Storytelling, buzzwords and the loss of meaning

I gave a talk this week at PING:Helsinki about storytelling to a group of people working in social media and marketing. There were a bunch of Instagrammers there, YouTubers, bloggers and so on, and as I was writing my talk and seeking inspiration, the first thing that I thought of was this video by Stefan Sagmeister:

“Storytelling” has become the latest buzzword in business, especially in marketing. Telling your “brand story”, re-imagining your company as a story–it makes one long for the days when the marketing world was exhorting individuals to become “personal brands”, telling their own individual stories. Now entire companies are getting into the game.

Sagmeister points out that this is bullshit. Real stories, like the ones made by novelists or filmmakers, take a lifetime of study, practice, and hard work to realize. Journalists know how to tell stories, and some bloggers too. But most of those YouTubers, Instagrammers and marketers have not mastered the form. They’re doing something though. If it is not storytelling, then what is it?

The reason everyone wants to be a storyteller, even if they’re not, is that stories have a magical power of persuasion and seduction. Stories enrapture us, absorb our attention. They take the messy business of living, and wrap it into a tidy package from which meaning, beauty, insight and truth can be gotten.

The snack-sized postings on social media rarely add up to the full meal that make up a real story. If you were to take a long view, and follow a feed or stream through time, you might be able to discern the ghost of a story in the stream, but it wouldn’t be a story until it was written down, and given the shape of a story, with its rising action, climax and conclusion.

The loss of a word is a terrible thing, and though I don’t think the word “storytelling” is under any real threat, Sagmeister is right in calling out its misuse. The importance of using words correctly was spelled out in Joseph Brodsky’s 1988 Commencement Address at the University of Michigan in which he says:

Now and in the time to be, I think it will pay for you to zero in on being precise with your language. Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neurosis. On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one’s psyche; the mode of one’s expression, however, often remains the same. Articulation lags behind experience. That doesn’t go well with the psyche. Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion. To avoid that, one needn’t turn into a bookworm. One should simply acquire a dictionary and read it on the same daily basis — and, on and off, with books of poetry. Dictionaries, however, are of primary importance. There are a lot of them around; some of them even come with a magnifying glass. They are reasonably cheap, but even the most expensive among them (those equipped with a magnifying glass) cost far less than a single visit to a psychiatrist. If you are going to visit one nevertheless, go with the symptoms of a dictionary junkie.

I am a dictionary lover, and was both happy and sad to see a whole pile of dictionaries available on the free rack outside our local bookstore. You may find the same. Pick one up, read it daily. I agree with Brodsky here. Reading the dictionary will expand your vocabulary, and with it, your experience of living. And defend those words, and their meanings.  Be alert to when they are under threat, and cautious when you hear buzzwords buzzing about.

This is especially important during a time where the dumbed-down articulations of a demagogue are gaining followers in the U.S. government.


Further Reading

Things I have learned in my life so far. One of my favorite design books! A folder of pamphlets showcasing Sagmeister’s work, but also his sharp humor and the wisdom he’s gathered along the way.

 

On Grief and Reason by Joseph Brodsky is a collection of essays that includes his commencement address, the lecture he gave upon accepting the Nobel Prize, an astonishing essay about living in an apartment in Soviet Russia, and other musings.

 

The Compact OED. A real dictionary-lover’s dictionary, this is the full 20 volume dictionary reproduced micro graphically. The history of the words, lost definitions, a word-lover’s delectation.

A Recipe for Creativity

How do you make creativity? Curious minds want to know.

Inspired by a beautiful passage from Toni Morrison’s novel Sula, I have put together a list of 8 important ingredients that foster creativity.

First, the passage and a few thoughts about the author:

“Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”

This description of Sula nails the potency of the creative spirit, and the importance of channeling its energy into articulate expression. As human beings, we all have creative spirit rattling around inside of us, trying to push outwards and take shape. Perhaps what defines an artist is the demanding character of this spirit, and the permission to recognize its cues for what they are: The dire need to create.

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More than any other writer I can think of, Nobel and Pulitzer prize winning author Toni Morrison knows how to cut to the aching heart of things, and how to turn the invisible into sensual and tangible form. Her novels, which include masterpieces such as The Bluest Eye, Sula, Beloved, Song of Solomon and Jazz, are bountiful with a somatic kind of poetry as they delve into the powerful tales and experiences of her African American protagonists.

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For Sula, curiosity and a gift for metaphor are the tell-tale signs of her highly creative soul. Which brings me to the promised recipe, or at least a handful of ingredients:

A Recipe for Creativity

  1. Start with a curious mind and an open heart
  2. An unbiased hunger for studying the world
  3. Compassionate interest in experiences beyond oneself
  4. Attentiveness to all the dynamics, properties, qualities and details that you encounter
  5. You will know if you are on the right track if you can find inspiration anywhere and in anything
  6. Remember that you are building an archive of observations
  7. Metaphoric thinking. Metaphors are the tools of translation for all that you see, hear and feel. Metaphors give us words and ideas with which to hold and define our observations
  8. Last but not least, learn some skills, so that you can easily use your understanding to create and express your heart’s desire.

