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Practicing Humanity (or The Storytelling Process)

Writing is Practicing Humanity

Benefits of Writing

I’m confident that writing makes you a little bit better at being a person. Then again, I’ve been writing since I was five or six, so I’m probably a little bit biased. Still, give me a moment and let me see if I can explain why I feel the way I do.

Here it is in a nutshell:

Your job as a person is to examine and understand the world around you, to empathize with new people in a way that lets you see them as real people (not just extras in your life story), and to comprehend the short- and long-term ramifications of events both in and out of your control.

Your job as a person (no matter who you are, or what you do) is to be an observer, a communicator, and a creator, and every moment you spend writing you’re working on those things. Usually you’re working on all of them on every page.

This goes for Technical Writers and Creative Writers alike, but the effect is far more dramatic for Creative Writers so I’ll focus on them. Still, if your focus is on business writing, I encourage you to consider the implication even as I talk about faerie worlds and mythical dreamscapes.

People are Creators

We spend every moment of our lives building imaginary worlds, whether we’re the creative, artsy types, or the serious extrovert businessmen I was talking to up above. I started making up stories when I was a little kid, expanding on my vague grasp of the legends of Robin Hood and King Arthur to build fantasy stories of knights and dragons and kidnapped princesses. I spent much of my teenage years developing and perfecting the geography, political climate, and thousand-plus-year-history of a fantasy world for a series of books I never ended up writing. When it comes right down to it, I’m the creative, artsy type. I’ll admit that.

Even without that drive, though, people are constantly building worlds. When we sleep, we dream. All of us are, whether we remember it or not. During our most restful hours, we’re building imaginary worlds, filling them with dynamic characters, and watching stories unfold. We do the same thing when we’re wide awake, though. When I wake up in the morning and check the weather, I interpret a few little bits of data (a couple numbers and an angry cartoon raincloud) and I imagine a world with appropriate highs and lows and weather phenomena. That’s the real world (inasmuch as a weatherman’s predictions can be called non-fiction), but it’s not anything I’m directly observing. It’s a picture of an imaginary world that I’ve built in my head, that I anticipate becoming the real world.

You carry around your created world with you everywhere you go, all day long, and spend your time incorporating new information into it. When someone tells you Dave is going to be late to the meeting because he got stuck in traffic, you can perfectly imagine the scene. When you get a call from a friend, grief and horror thick in her voice, you immediately begin building possible, imaginary worlds in your head, and when she forces the reality through her sobs, you take that little tragedy and insert it into the reality you carry around with you all the time.

I’ve got seven or eight worlds I’m working on, all the time. I tinker, I adjust, and I do everything I can to keep them in line, consistent, believable. One of them is real, but the work I do in any of those worlds helps me be better at maintaining all of them. I spend my time practicing a deep and active awareness of the world I’m unconsciously building, and that makes me better at living in it.

People are Observers

Maintaining your personal copy of reality is about more than just interpreting phone calls and weather reports. You do it every time your eyes report a new sight, every time your ears report a sound, or your fingertips report a new sensation. We spend all of our time collecting information, noticing our environment, and we don’t just pack that information into our imaginary world and then forget it. We’re not just sensors, we’re observers. We’re evaluators.

If Dave is going to be late to the meeting because he’s stuck in traffic, does that suggest maybe the other guys who haven’t popped into the conference room yet are also out late? How many of them drive a similar commute to Dave’s? What about that sad phone call we got? It’s not just a moment’s grief, it’s a life-changing circumstance. Part of our job as people is to learn from our experiences and adapt our future behavior, whether it’s a matter of avoiding peril or avoiding traffic jams, responding to a loss by our favorite football team or responding to the loss of a loved one. The human experience is one of constant conflict, obstacles popping up in our everyday lives that we have to deal with, that we overcome just to move on to the next one in the hopes of finding some resolution.

Those are all the words we use to describe the structure of a story, and it’s no coincidence. Storytelling is practicing life. Every story is a little sample life, a demo, a simulation that can reveal deep truths or provide flawed data depending how well it’s built. The same is true of assumptions and conclusions we draw every day, in real life. The better you are at grasping a broad, complex environment and allowing for the strange, dynamic behavior of all the characters in it, the better you’ll be at predicting outcomes and planning profitable responses. In other words, while you’re practicing making up stories, you’re actively getting better at dealing with the unexpected and prospering in the serial dramedy that is life.

People are Communicators

And, in all of this, we see again and again people communicating with people. We share worlds through words, and to a large extent your ability to survive the myriad alien worlds of all the people you come into contact with every day depends on your ability to communicate your world, and understand theirs.

Maybe that’s writing an email to ask for a deadline extension, or maybe it’s crafting your memoirs to change the way the world perceives you. Maybe it’s the novel that changes the world, or maybe it’s the boring daily blog that lets your mom feel like you’re not really so far away, after all. Whatever communicating you do, it relies on your ability to grasp the world you’re in as well as the world your reader is in, and to find the common ground between the two of them.

I’ll talk more, in a much more technical way, about practical methods of establishing that connection and keeping it clear, but the best method is constant practice in a harmless environment. Every time you write a scene where two characters try to discuss an important plot element and it goes badly — maybe you find yourself throwing up your hands in disgust and shouting, “Gah! I just can’t write dialogue!” — you’re practicing communication. You’re analyzing what does and doesn’t work, looking at that exchange from the outside, in a safely sandboxed environment, and as a direct result you’ll be a little bit better next time you’re face to face with a coworker trying to work out whose turn it is to clean the coffeepot.

Hobby writing makes you better at professional writing. Hobby writing makes you better at friendly correspondence, and better at chatting and emailing and posting updates to Facebook. Hobby writing is everyday practice at communicating, and communicating is one of the most important things you do, as a person.

Practice Humanity

Are you convinced yet? If not…give it at try. There’s not really anything to lose, and you might discover an aspect of yourself you never knew. More than that, you might find yourself getting better and better at being you.

It doesn’t matter how good a writer you are. You’ll get better with practice, but it’s the making that matters, more than the thing made. Write in a private journal, if you need to keep it secret. Start a blog to keep friends and family current on your world. Strike up some old-fashioned correspondence with a faraway friend, or enroll in National Novel Writing Month and start figuring what your plot will be next November.

Whatever kind of writing appeals to you, dive right in. Explore. And let me know what happens.

3 Responses to “Practicing Humanity (or The Storytelling Process)”

  1. Carlos Velez says:

    Writing helps you figure yourself out too, or talking out loud in general. I learn a lot about myself by communicating outwardly, whether to my wife, or on a blog post. This entry really makes me think about the importance of writing for our own sakes, let alone the benefit to others.

  2. Trish Pogue says:

    While I was reading this article, an idea popped into my mind. My mind is constantly thinking of ways to help kids explore while having fun. I want to teach kids who can’t read and write how to make their own stories using pictures. Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Courtney says:

    I haven’t done much private journaling over the last few years…but I *have* done a lot of poetry writing. A poem is such a perfect way of capturing an emotion and the life-moment that sparked it. Many of my poems would probably mean very little to a reader…but when I read them, I remember who-what-where-when-how-why. Those might not be Official Journal Entries…but still, they are cathartic. And precious.