You never know when you’ll be called to help someone. This kid was one careless lane change away from being struck.
“Desperate for original story, the world is.” Yoda was original for his height and alien heritage, but he was very much the Mentor seen in stories dating back to the beginning of storytelling. His structure of speech made him more unique, as did the subject matter of his teachings to Luke: had we ever heard of The Force before? Well yeah, we’d seen telekinesis and good/evil forces, but not in the way The Force was presented in the context of the space-faring Jedi and Empire. It was central to an epic struggle between the two – and to Luke’s evolution. Yoda was unique – and so was his teachings in the world of Star Wars.
So originality tends to borrow from base concepts (necessarily), but these days authentic originality is harder to find, it seems. If human storytelling is a wildfire, it feels like we’re leaving the forest and approaching the desert. What inspiration, what fuel remains? In cinema we see a turning around and re-burning of blackened trees with all the remakes and sequels.
Sequels at least are an attempt to extend a good, original thing – to revisit a world that caught our imaginations and probably our hearts. But even a sequel requires originality. In fact, a sequel’s bar is raised simply because it must top the originality of the first work. This is why so often sequels fall short – they lack the sense of newness and originality, though they generally succeed if the original work is honored and recaptured well. Remakes are just, well, the epitome of a dry creative well. The need for original story is ever present and appears to be harder to come by, at least in mainstream cinema.
The place originality in story is most often found is, as ever, in novels. In written stories, there is no budget beyond word count. Scenes of grand and epic scale don’t require expensive computer graphics or set builders. Deeply interesting characters don’t require multi-million dollar paychecks. Memorable scenes don’t require three days of on-site shooting and a week of post production editing. Well-written novels deliver straight to the mind, without dependence on visual interpretation. A reader is the ultimate set builder, mood setter, and visual effects and lighting expert. All the hard work of cinema is handled by the reader – with proper cues from the writer. But the reader’s capability to imagine a story to life often comes with the same tendency to critique as seen with film critics.
A reader knows when something just works, and when it doesn’t. A poorly written sentence can be the same as seeing a microphone boom behind the main character or spotting the distant golden arches of a McDonald’s in a Western movie. The reader is knocked out of the story – the movie is interrupted; lights up! Did you see that sentence? What was he/she thinking? The writing must be to par, must meet basic standards of readability and structure, or else the production fails.
Given good writing, though, a written story has so much potential for originality. One could even rewrite Star Wars, removing nothing of “what happens” and still imbue so much more depth to the characters’ experience that it would almost read as an original work. Such is the power of words. The writer has access to characters’ thoughts, imaginations, feelings… all of which expand story beyond what dialogue and action alone convey. Writing provides depth, period. A well-formed, well-paced novel is cinematic in its experience to the reader, and is more apt to deliver original story than cinema today. (Of course, I’m a writer so I’m biased.)
As a writer, I tend to be bound to a need for purposeful writing – stories that reflect something in our real world and send a message. Can a story be original if it has reality as a basis? I’ll say absolutely yes. Fiction comes with a hefty creative license. Reality comes with a massive selection of drama and topics. We live in reality – so we know its pains and its pleasures. Being drawn into an alternate reality can provide not just original story, but illumination and inspiration as well as good ol’ escapism. The trick there is to not overdue the message. The deliverance a story offers must carry the reader from page one to the last page and leave them satisfied yet still wanting more. Anything beyond that in the way of insight and real-world inspiration should be the reader’s to discern.
So where do I think the fields of originality lie? Mostly in reality, I’d say. Where we live and breathe. Within the obstacles we face on an individual basis, all the way up to the challenges facing humanity in general. The range in between is vast, ripe with stories waiting to be harvested and crafted. By plucking from reality, we guarantee a familiarity, a relatedness which serves as a foundation. Dress the rest as you like, full creative license in effect, and originality will follow. Like any dressing, be wary of clashing colors (concepts) – there is still an art to storytelling (like in fashion) and the basics must be respected, even if tweaked hard.
The reason we want escapism in our stories is because of the hardships we face in reality. If we, the creatives, can present hope, strategies, and inspiration in our original work, then maybe, just maybe, we can begin to influence the world instead of just adding distraction to it. And creatives want nothing more than to have touched the world with their work in a meaningful way.
So you’re here for a story. Not a long one. Perhaps you’re asking “what’s this guy about?” Maybe you’re looking for someone you know named Michael Parks so you can extend that story with him. Or maybe you’ve been here before and are wondering what I’ve posted recently. It’s possible I’m part of your story and by checking this blog you seek to further that story. Somehow you made it here and really it’s because you want to know. To learn, see…. and that is part of what story is – it enables experience.
At the root of all human activity you will find story because it is inextricable from our lives. It is literally the glue that holds together the elements of self, family, community, society, and civilization. Without story, human history wouldn’t exist and not just for the telling aspect – but because without it, human purpose wouldn’t exist. That’s because story is an element of reality. It is foundational. It is design. It is what provides background and meaning to our human experience. It is found in every aspect of life.
