Being a writer is an odd sort of existence. You come up with these wild (hopefully original) ideas and slap tens of thousands of different combinations of the same 26 letters onto the page and bring them to life.
Katie Oldham famously wrote about the experience of consuming these ideas:
Creating the most effective hallucinatory experience takes a lot of effort. You need to know what you’re doing. You need to have a solid grasp of the rules and conformances – so you can break them properly. You need to be dedicated, not just to the execution element of the craft, but to the whole universe of storytelling. I will also argue it’s not enough to have merely existed, you need to have experienced something in life, either first-hand or vicariously through others. That’s not to say that young, inexperienced people can’t write engaging or even transformative stories, but I’ll assert that they are in the minority. Hell, the list of those who can is short enough as it is even if you don’t impose any life-experience criteria.
There’s also an expression out there, and I’m not sure who to attribute it to, but it goes like this:
Writers are readers.
I’ll take the quote a step further and say:
Writers are conscientious consumers of storytelling in all its forms.
Yes, books are storytelling but so are:
- graphic novels,
- and screen productions (large and small, self-made or professional),
- and live theatre,
- and webcomics or cartoons,
- and graphic novels,
- and magic,
- and stand-up comedy,
- and poetry,
- and spoken (or signed) word,
- and cave drawings,
- and all the visual arts,
- and music.
Recently, George Stroumboulopoulos (“Strombo”) interviewed the surviving members of Rush, Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee, on his “House of Strombo” show (you can watch the full YouTube interview at the end of this post). This segment early in the discussion really resonated with me.
Strombo: “Rush could have played 20 different genres. What were the things that you were being exposed to that led you to figure out that this is the way you wanted to be?”
Lifeson: “Listening to other things like Joni Mitchell, listening to the crafting of songs and what works and what doesn’t work and what really stands out in a song, and the pacing, and all of those things about the structure of a song, you learn about that through listening. You… maybe are not directly influenced by the music itself, but how it’s constructed and how it works… becomes the important thing, I think, and you carry that on forever.”
I extend the philosophy of Lifeson’s influencing experiences to my everyday existence. Sure, there are times when I just shut off my brain and enjoy various art forms for the sake of enjoying them, appreciating art for art’s sake, but more often than not I’m examining, as Alex said, “how it’s constructed and how it works”.
I pay attention to how whatever I’m consuming makes me feel and then I start thinking about whatever it is that’s making me feel the way I’m feeling. Naturally, if it involves words of any kind I examine the writing first, but what I’m really doing is looking for the fundamental elements of the story that are triggering the emotion, regardless of the positiveness or negativeness of it.
Ultimately, I’m constantly asking myself, “Why does the story make me feel the way I feel?” and when I sit down at the computer to write, I do my darndest to take those pieces, those elements of structure and construction, and craft the story I want to tell. In that sense, I’m (almost) always working, a concept that Misters Lifeson and Lee have understood since they strummed their first chords together more than fifty years ago.
I got no time for livin’– Workign Man. Songwriters: Alex Lifeson / Geddy Lee
Yes, I’m workin’ all the time
But don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that everyone who creates should consume with the same analytical intent. It’s perfectly fine for anyone to enjoy art for art’s sake 100% of the time. However, if you’re a writer, if you’re a storyteller, I would encourage you to look beyond your chosen medium, see what makes it tick, and bring some of that into what you do.
At the very least, you’ll have a better understanding and appreciation for whatever it is you’ve experienced, and who knows, in the process, you might create a more engaging or transformative story of your own.
Check out Alex Lifeson’s new musical project, Envy Of None. It’s a departure from the musical stylings of Rush, but something any music lover will appreciate (Maiah Wynne’s vocals are so haunting and trippy you’ll find yourself immersed in the music). https://envyofnone.com/