The Love of Story and Knowning People

I’m reading through Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting. In the book’s first chapter, the author offers a list of the various loves a writer needs to “bring the work a vision that’s driven by fresh insights into human nature and society, coupled with in-depth knowledge of your characters and your world.” The following is that list, formatted for readability:

  • The love of story: The belief that your vision can be expressed only through story, that characters can be more “real” than people, that the fictional world is more profound than the concrete.
  • The love of the dramatic: A fascination with the sudden surprises and revelations that bring sea-changes in life.
  • The love of truth: The belief that lies cripple the artist, that every truth in life must be questioned, down to one’s own secret motives.
  • The love of humanity: A willingness to empathize with suffering souls, to crawl inside their skins, and see the world through their eyes.
  • The love of sensation: The desire to indulge not only the physical but the inner senses.
  • The love of dreaming: The pleasure in taking leisurely rides in your imagination just to see where it leads.
  • The love of humor: A joy in the saving grace that restores the balance of life.
  • The love of language: The delight in sound and sense, syntax and semantics.
  • The love of duality: A feel for life’s hidden contradictions, a healthy suspicion that things are not what they seem.
  • The love of perfection: The passion to write and rewrite in pursuit of the perfect moment.
  • The love of uniqueness: The thrill of audacity and a stone-faced calm when it is met by ridicule. The love of beauty: an innate sense that treasures good writing, hates bad writing, and knows the difference.
  • The love of self: a strength that doesn’t need to be constantly reassured. T, that never doubts that you are indeed a writer. You must love to write and bear the loneliness.

I suppose I’m not surprised that “The love of people” wasn’t included on this list. After all, to write stories about people–good ones, anyway–a certain love of humanity has to exist. But, loving humanity and loving people could be considered different things. (Just ask Mark Twain, who used to write scathing letters to people which his wife would then secretly dump, claiming she had taken them to the post office.) Still, I’ve always found it odd–and I’m sure I’m not alone here–that a craft so dependent on an understanding of the multilevel reality of the world and of people would demand such solitude. To know yourself is to know the world, I guess.

With that in mind, it brings up the question on how fiction writers are expected to know and understand people at a deep enough level to be able to show that depth through story, especially given their necessary seclusion. For example, in a story it’s not enough to say, “Joe and Abby decided to travel north together, and while Joe hoped this would blossom to something greater than a mere friendship, Abby focused on revenge.” Telling this kind of story is great, but what’s under there? Not only why is Abby focused on revenge, or why Joe is interested in her, but why someone like Joe would be interested in Abby, and why someone like Abby feels the need to take revenge. Knowing people is the only way to satisfactorily answer these questions, at least without being superficial or resorting to cliches like the hopeful but awkward nerd, or the vengeful lover. You can’t know people by sitting in front of your computer (or typewriter, for that matter) all day.

The only writer I ever saw mention anything about needing social interactions was Stephen King in his marvelous biography-cum-writing course On Writing, where he mentions that writers, despite the inherent loneliness of the craft, must make sure to go out and talk to real people, since this is the only way they’ll be able to write convincing dialog. Otherwise, he points out, we start falling back on cliches.

And just to be clear, reading a bunch of blogs, trolling a bunch of forums, and catching people on Twitter are not substitutes for real, face-to-face interaction, even though they supply their own set of cultural rules and regulations which should be considered when writing.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just dimwitted enough to be sufficiently insensitive about people–and this may very well be the case–that while other writers, particularly great story writers, are able to understand that intrinsically, I have to bust my hump.

I’ll be optimistic here and say that I don’t think this to be the case. Mind you, I will admit to not being as good with people as I’d like, but that’s why I read books on people skills and psychology. (Something I’m picking back up on after learning once again that unless you’re improving, you’re decaying, that there’s no such thing as staying steady.) Still, I think it–the gift, the understanding, the sense, whatever you want to call it–has more to do with experience having built both knowledge and belief than anything else. Knowledge about how people talk, about how people think (a level of empathy is needed here), and about how people interact with the world around them. Belief that the story you tell can be deeper and more meaningful than, as multi-layered as, and more convincing than real life. Knowledge which can only be arrived at from actually getting out there and meeting people and living life and finding joy and getting hurt and getting up after each fall and seeing the danger of the alternative. And belief that the worlds you create can be just as real if not more so than what you see, as well as a belief in your ability to one way or the other tell the story. Mind you, there’s always the need for some level of talent, things which come more naturally for some than others, not the least of which is desire. Yet as Amy Tan once said, “talent is for amateurs.”

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

In the end, it’s about work. Work you have to be willing to love even when it’s unlovable, sort of like a prodigal child. And that work comes from love. That and whatever else you can throw at it.

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