Diversity is the great strength of humanity. No two people look perfectly alike, or develop the same personalities, or lead identical lives. Through our diversity, we have created a world with a myriad of languages, distinct cultures, and various arts. Yet there is one aspect of humanity that we all share in common, one feature that must predate human diversity as we understand it. Should any advanced civilization of alien origin come and study humanity after we have all returned to stardust, they would likely define us primarily by that one, unifying characteristic: our love for stories.
We humans have a compulsion to both tell and listen to stories. The historical sciences and the mythologies that have survived the millennia, show us that humanity has always been like this. Our lives, our entertainment, our religions, our philosophies, our memories and so on and on are all governed, practiced, and experienced through stories. Even our news media—whose job, in reality, is simply to convey a series of facts—cannot resist that proverbial “spin” which transforms their facts into story. On the individual level, each person, both their lives and their personality, is influenced so heavily by stories that given enough time, the individual and the stories that matter to that individual become inexorable. We are our stories.
We Are Our Stories
Most everyone has a handful of favorite television shows that positively influenced them as children. For me, the show I consider most important to my formative years—no matter how many times I go over my list of favorites—is Star Trek (S.T.) Voyager. Voyager is considered by some to be a bit messier of a series when compared to its sibling shows S.T. The Next Generation and S.T. Deep Space Nine. However, there were two integral themes which Voyager kept exploring throughout its run on television, and which I related to immensely as a child. The themes of home and, more importantly to me, identity.
I, as a gay boy growing up in an environment of religious fundamentalism, found solace in Voyager’s themes. Voyager never dealt directly with queer topics, but did deal, often, with coming to terms with one’s identity. Three characters stand out in this regard. B’lanna Torres, born half human and half Klingon, struggles to reconcile these two, seemingly divergent aspects of herself; the doctor, who begins the series as a holographic projection created by Voyager’s computer, eventually gains sentience, and grapples with whether or not he will be accepted into society, whether or not he could ever have a family, and whether or not he could even be considered alive; lastly there is the now iconic Seven of Nine, who, having grown up in a world of perfect conformity, struggles to understand what life means outside of that world, and to understand the very concept of the individual self.
When I was a child, my identity was something confusing and potentially dangerous. These characters and their stories helped me see that self is something many people struggle with, and that acceptance and growth are possible. And though these characters were fictional, and though none of them were like me, their experiences spoke to me. This is one of the magical elements of storytelling; the story can convey meaning and messages beyond literal words being spoken, beyond the literal actions being taken by the characters. For this reason, those who wish to be storytellers must realize how the importance of stories goes beyond our enjoyment of them. To tell an effective story, a writer must come to understand and respect the importance of what stories mean to humanity. I will argue this point a step further by suggesting that, without a respect for stories, no meaningful story can be told.
Respect: Meaning Beyond Words
The full significance of storytelling is too vast to be easily absorbed into our primate brains—this was at least the case for me—meaning that learning to respect the story is usually a learned and not inherent skill. The first step of acquiring that skill is for the storyteller to practice patience and care with their own stories. I have participated in various writing groups throughout my life, and in those groups have had the opportunity to read many works with great potential. Such an experience is always exciting. However, too often I have given my feedback on the story only to discover the writer had no intention of editing the piece into its full potential. They pumped out the narrative, and then were done with it. The response to my feedback was usually “Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind for next time.” Why not this time?
To produce a flower garden, a seed must first be planted in the soil, watered, and given time to germinate. So too must the seed for a story be given the time and space to become something tangible. To ensure a healthy plant with great blooms, we must watch the plant grow and remove dead leaves as we find them, and ensure that harmful insects are kept at bay. So too must we let our stories grow, and remove the useless parts when we recognize them; a story too quickly abandoned is a story guaranteed to be weighed down by dead material. During this process, our doubts about the story must be kept at bay—lest our doubts force us to give up on a story before it has had the chance to bloom. The first and second drafts are the worst times to give up on a story.