A small example, then, to start. The story of timeliness. You learned from a young age to be “on time”. Late to dinner? Harsh words from your parent(s). Late to school? A tardy mark, maybe detention. Later, loss of a job. What story does being late tell? To many it’s about lack of discipline. To others it’s about a single mother having a hard time getting the kids to daycare and school on time. Timeliness to some is learned as a key element of success while to others as a ‘nice habit to have’. Two different stories, same concept, but stories nonetheless.
We form larger, more complex stories as a means to maintain identity, escape painful truths, or to face them head on. For example, a child who was abused may grow up to purposefully strive for physical strength and confidence – so their story hides a fear of being dominated by others. They were taught weakness, helplessness, and vulnerability, so when growing up had to rewrite their story to feel stronger and survive. In truth, they still feel vulnerable and oftentimes helpless in their careers or relationships, but the story of strength they adopt helps them get by, to survive and thrive.
Stories saturate our experience. They are agreements that provide direction and confidence and are answers to the uncertainties inherent in life. Most commonly they are beliefs that join us to society – to its laws, traditions, and conventions – the structures that most define daily life. What society would exist long without a general prohibition against murder? How safe would a city’s streets be without traffic lights, signs, and speed limits? We readily adopt stories that change our behavior, limit our options, all for the sake of self-preservation and community.
If stories were paint, they would be the swaths that define our mental landscape and our outer worlds.
Religion uses story extensively. So does nationalism and patriotism, government, and pop culture. How often does the concept of “cool” spawn and then wane around a person, music, places, and themes? When the stories grow strong, so does the belief and experience of the people. That growth, and its direction, is based on acceptance of story. A simple example of this are Crocs, Birkenstocks, Vans, topsiders… all footwear with varying degrees of ‘cool’ over time, all thanks to their stories. A complex example of this is Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Satanism, Scientology, and atheism… all religions whose acceptance has driven the lives of billions over the ages. So much of our lives are story dependent.
So in story we find meaning, value, direction, and either comfort or discomfort. For many, the story of conspiracy surrounding JFK’s assassination, for example, evokes strong uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. For some, the story of Barack Obama evokes hope and inspiration while in others just the name evokes cynicism and disregard for his part in the Establishment. Story, then, is personal and not always chosen. It can be a result of many stories residually defining what we believe.
One interesting aspect of story is how it is used to retroactively alter our sense of self. A man that is fired for not meeting expectations can, two years later, have rewritten his history at that company, portraying it as a struggling firm that couldn’t afford him and that settled for a lesser replacement to save money. This rewriting of story is found not only in individuals but in groups, too. Inconvenient truths are often quickly omitted or re-characterized in order to instill comfort where truth would be upsetting. The genocide of native Americans is a prime example where such rewriting was employed to preserve (or create) the honor and glory of a nation (and still is for many).
This malleability of story, of belief and history, is at the root of control – both of self and of others. Through such change, opinions, motivations, and divisions are crafted and employed in determining the future. This crafting is fundamental to all leadership in human society, at every level. I could write a novel about the impact of story on our political and social viewpoints – and how divisive those stories are designed to be. It is no surprise that those who seek power are well-versed in spinning facts and half-truths (and even lies) in order to influence others and attain goals.
This control could not exist if not for the penchant for humans to need story.
The desire to make the world more endurable, more comfortable, more right, is ingrained in our DNA – and story is the vehicle for that drive. That’s because experience is a result of belief. The old saying, “life is 10% of what happens and 90% of how you take it” is quite true, demonstrably so.
The problem with story begins when the individual accepts all story without discretion. It begins when the child never exposes his handed-me-down stories to the light of factual, reasonable review. Why does a person’s skin color cause them to think less of them? Do they not know what skin pigmentation cells are? And how otherwise that person has the exact same biology as themselves? Blood is red in every vein of all our bodies. Our brains are wrinkled and perched above our spines in just the same way. Human tears fall at the same rate down any cheek. Some of the finest scientific breakthroughs and inventions in human history were achieved by people with dark pigmentation cells in their skin. Ignorance of all this is due to story and is often the basis for implicit bias.
Our internal stories are vastly underestimated – and so often unrecognized for a lifetime, operating on our worldview and view of self like puppet masters. They pull the strings of our thoughts and emotions, influencing our quality of life and our connections to others. Shyness, fear of crowds, low self-confidence, feelings of worthlessness and anxiety are all rooted in the story of Self. This story is a collection of short stories, events or periods of our lives that impacted us, compounded beliefs, and undermined the reality of our goodness, capabilities, and worthiness. Such stories were often written as a result of the actions of others – verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, or simply by mistakes made at formative times.
The human mind will always seek comfort, ease, survival. Such stories are buried but never forgotten. As a result, the strings are there, appearing from the dim past, tied to our every waking moment, influencing us without our realizing it. Studies have shown how human behavior is “rewired” by trauma – proving that experiences write unforgettable stories.
I like to tell people, “we are everyone we’ve ever been. Every moment, every age, and every mood. Within us is the three-year old, the eight-year old, the seventeen-year old, and so on. It’s why we don’t feel our age. We are all of them at once.” You can experience this like running a finger up and down a ruler – you can feel and be any age with relative ease. Try it and see.
