Storytelling: A Business Model

It’s cold and dark and there’s only so much TV on, and I need comfort this time of year, so I’ve been re-reading. Re-reading Trinity, which I do every now and again. Re-reading Sherlock Holmes, my first literary love and my truest, all slip and disguise. Re-reading Winter’s Tale, and yeah, I know he’s a right-winger but his description of Harry Penn’s newsroom never fails to make my heart hurt:

Witnessing the unraveling of the city, those of Harry Penn’s reporters who were not killed (as many of them were) returned to The Sun to write about it. They sensed that this was the proper thing to do, even if everything else had gone to hell, because they knew enough to know that whenever the world ends it always manages to begin again, and they had no intention of being left out.

It struck me, thinking this week about the writer’s strike and the latest journalistic idiocy at the Chicago Reader and the upcoming layoffs of some very dear friends, people I love and admire, as well as some meatspace work I’ve been doing for a few months, that what the decline in newspaper journalism and the writer’s strike have in common is a devaluation of the role of storytelling in our society.

This is a hard thing to justify, of course, because it sounds a lot like justification, but bear with me. I’ve been kicking this over in my head for a couple of weeks now, this idea of the value of what we do, because it’s not obviously valuable. I’m not going to feed anybody here. Nobody will be immediately less hungry because I’m sitting here on a Sunday morning with my coffee and my thoughts tapping them out on the keyboard. But I got this card in the mail the other day, related to something with my meatspace job, and it said, inside it, “The world is better for all the creative pursuits.”

Which, yeah.

I believe nothing’s real until we write it down. I believe if it’s not there, ink on paper, saved on hard disk, existing, someplace, and maybe no one knows about it until they need it, it barely existed at all. All of this is for nothing, nothing at all, unless there’s a record, unless there’s a way to find our way back someday. I believe in history the way I believe in having a good warm blanket on a cold night: safety, that in moments of extremity we can look at the trials and triumphs of others and say, “We can do this, it’s not that hard,” and that someday our stories might give that same comfort to others.

And even if it’s not documentary, even if it’s fiction, even if it’s poetry … people have died for worse things than poetry, and can you tell me the world would be better off without Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Mary Doria Russell, Jane Austen, A.S. Byatt, Malamud, Mailer, Kinsella? Can you honestly say we wouldn’t miss it, what they did? Would the world really be better off without knowing the stories existed in the hearts of those people? Would we really be richer not having seen Occupation and Precipice, You Can’t Go Home Again? All the stuff that blew my mind, would I be the same without knowing it?

Would we have survived, without that? Without our storytelling, great and small? Probably. We could have eaten and slept, had children, cared for them, gone to work in the morning and come home at night. But we wouldn’t be the same, because everything we experience changes us, chips away at us like stones under the wind and rain, and what you’re doing, storytelling, is handing someone else your heart. (I didn’t believe that, before my last book, thought it was romantic horseshit and not useful, but I believe it now even if I still think it’s counterproductive to think about it too hard.) More importantly, you’re handing them what’s important to you, in hope that it will be important to them.

It only seems like justification because I’m like everybody else, I’m desperate to matter, and I think writing does but I know it’s only thinking, that you never really know, that knowing what you’ve done is really rare and it’s hard and it comes with a hell of a price to you and everyone around you. It only seems like justification because this is the only thing I’ve ever been able to do, I can’t hit a fastball and I can’t keep houseplants alive and I can’t do math in my head and I’m a mediocre cook, this is all I know how to do.

And watching what newspapers are doing to themselves is watching that die, a little bit, every day. If it was just suicide or decay it’d be one thing, but it’s deliberate, it’s a homicide of greed and laziness, and it’s a devaluation of what we’re about, and it’s so avoidable it makes me want to scream. Watching what’s happening in LA and elsewhere, same deal, it’s just greed, that’s all it is, just selfishness about money, and it’s not like there isn’t enough to go around. I keep wanting to make these business-model arguments, but I keep coming down to this:Come the fuck on, really. You can’t sit there with a straight face and tell me there’s no money to be had for this. You can’t do it, I don’t believe it, it defies credibility. And you can’t tell me this isn’t important, important enough to pay for, out of all the things we pay for, out of all the places we throw unholy amounts of cash in this country, you can’t tell me that this of all places is where you draw the line.

Because it matters. In a few minutes, when I’m done with this, I’m going to go downstairs and pick up the paper from the snow-covered sidewalk, and I’m going to read it, and then I’m going to come back here and read every blog I can justify reading, and maybe chat with a few people, and hear their stories. Will there be more people fed in the world, given jobs and homes because I do that? Because I know those stories now, and didn’t before? No. Not right away. Not immediately. Not today.

