Story behind the Passage
Someone who is thinking about writing a book with me told me today: “Silke, you are very serious about stories. You really mean it. The way you get into stories, it is really deep.” And I said: “Yep, that is who I am. I think in stories. And that is the only thing I can sell. If you want something else, you have to go somewhere else.” He started laughing and shook his head.
This made me think of the book Daemon Voices. A friend gave it to me as a birthday present this year. I started reading right after unwrapping it because I was so excited about her gift and there was no way that I could have waited. Still, I have not finished reading the entire book so far because, and that is also me (the structured “me”), I wanted to finish reading some other books before. I just hate having too many partly read books sitting on the floor around my desk.
In any case, even this first essay of the book really struck me because Pullman writes from the perspective of a professional writer about all aspects of writing. And as professional writers, writing needs to be approached from a somewhat realistic perspective. Otherwise, nobody would be able to make money with writing. No matter how emotional you approach the subject, books are products that people have to buy.
People who want to write a book with me usually fall into two categories: 1) Those who do not care about the business stuff of selling books, they simply want to share their story, 2) those who only care about the product that needs to be sold and almost forget that the story needs to be told in the first place. I cannot really comment on either group because to me, only the story counts. Since this in and of itself is not enough to sell books, I myself always need people who think of the other issues.
This is probably very stereotypical about artists. They are the people who simply produce stuff based on their creative nature. But they have no clue how to distribute this art, how to actually bring it to the people for whom it has been created. Well, it might already be doubted that this art has been created for some particular audience in the first place. Whatever, I think there is some truth to this artistic “weakness” of somehow not being able to think business. Well, maybe “think” business but not really be good at it.
For me, this is simply an aspect of decision making, as I have mentioned in one of my previous texts. I focus on my strengths exclusively and that deserves maximum attention to get better and better and better. I mean, there must be a reason why top artists and also athletes have managers and an entire team to support them. All this is not because it is so much fun or so cheap to maintain staff. On the contrary, it can turn into a hustle, I can imagine. But it ends up being the only way that the artist or athlete can fully concentrate on the thing that hardly anybody else inside and outside the team can: create unique results that cannot be replicated that easily.
Still, and this is why I have chosen the passage above as a result of my conversation today: The artist, in my case the writer, is part of the real world and therefore also has responsibilities. That keyword gets us right to the point.
“… responsibility incumbent on an author… to his story itself” The etymology of the word ‘responsible’ reveals the following meaning: “accountable for one’s actions”… “reliable, trustworthy”… . It retains the sense of “obligation” in the Latin root word” (Etymonline). And I guess, this definition of the word already reveals why I am “so serious” about stories. I do feel responsible when I write stories with and about people. And for me, the responsibility is mostly “to his story itself.” How can you be responsible for a story if you ‘just’ write it?
First, I need to be clear about the meaning of “story” as well. Despite all the narratological definitions that one could employ now, I would like to simply focus on the stories people tell about their own lives. You might call this “biographical storytelling” but I do not even want to go into genre discussions. I simply want to talk about stories that other people tell in contrast to fictional stories that I can invent and construct. Since I am serious about stories, I need to limit my discussion here. Otherwise, this would end up as a 30 min. post.
When people tell me the stories that are on their mind — that move them — it is not up to me to judge anything about the story. Stories are what they are because a person remembers a story in exactly the way that he/she tells me the story. The only problem related to this “non-evaluative” story approach is the fact that I need to ask questions in order to fully grasp the entire story. And that is natural because human communication works that way. We say something and the other person hears it but, for sure, has different images in his/her mind. That requires clarification based on words.
My question then is whether this already “manipulates” the story in some ways. After all, my questions lead to answers that were not part of the original story the person told. Am I getting too complicated here? Maybe. Still, it is part of me being serious about stories. And my approach to responsibility is that the story needs to be written in the way the person told it. Otherwise, I can write fiction or tell my own stories. That might sound exciting. But I honestly think it can be quite boring compared to writing the stories of other people.
So, is it “truth” that I care about when talking about “responsibility for a story”? I do not know. I do not think so. Rather, it is a matter of completeness. I need to tell as much as is necessary in order for the reader to understand the story. But I also have to be careful about how much I tell. There needs to be room for the audience’s own imagination to fill the blanks. That is necessary not only for the aspect of dramaturgy and tension. It happens naturally because as humans, we continuously do this — filling blanks with images in our mind.
Still, all this talk about truth and completeness starts boring me. All this does not even get close to what I really mean by responsibility. The closest I can get to this is the term: intimacy. When someone shares a personal story, this is an intimate moment, even if the content itself might be completely unspectacular. Stories are personal by nature. And anything personal goes along with vulnerability. That especially holds true for turning points in life stories. Sometimes, people have never told these stories to anyone. And when I am the first one to listen to it, it always gives me goose bumps. That also holds true for stories that people have been told before but are still so full of passion and involvement that an entire movie starts playing in my head.
One might say, this moment of diving into a story is like getting on a “magic carpet,” as the title of the chapter in Pullman’s book suggests. One needs to remember, however, that the original Magic Carpet story is from 1001 Nights. And this story is probably the most well-known story around the globe. Scheherazade survives by telling stories every night. Is that not amazing? You save your life by telling stories?
Actually, for professional writers like me, that is not just a story. Pullman also writes about this down-to-earth stuff in his essay:
“But if we find we can make money by writing books, by telling stories, we have the responsibility — the responsibility to our families, and those we look after — of doing it as well and as profitably as we can.” — Pullman 5
Pullman actually says this with a good portion of irony in the overall context of the text. Nevertheless, the mere facts are indeed true. If you write for a living, it also becomes a matter of writing for the people that you need to feed. This responsibility is even more severe if writing is the only — and I mean the only — thing you do and get paid for. In this case, there is hardly any excuse for not writing, for wasting time and valuable practice for improving your writing.
Finally, there is this responsibility which weighs most heavily on me: Writing can become a responsibility if you count among those who somehow have this special relationship to stories that they cannot do anything about. It is just there. It feels like an inner responsibility to the world to tell the stories that come to me. And they keep coming without any extra effort. For sure, other people could tell them as well but for many different reasons — they somehow do not. So, I accept the responsibility and share these stories as best as I can. And what value derives from this?
That is easy. You might think the answer is money or reputation or whatever. Well, as far as the money goes, it has to be part of the game if you are a pro. As far as the responsibility for stories goes, the answer is much easier: Stories last.
1) Do you feel responsible for any kind of story?
2) If you were a writer, which story would you like to write?
3) What does writing mean to you?