I think there are times, as a storyteller, that I can be so bull-headed about what I want to express, that I end up pushing an agenda rather than telling a story. I create “good guys and bad guys,” and in so doing, my writing becomes general, turgid, boring. This may seem obvious, but at times it can be subtle and insidious. I believe that my challenge in ‘writing the truth’ is to be vigilantly open to the fact that I never know the whole story, that, in fact, I am always simply a channel for the story that wants to be told through me.
As soon as we create good guys and bad guys, we have taken a position, which is not our job. We cannot afford to make value judgments. Story is not about making moral judgments, though some will tell you it is. It is about cause and effect.
This means, that on some level, we must always be willing to let our story collapse in order for our characters to live. This is where storytelling becomes an act of faith, because we are often writing against the direction we think our story is heading. For example, if I’m writing a romantic comedy about a boy who meets a girl, loses her, then gets her back, I need to be watchful that when he loses her, he has genuinely lost her in some real and fundamental way. It is not enough for the couple to simply have a disagreement or misunderstanding, and then later, reunite. I want to thoroughly investigate his experience of losing her. It is only in the losing that he can experience a surrender of his old identity, thereby creating a space for him to have a shift in perception (a new understanding of the nature of things).
The truth is far more complex (and interesting) than our idea of the story. It is in the nuance, the specificity, that the story gets juicy. The more willing we are to recognize that our hero and antagonist both want the same thing, the more human they become. Often, the only thing separating our hero from our antagonist is that our hero is willing to surrender his old identity.
True writers are humble (at least in relation to their writing). Storytelling is an act of humility, and our stories are simply a by-product of our new understanding, a document of how we got from there to here. Story asks everything of us for a reason. If it didn’t, we would never surrender. The tendency to push an agenda exists to the extent that we are unwilling to surrender. Frankly, there are many noted writers who seem to get away with this. Their facility with language, their powers of persuasion often trump any universal truth. They will categorize it as post-modern lit, get some critics behind it, and lo and behold, art has been reduced to an intellectual cluster f#@!.
Perhaps it is expecting too much to speak of being a channel for our stories. When we are a channel, meaning when we are willing to tap into something universal, we come into contact with our ‘basic goodness’. Now, perhaps this is just me forcing my own agenda, but I believe that mankind’s resting state is love, that conflict is born out of fear. I believe it is our challenge in every story to define love. I mean this in terms of approaching life from a spirit of evolution. Love is the ultimate object of subjectivity, it has a million different meanings. It is the ultimate mystery, and lies at the heart of every story. When we relegate characters to certain camps, we deny that mystery. In fact, we play God, not allowing for the truth of the world to unfold for us.
Why do some stories have an ineffable “alive” quality, while others do not?
Great storytelling gives us a glimpse into the true nature of things. At the heart of all great writing is a surrendered quality, an acceptance of the way things are, as if the writer had lost touch with the civilized world and was taking dictation from another plane. Great writing transcends knowledge. It enters the realm of the imagination, where we risk all that we know, so that a new order can be born.