Stories are serious business. Or maybe not.
The last two New York Times Book Reviews have provided fascinating looks at stories. One serious and one playful.
This week David Eagleman reviewed Jonathan Gottschall new book, The Storytelling Animal:How Stories Make Us Human. Gottschall is a professor at Washuington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania and a leading scholar in the study of literature and evolution. He draws on both science and history to determine whether stories serve a biological purpose.
He notes that people spend a good portion of their time in fictional or imaginary worlds and concludes that, “Neverland is our evolutionary niche, our special habitat.”
Within that habitat we are most engaged by stories that are “intensely moral.” Reviewer Eagleman explains, “The theory is that this urge to produce and consume moralistic stories is hard-wired into us, and this helps bind society together. It’s a group-level adaptation. As such, stories are as important as genes. They’re not time wasters; they’re evolutionary innovations.”
All of it is fascinating stuff, but the question for writers is how does one create these “evolutionary innovations”?
A week ago, the Times Book Review asked novelist Colson Whitehead that question. Well, maybe not that exact question. They asked Whitehead to produce a piece on How to Write. I can’t think of anyone better to ask than a man who could produce books like The Intuitionist, Sag Harbor and Zone One.
After suitable reflection, the MacArthur Fellow advised, “The art of writing can be reduced to a few simple rules. I share them with you now.” Wow! The Holy Grail.
Whitehead offered eleven rules. I particularly liked
Rule No. 5: Keep a dream diary. (That’s it.)
Rule No. 7: Writer’s block is a tool. Use it.
Rule No. 8 Is secret.
Okay, you get the idea. Colson’s tongue is so far into his cheek that he looks like the Michelin Man, not an easy task for an African-American. It’s great stuff. You’ll laugh your way through the piece right up to
Rule No. 11: There are no rules.
The juxtaposition of the two pieces suggests something that writers would do well to remember: stories are important and so is writing them well. But they’ll often come out better if you’re not so solemn about the process of producing them. A manuscript leavened with a little laugher by a writer willing to play a bit often leads to a better book.