But tomorrow? I send in a check to someplace you didn’t know existed, that needs my $5 to take care of homeless animals. I write my Congressman a letter, tell him or her to stop tearing down public housing in a city I’ve never lived. I call somebody up, send an e-mail forward to my friends, because this that or the other thing is just so incredible or incredibly wrong, and I take what’s important to me in words and I show it to others. I do things Ididn’t know could be done, until you told me a story about others doing them.

Our stories, big and small, are what teach us what we’re capable of, what we can do when we stop bullshitting ourselves, because the stories that matter are about people becoming who they are, and what had to happen to them in order for that to be true. And if it’s in the paper or if it’s on TV on a freaking spaceship (ridiculous) or if it’s in a book I’ve read a thousand times before or if it’s on one of those newfangled Internet blog web sites, it’s still a story about what’s important to us.

Our stories are us, the best and worst of us, shown back to us every day. That matters. When it’s torn down, that matters, because who are we, without our history, without our tragedy and laughter and darkness and light, who are we, without our stories? Without our storytellers? Without a way to put our hearts in others’ hands? You can bullshit all you want to me about “changing business models” and “shifts in the industry paradigm” and all the other crap. I’m sure there’s a pony in that pile of manure someplace, but what it comes down to is that the stories are valuable. If you want them, you have to make the telling of them possible. There’s no other way around it. There’s no magic business model of infinite profit. There’s just what matters to you, and what you’re willing to do for it.


3 thoughts on “Storytelling: A Business Model

  1. It’s really quite simple. For every person who says, “Writing is just a hobby,” we challenge them to live in a world in which all writing they consume is done by untutored, unschooled, unpaid amateurs. Newspapers written by conscripted local high school kids. Episodes of24 as envisioned by the first ten schmoes off the unemployment line at the local Labour Ready. No Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Keith Olbermann, or even Lou Fucking Dobbs ferchrissakes. Even the instruction booklet for their microwave has to be written by someone who doesn’t have any idea what the hell they’re doing. (Have you seen the help files for the vast majority of the open source projects out there? Speaking as a technical writer — you know, another one of these folks who gets paid to grind words because, oh, hey, the company I work for sees some intrinsic value in what I do — open source projects’ help is generally atrocious, which is what you get when the average programmer writes the help…)
    Let’s see just exactly how much they likethat state of affairs.

  2. First, great post. Reminded me of yesterdays’ “This American Life” story Title “The Competition”
    Just how powerful is storytelling? It is a huge engine of economic might in this country. Movies, TV, books, even some music. And then it also drives people’s politics.
    I think about the world views that are being supported by stories and how powerful they are that people will vote against their economic self interest because they would rather cling to a story than admit the story is a lie. Because their identity is tied up with the story. If you destroy the story you destroy their identity. That is why Bush MUST say, “American’s don’t Torture.” And when in fact we do, the way around it is to redefine what torture is.
    Say your “guy” who can’t speak, he becomes a ‘Man of few words”. He can’t ride a horse, he becomes as a “man who like work with his hands and cut brush.” he is an alcoholic, but “the kind of guy you would like to have a beer with”. You provide a visual in people’s head with these phrases, He’s Gary Cooper, John Wayne and your best funny friend. Not the other image the mentally scarred, morally repugnant character from The Professional as played by Gary Oldman. He’s the cruel older frat guy who enjoys torturing the weak, debasing the smart and shooting at this little brother and sisters in the hallway with a bb gun.
    And if you can’t kill those stories you create the world’s best clean sheets that absolve all sin: “Born Again Christian”
    And while you push one positive story about your guy you also push a negative story about their guy — to the audience that LIVES on stories. The media.
    If you don’t give our professional storytellers a narrative, your competition will.
    In technology its not “how the product works” that is really of interest to lots of people but what problem it solves.
    (Some people want the WHY but they are a bit difference audience.)
    The right has been selling a story about unfettered capitalism to everyone for decades. And they have in their midst people who both believe it and those who don’t, but see no other choice than to go along with the power player. If you can’t articulate a story that is BETTER then they can’t join you in your world. And if you DO articulate a better story, be prepared because they will work on stories to destroy you. Their story MUST WIN!
    The words you use in your story and the examples you use are important.
    And sharing them is important. You start giving those out to others who will repeat them and change attitudes. I believe in preaching to the choir, because some people are better choir directors than others. Some people are writing great music and others see the genius in a song and say, “Hey everyone, Sing this one. It is filled with hope, it has a good hook and you can dance to it. It will replace that other bad song you got stuck in your head.”
    Yes, you and I and many here understand the world in stories. There are other ways people understand the world through numbers, objects or power. And for most of us, the human mind reinforces memory via stories. Stories puts emotion, information, context and understanding in a neat package that you can recall easily.
    Your stories count, they are important.
    The stories that people “live on” that they identify with can ship people off to their death, cause them to kill others and move billions of dollars half way around the world. Yes, I’d say stories are powerful.

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