Ah, the entry that serves as both a writer discussing the medium closest to his heart and as proof that said writer should never write anything ever again. Good times.
20,000 B.C. Some hairy naked guy in serious need of a shower realizes he can take a sharp rock and carve pictures into his cave wall. That was the birth of storytelling.
Storytelling has grown a lot since then. No longer do we grunt and howl whilst we carve images of mastodons and saber tooth tigers chasing men in loin clothes, no longer do we sigh with unrequited love as we take a stick and draw a doodle in the sand of the hot cavewoman we have a crush on (Ug’s sister, the one with the unibrow and one big tooth, you know the one).
Yes, the art of storytelling has gone through many changes in the twenty or so millennia since that fateful day. For one thing, it has gotten much easier to jot down your ideas. Think back to cave drawings and hieroglyphics; if you made a mistake, what did you do? Did you cross it out with a sharp rock? Did you knock down the wall, build another one in its place and start fresh? Or maybe you just rolled with it and hoped no one noticed. Or just maybe, when faced with harsh criticism and the feeling that you had no idea what you were doing, you did what writers do today. You lied through your teeth.
Caveman 1: “Ug, this wall say Grah eat mastodon. Grah no eat mastodon, mastodon eat Grah.”
Caveman 2: “Ug was taking creative license with story of mastodon eating Grah. Ug write a ‘what if…’ scenario involving Grah and mastodon.”
Caveman 1: “No understand Ug.”
Caveman 2: “Ug no have to explain Ug’s art to you.”
Of course, that’s just the caveman days. In Ancient Egypt, when faced with the same scenario, the critic was just mummified and tossed in a tomb.
There were the days of parchment and quills, tools with which many great plays and novels got their start, through the era of pencil and paper, into typewriters, all leading up to today; the age of text messages and essays written on laptop computers.
But this blog is not about the various tools storytellers have used over the years. Rather, it’s about storytelling itself. I like to think we’re born as storytellers. Think about it; when have you ever known a young child who didn’t love talking, about anything and everything, as soon as they learn how? I distinctly remember being a child, maybe seven or eight, sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table while she prepared dinner for that evening (pierogies, mmm) and I regaled her with tales of little men who protected a mighty castle with nothing but forks. Of course, the forks in question, in relation to the size of the men holding them, were the size of large pitchforks.
Did my grandmother believe me? Of course not. Did I believe myself? No, not entirely. I mean, even at that age, I knew I was basically lying. And I had lied before, little things akin to “I didn’t do it” or shoveling my broccoli off the table and into the waiting mouth of our dog seated next to me, then claiming I ate the whole plate. But this was different; this felt good.
I loved reading as a child. Fairy tales, White Fang, the ever popular Goosebumps series of very short novels; I liked a lot of different stuff. When I discovered Comic Books, however, is when I truly understood the thrill of storytelling. This was a visual medium, so it was hard to ignore the basic building blocks of telling a good story being laid out before me, literally, piece by piece, page by page. Panel one introduced you to the characters, panel two put the characters in some deep shit, panel three revealed the characters being rescued from the aforementioned shit. It was like the heroes from my novels, but here they were; full color ass kickery, complete with sound effects (ZING! PAFF! BOOM! SOCKO!). I was in heaven. Comics changed my life in many ways, but that’s another blog for another day. I will say this, however; Comics helped me realize my love of telling stories on the page.
I had wanted to be an artist. I bought all the “How To Draw Comics!” books, got professional grade sketch paper, fine art pencils, the works. I was a man possessed. I sat up in my room until all hours of the night scribbling and scrawling; dragging the pencil across the paper was a release for me. It was cathartic. It was a way for me to be a part of the industry I had come to love and admire; comic books. Yes sir, I was going to be one of the top comic book artists in the world, someday. I was the next Jim Lee, the next Jack Kirby. There was just one problem.