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Toni Morrison knows the secret sauce well. The curious, compassionate and metaphoric strengths of her work are out of this world. There is so much to learn from her.

“I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither…. So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.” -Toni Morrison


CREATIVE PROMPT:

This creative exercise is inspired by master storyteller, Toni Morrison. It encourages you to look closely, and apply compassion and imagination throughout your day.  Remember to share photos or thoughts! #TCHhands

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Further reading:
Sula, by Toni Morrison Two girls who grow up to become women. Two friends who become something worse than enemies. In this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison tells the story of Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who meet as children in the small town of Medallion, Ohio. Their devotion is fierce enough to withstand bullies and the burden of a dreadful secret

 
Beloved, by Toni Morrison  Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a magnificent novel.

 

Advice for Young Writers: Move to the Country

In a live interview, years ago, conducted by Dave Eggers on a stage in San Francisco, Denis Johnson (prolific author, National Book Award winner, war zone explorer, homeschooling dad, recovered addict) was asked the inevitable question: what advice do you have for young writers? “Move to the country,” Johnson said. Most of us in the audience had moved from small towns and suburbs in places like Minnesota or Georgia to great cities such as New York, San Francisco and L.A. to further our creative careers, live among like-minded people, and absorb the creative atmosphere these cities provided, absent in our home towns.  To us, this advice sounded, well, wrong.

Dave Eggers interviews Denis Johnson in 2003
Dave Eggers interviews Denis Johnson in 2003

But Johnson’s rationale was sound. Writing is not a particularly remunerative career. Sometimes it takes years, even decades, to reap the fruit of one’s labors. If you live in a big, expensive city, you’ll spend most of your time paying your rent, not writing your book. The struggle to just stay in the city will take up all your time. Instead, Johnson advised, move to, say, Northern Idaho, where Johnson himself lives, or the equivalent in your part of the world. Besides, you’ll be happier there, and happiness stokes creativity, in spite of all the propaganda to the contrary. Sociologists have long known that people in small towns are happier than those living in cities, as you can see from this chart. You’ll write more, and better.

Rural Happiness
People living in small towns or the country are significantly happier than urban folk. Via https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/03/18/why-smart-people-are-better-off-with-fewer-friends/

 

Your work may be dependent on what Brian Eno described as Scenius–the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene, the communal form of the concept of the genius–which flourishes in cities. If so, you’re going to have to pick it up and take with you to the country, as Flaubert did, who lived with his niece and extended family in Rouen, but had a lively social life in Paris. It’s largely a matter of style, goals and effort. But tremendous beauty and inspiration can be found in rural areas. And community too.

Northern Idaho
Northern Idaho, where you can finally escape the Information Overlords

Northern Idaho is just as beautiful as this photograph suggests, but if you worry about a cultural deficit, don’t. You can be just as much of a bohemian there as in the Greenwich Village or Bloomsbury of yore–the Bloomsbury folk lived out most of their lives in the country.  You can get a glimpse into Johnson’s family life there in his 1997 article about homeschooling his children. And living in such beauty doesn’t require you to be a nature writer. Denis Johnson isn’t a nature writer–he spent 14 years as an addict, which provided much of the material for his first book, Angels, and his much-lauded stories in Jesus Son. He has spent most of his childhood, and much of his adulthood, traveling around the world, some of the stories from his journeys are recounted in Seek. And then he returns home to the relative tranquility of home and gets so much done.

So don’t worry about becoming provincial. There’s a cabin somewhere just for you.


Seek: Reports from the Edges of American and Beyond. Johnson has traveled to some extreme places, and this collection of essays includes a completely hair-raising account of his trip to Liberia.

 

Tree of Smoke. Johnson’s National Book Award winning novel about the Vietnam War.

Art makes life make sense

Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt, and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.

– Robert Louis Stevenson

In other words, art provides meaning unavailable to us in the chaotic reality of living, frames a space for us to experience and understand what would otherwise be missed, or even lost, in life’s confusion.

The sickly, Scottish son of a lighthouse designer, Stevenson wrote many of the classics of our time, traveled widely, worked hard, but died young, in Samoa, where a Samoan mourning song was written for him, which is apparently still sung.


Further Reading

A Child’s Garden of Verses is a must-read-to-children book. The poems are magical, mysterious, funny, clever, and express perfectly a child’s world. Children also like sounds and suggestions, they seem to be OK with not understanding poetry–unlike many adults!

 

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A classic, describing sociopathy long before that term was in use, and writing in a genre that had not yet been invented: horror.

 

Treasure Island. The classic adventure story, written in, of all places, Davos Switzerland, where Stevenson had gone to recover from his various illnesses. Pirates, treasure maps, and buried treasure.