planned. Still, that’s 77 blog posts last year, which is a personal record. I was also disciplined about the vignettes, posting one per month except for that three-month period where I was MIA.

There isn’t much to report on the audience or “brand” front. My page view and engagement numbers are low enough to not even be worth mentioning and I don’t even know what a “brand” is in my case. I initially had ideas about how to build an audience, but was unable to follow through because of time constraints. I wouldn’t exactly say I bit off more than I could chew, but my experience this year has shown me that I need to better prioritize my time and consider other avenues toward finding my people.

I did a lot of writing this year without actually completing any major projects. Still, I wrote nearly 20 vignettes and short stories, started a new screenplay, outlined my next novel, and continued work on the novella. On that front, I decided to hire a professional editor in preparation for self-publishing the novella. I’ll probably write more about that experience later, but it was definitely worthwhile. I had my confidence boosted while also learning a lot about my writing and having things about the story pointed out to me that I hadn’t considered. I’m excited to finish the revisions and show it to everyone.

So, in all it was a good stepping stone year. I didn’t make any big moves, but I put a lot of the pieces in place to make those moves later on.

Professional

This was a strange year for me, professionally. First, it was very busy. Remember when I disappeared off the face of the planet for three months? It was because of my day job and it’s probably something that will happen to me around that time every year. I should have realized that and planned for it.

I took on a lot more responsibility this year. I’ve been with my company for six and a half years at this point, and for much of that my boss has expected me to shift into a management position. I’ve always been resistant to that because it feels like if I agree to middle-management I’m dead. Life is over. That’s what I am. But that’s not (wholly) true.

In fact, over the past few years my responsibilities have grown to the point that I was an unofficial manager, anyway. I’ve been the defacto lead of our little team for a while now, and have had a direct report since 2018. In short, I was already doing the thing I had resisted doing–only I didn’t have the title or the pay to go with it.

At the end of 2019, when our end-of-year raises were released, I brought this up to my boss. I came with data on my responsibilities and how they compared to the market, my experience, and what I expected my pay to be. He ran that up the chain and the word I got back was, “We didn’t realize you were already doing so much. Here’s your promotion.” It went into effect in January and over the course of the year I’ve continued to solidify my grip on our department (i.e., grow into the role). When raises came around again this year, I was given a substantial bump (relatively–COVID prevented anyone in the company that I’m aware of from getting a huge raise) and further responsibilities.

Long story short, I’m now middle-management. Yay?

Personal

My personal goals this year, whatever they were in January, were shot to shit within a few months. And then their corpses were stomped on and dragged through the dirty streets, spit on by every passerby, until their desecrated bodies were unceremoniously thrown into a ditch and buried.

But then a funny thing happened. They were reborn into things I didn’t even know I wanted.

For one, there is Elijah. My wife and I had tried to get pregnant in 2019, with no luck, and decided to hit pause until she finishes her internship later in 2021. Life had other plans, though, and she’ll have Elijah smack in the middle of the internship, instead.

Elijah led to us buying our first house. And then that house decided to make me regret it immediately with a flooded basement and myriad other problems that houses tend to have. Searching for and buying a house during a pandemic was certainly an interesting experience. Wouldn’t recommend it, though.

Other than those two things, my personal life was quiet. Aside from a careful visit from some friends over the summer, we haven’t seen any friends or family in person since March, and I’ve only played hockey once since the initial wave. With my wife being pregnant, we decided to minimize risks. So, it’s been a lonely year in that regard. Luckily, as a writer, I’m good with loneliness. It also helps that my wife is my best friend.

***

As I said before, 2020 was a weird year for more reasons than the pandemic (although the pandemic made it more weird). I’ll outline some of my goals for 2021 next week. That’s right, blog posts are going down to once per week this year. I’ll explain why next time. So stay tuned.

It’s a low bar, but I hope everyone’s 2021 is way fucking better than their 2020.

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