My drawings were laughable. Even when I traced over existing artwork, the end result looked as though someone forced a sizeable amount of alcohol into a half-blind monkey, handed him a pencil and a pad of paper, and told him to draw. I became depressed, certain I was no longer going to be a part of the industry that had recently become such an important thing in my life. I moped for a few days, ate some ice cream, stayed awake at night, staring at the ceiling, silently wondering why I had no talent. And that was the problem, I assure you. It was not lack of practice, it was not becoming acclimated to the pencil and paper; it was pure, unadulterated, plain and simple lack of any talent whatsoever. Then it hit me; I had no problem coming up with stories, no problem at all. I would read my weekly comic books and instantly come up with a thousand unique ways that I would have done that week’s particular story differently. Who would have died, who would have lived, and who would have fought whom. That was the moment I came to the realization that would cause me equal parts great pain and fantastic joy over the years since; I was a writer.
It was nearly Halloween and I had a story in my head that needed telling. It was a story about a group of kids, all of whom I knew or were related to in some way, venturing into a nearby swamp and discovering a horrible beast. Only one of the children made it out alive. I grabbed a typewriter and banged out the story in an hour or two, then read it aloud to a group of elderly people at a Halloween party. The reactions ranged from horrified at the idea of children dying in a nearby swamp, to horrified at the idea of children dying in a nearby swamp but also thinking the story was good for a person my age, to horrified at the idea of children dying in a nearby swamp but also thinking I was adorably flustered while reading in front of an audience.
It felt great.
From that point on, I was a writer. I dabbled in fan fiction, arguably the lowest form of fiction (granted, I never did anything gross or sacrilegious), I wrote comic scripts, I began screenplays that never saw any sort of ending. I even wrote poetry and songs, all of which were very weird and often depressing. I generally stuck to writing short stories, mainly because they were more interesting than poetry, but not as long as novels.
Everyone writes. We write letters, we write notes, and we write e-mails, even lists. But only writers, those of us who cannot go longer than a day without writing, even a short scene or a line of dialogue, truly understand the primal need to tell our stories. Those of us, who write for ourselves, do so to let the demons out, so to speak. If a story is locked away in our subconscious, clawing at the inner lining of our skulls, it’s a form of release. A literary orgasm, you could say.
For those of us, who write for others, it’s a different story. It’s a constant and dire need for approval, for someone to say “Good job” or “I relate to this”. It’s a desire to entertain others, to give them something to relate to. Me? I fall somewhere in the middle. I won’t shy away from constructive criticism or, God forbid, praise for my writing, but I mostly write to exercise my mental demons. Call it a blessing or a curse, but I can relate to –and associate with- both sides of the writer mentality.
Some people seem to have forgotten the power of the written word. Just a handful of words can evoke every emotion imaginable. Pain, sadness, joy, surprise. If you can feel it, there is someone out there who can make you feel it with nothing more than a few words. Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in a mere six words. His response?
For Sale: Baby Shoes, never used.
How powerful is that? Hemingway was able to, not only get the mind reeling and the heart sinking, but he was able to spark the imagination. I don’t know a single person to whom I’ve shown those six words who did not, in some way, try to imagine the bigger story behind it. But it’s those six words, that single line that holds more depth than many full length novels I’ve read.
To be put simply, writers write because they have to; because if they weren’t writing, they wouldn’t truly exist, in the existential sense. I’ve read articles that claim writers are the way they are because of any of a wide variety of mental disorders, that we’re all batshit crazy and that’s why we do the things we do, and act the way we act. While I find it increasingly difficult to argue that writers are a little kooky, I certainly don’t think we’re all bi-polar time bombs waiting to explode our crazy goo all over some poor bastard in front of us in line at Starbucks.
Some of us, maybe, but certainly not all of us. Okay, maybe most of us. Fine, maybe these articles have a point.
Was Hemingway crazy when he wrote The Old Man and the Sea? Was Vonnegut insane when he wrote Slaughterhouse Five? Was Shakespeare pissing his pants and talking to God when he wrote Hamlet?
I think the bigger question is do we care? If insanity can result in such literary genius, I think I’d prefer to be the old man on the corner in the lumberjack uniform, screaming at the aliens in my head to stop trying to convince me to assassinate the President of Bolivia.
At least life would be interesting.