So it’s fairly clear to see that recognizing stories – both within us and outside of us – is essential to truly being in control of our experience. Our feelings, our motivations, our politics, our relationships – all depend on story, on learning, knowing, seeing…. and being present and accountable for the truth (or lack of truth) in those stories we adopt or reject.
Lastly, I’ll say that I’m drawn to being an author for reasons that should be obvious now. The chance to temporarily replace someone’s reality with one of my making is… fantastic. Like magic. And an honor. What’s more, the opportunity to cast light, to illuminate, to create understanding and spawn further discovery is magnetizing. Somehow, the written word has the ability to bridge, connect, and otherwise join people to a reality that becomes a part of them, a part of their story. When I get excited about writing, those are the sparks that precede the fire of creativity.
I hope you leave this page with a keener sense of story – your story, my story, and the stories that swirl around and within us – now and in the future. Don’t be afraid to be the author (and editor) of your stories.
My post in early February was just before COVID-19 hit the page. If I was concerned about the weight of the world then… wow. What has followed is a twist after twist, morphing reality – like a poorly written spec-fic that no one really wants to read anymore. The big reveal? How fragile “we” are – the economy, the healthcare system, our sense of community, and even our sense of science. There are those who discount COVID-19 as a fraud, a made-up, over-inflated trick being played on America and the world. (Seriously, the world is flat, too). The Jenga tower is tipping and anyone with half a brain is aware of the criticality of what hangs in the balance.
How do you get and remain creative in this kind of reality?! How do you craft prose when the future of so much is threatened?
Answer: you adjust your perspective, your elevation, your angle of attack.
Yes, there’s an information war being waged against the citizens of the U.S. Yes, guerrilla misinformation tactics are being used divide us. Yes, there are actual racists in a too-large segment of our country – a tradition passed down by their parents and society. Yes, they are printing money without any basis or backing. Yes, we live in a paper-mache construct pretending to be a country. Yes, a sophisticated airborne virus is selectively taking out people, leaving others heavily damaged, and not impacting others very much, if at all… BUT! None of this is really new (except the virus).
That’s right – every aspect of what’s wrong today has been wrong in some form going back to the beginning of our civilization. Controlling the masses has been a full-time occupation of those power-minded individuals who inevitably become the real leaders of our industries and governments, even if from the shadows. Yet, the sun still rises and sets, as always. People don’t focus much on the shitshows that dictate their overall well-being… especially if the shitshows come with advanced distraction programs: we’re talking Netflix, movies, extreme Amazon addiction, etc…. basically extreme cultural distraction. People keep being people and largely move on, making do with whatever is available in the way of prosperity, happiness, and opportunity (despite the hardships created by greed).
So it’s about elevation. Perspective. If the world’s a shitshow, filled with distraction from dire situations that need our collective attention in order to address, what place does writing fiction have in it? Perhaps my moral compass is too strongly attracted to True North, but that shitshow is my children’s and grandchildren’s future home. It’s billions of people’s present and future home. They have to live in it. So I feel obligated to some effort to address it, even it’s comparable to hollering at the street hooligans from the 3rd story window.
Writing. Reading. Literary escapism for some. So, fiction with roots in meaning is needed. Painting a story with parallels to our world that resonate, illuminate, and, perhaps, inspire. Placing oneself above the shitshow, examining its key elements, and using fiction to embody those elements in an entertaining story of strife, struggle, and good vs. evil (or degrees thereof) is one method of instilling purpose in the creative effort. Make it more than just fiction for escapism – make it matter the way our world matters. Make the stakes as high as our stakes are. Make the message, not just the story. If you don’t, it’s quite possible the reader will be under-impressed with the challenges your protagonists face and switch to Google News instead to review what their own challenges are.
Or… you disconnect. If your moral compass allows for it, disconnect from the real world and focus solely on the construction of a world of your making, with as many or as little parallels to our own as you like. Write for the sake of writing, for creating a world so full of content and character the reader forgets this shitshow for a while. True, uncut escapism. For some, that may be the best book around.
In the end, the best approach to creativity is unique to the writer. For me, principled and passionate as I am, I’ll run the parallels, I’ll imbue the antagonists with some of the same selfish, short-sighted, and greedy traits found in our politicians and “philanthropists”. I’ll paint the corporations as they are, perhaps with some exaggeration for poignancy of threat. But creative I must be, if I’m ever going to become a regular writer/producer of books.
Separate the processes of creation from improving. You can’t write and edit, or sculpt and polish, or make and analyze at the same time. If you do, the editor stops the creator. While you invent, don’t select. While you sketch, don’t inspect. While you write the first draft, don’t reflect. At the start, the creator mind must be unleashed from judgement.
We fret about words, we writers. Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality. And the more portentous, more general the word, the more they can also resemble rooms or tunnels. They can expand, or cave in. They can come to be filled with a bad smell. They will often remind us of other rooms, where we’d rather dwell or where we think we are already living. They can be spaces we lose the art or the wisdom of inhabiting. And eventually those volumes of mental intention we no longer know how to inhabit will be abandoned, boarded up, closed down.