Giving up on a story does not always mean abandoning a story that isn’t working, or switching focus to another piece we would prefer to be writing, but can also mean stepping away from a story we know is not yet finished. How often, when writing, do we writers reread our work, only to come across a paragraph, a sentence, or even a single word that feels incorrect, out of place, or somehow broken? These are not the obvious mistakes, like a typo or poorly expressed idea, but rather those less tangible moments when we can feel the mistake rather than see it. I have been tempted—sometimes through laziness and other times through fear I cannot improve it—to pass over a broken moment in my writing, to dismiss it as “good enough.” But to allow a story to exist as only “good enough” is to express disrespect for the story; if I respect my story, I must always be working toward “as good as I can do” rather than “good enough.”
If I am unwilling to work toward the best of my abilities, why should I bother to continue practicing my craft?
That’s not to suggest that every story must be perfectly told. A major aspect of the human experience is imperfection, thus it is unreasonable to ask our stories to be perfect. As I implied earlier, I acknowledge that Star Trek Voyager is a bit sloppier than it’s sibling shows, but the message and intent of each episode comes through; it is clear the writers cared about those stories. Regardless of a story’s shortcomings, the care and respect of the author are what makes a story great. While talent plays a role, the majority of the most celebrated authors of all time are primarily celebrated for their care in execution.
Take for example Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The basic plot of R&J is absurd, and the action of its characters ridiculous. However, because the story is told with such precision and respect for the language and narrative, Romeo and Juliet transcends its basic elements; despite the nearly comic absurdity, it is considered one of the greatest love stories ever told. The execution, not the plot, is what makes it great. And how is great execution achieved? Editing.
From Mundane to Masterpiece: Editing
A disdain for editing has crept into the writing community. I do not mean to generalize, but too often I’ve heard writers speak of the thrill of finishing a first draft, only to imply that the mundane, tedious aspect of the writing process—revising (a.k.a. editing)—must now begin. This view of the editing process is not only misguided, but an attitude that can only be detrimental to a writer’s work. Editing is the opportunity for a writer to create and smooth out the finer details of a story, to enrich their characters with experience and life, and to transform their piece into something beyond the writer’s original expectations. There is no masterpiece of literature which is not a rewrite of an earlier draft. Any tale to the contrary is undoubtedly apocryphal—or a downright lie.
To draft a story is to acquaint yourself with it; when the first draft is done, you’ve shook hands with the story, asked it what foods it likes and whether or not it thinks the music of Frank Sinatra is overrated. To edit a story is to know it personally and, with enough time, to know it intimately. And I do not mean to dismiss the drafting process. The drafting of a piece should be fun, and leave us with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction; but we writers must learn to find the true thrills in the editing process. Not only this, but we must view the concept of “editing is boring / tedious” as an oxymoron. It is impossible to view the editing process as dull and simultaneously have respect for the story. However, the blame for thinking the editing process dull does not often rest on the writers themselves.
While there is certainly overlap, the editing process requires a different set of tools, and requires that the writer be in a different headspace, from that of the drafting process. However, most writers—because of a lack of focus on the importance of editing within the writing community—either view editing as an extension of the drafting process, or as the primary work of an editor (not a writer). Regardless of which view they take, their disappointment that editing is not as wild and unregulated as drafting is understandable. But discovering the thrill of editing can be done, and a great place to begin cultivating that thrill is with the famous Ernest Hemingway quote “write drunk, edit sober” (which Hemingway never said). This axiom is horrible advice when taken literally, but excellent advice if taken metaphorically. Let yourself be wild and irresponsible when drafting a piece, but let the editing be where the truly serious, the truly respectable work begins. The marriage of the wild and the respectable is the union from which great stories are born.
And to tell a great story is to be greatly human.
“It’s only a story, you say. So it is, and the rest of life with it.”
— Jeanette Winterson
Humanity is inextricably linked with the stories we tell; to not love the experience of stories and/or storytelling is to be something other than human. That might at first seem hyperbolic, but all people seek out the experience of stories in their day to day lives—the anticipation of our favorite show’s newest season, the joy in sharing a common nostalgia with friends, the propensity to slightly embellish when telling of something ridiculous that happened to us the other day—and we writers have chosen storytelling as our lifelong ambition. When we tell our stories, we participate in the oldest and most cherished of all human traditions. In light of such a fact—to know that to tell a story is to pick up a torch first lit at the dawn of humanity—how can we desire anything other than to respect our stories to the best of our abilities.
The story as a concept is too important, too ancient, too human to ever be considered only a story.
Cover Photo Credit: Mike Beauregard