“Everyone is talking about story telling, right? This is is what it looks like!”
Sunday, we had the extended family over for Memorial Day festivities.
I called the older kids into the house to listen to Lisa W. talk about a story she is working on.
The kids rewarded me with looks that said, “You don’t really care how nice it is outside, do you?”
But eventually they fell beneath the spell of Lisa’s story.
Then she helped us see how she made the story, how she constructed it out of real and imagined glimpses of 19th century American, rural Georgia, small town Connecticut, aboriginal cultures, and American dictionaries. It’s a hum dinger. (And I will leave it to her to describe more fully. Look for it at a cinema or a streaming media service near you.)
Lisa has been working on this story for a long time. Years. And as I watched the kids watching her, I thought, “What are the chances, with all their school work and their extracurriculars, they are ever going to have enough time to build a narrative world of their own?”
Well, one of them, Andrew, the classicist, has actually written his own language, so apparently some of them have a little extra bandwidth to work with.
But generally speaking, building a world in order to tell a story, this will be a daunting undertaking for all of them. Before they can write a single scene, they will have to summon a vast amount of imaginative material.
Then I thought, “This is what fan fic is for, clearly.” (I am slow to see some things. An internal voice will sometimes intervene, usually witheringly.) Writing “fan fiction” using something like, say, Elementary or Sherlock as your infrastructure, gives you a lot of imaginative materials: a time (19th century), a place (Victorian London), characters (Sherlock, Watson, Mrs. Hudson), crises, back stories, many transmedia variations on several themes, and so on. The point is this: fan fic means you don’t have to start from zero.
The trouble with fan fic is that it is for some people an all-or-nothing proposition. You take the Sherlock world more or less whole. You are glad to have so much of the world building done for you. But your creative license is perhaps a little limited. You are the captive of a certain “creative momentum,” let’s call it.
Then I thought, “what if we can do better than fan fic? What if there were an atlas that serves as an inventory of imaginative materials with beautifully specified times, places, characters, crises, back stories, etc. These would be more modular, less motivated, than the materials we draw from existing stories. More “Chinese menu,” as the cliche has it.
Let’s say your real dramatic interest, the thing you really want to write about, is characters who are making the transition from small towns to big cities. The “worlds atlas” can give you a range of options (medieval England, imperial Rome, ancient China, etc.) and you can choose. The Atlas will give you the envelope for your story. Not just “medieval England” but the deep historical particulars of town to city transitions in 12th century London. The why, the who and the what.
Or let’s say what interests you is people who are being whipsawed back and forth between competing cultures (official, unofficial, ancient, orthodox, emerging, marginal). (Game of Thrones gives us a glimpse of this sort of thing occasionally.)
Or let’s say you are interested in characters preoccupied with transformation. The worlds atlas would offer up werewolves, vampires, Transformers, and yes Mrs. Hudson. (No, not Mrs. Hudson. Just kidding. Mrs. Hudson is always and inalterably Mrs. Hudson.) The writer can choose from the worlds atlas. The writer can combine.
Something like this might have been the origin of Being Human, the TV series undertaken first in the UK and then more memorably in the US. Being Human brings together a werewolf, a ghost and a vampire. The results are interesting not least because the “worlds atlas” (let’s pretend there was one) gave three very different creatures preoccupied with transformation and then rinsed away the genre “coating” that normally adheres to them. Liberated from their origins and brought together as roommates in an old house in Boston (aka Montreal), wonderful story telling happens. Some story-telling elements are supplied, but no story-telling option is predictable. And that’s a lovely formulae for the construction of the new popular culture: still accessible but increasingly unpredictable.
The worlds made available in the Atlas still have a certain pre-fab quality. The writer doesn’t have to start from zero. But we have got rid of some of that “creative momentum” that can constrain fan fic. And we have “rinsed” away some of genre constraints as well. The storyteller has greater “executive privilege.” She is taking fewer “notes” from the original creator. She is calling deeper creative shots.
There are risks here. What if the outcome looks mechanical, a little paint-by-numbers? What if the seams show? Well, possibly. But of course gifted people would alter and transform the originals so that their origins went away. They would also bring them into combinations which would have transformative effects of their own. (We should note in passing that rhetorical training in the old liberal arts curriculum routinely asked students to adopt some well known original and then transform it until the original became original.)
I know we are as a culture entranced by the romantic idea that real creativity comes from a single author. But the Worlds Atlas would enable (and acknowledge) a story telling that comes many sources and a division of labor. Some character development could come from one person. Some dialogue from someone else. The mise en scene from a third party. (This is pretty much how Hollywood storytelling works in any case.) The “writer” is like a show runner, a curator of beautifully wrought materials. (Mark Earls and Faris Yakob have both suggested ways out of conventional ideas of creativity.)
Once there is an Atlas, several possibilities open up.
the atlas economy
And if this is an atlas, it should also be an economy. As every reader of this blog knows too well, we have a crisis of employment at the moment. The problem is that we don’t have a way to pay many of our creators of culture. An Atlass economy could help solve this problem. We don’t just borrow materials. In some cases, we commission them. “Where did you get that village! Unbelievably good.” “Oh, that. That came from Gutfeld. He’s living in Vermont now, so his costs are low and his rates are good. And yes, he’s a big talent. We use him a lot.” Or we come to be seen as especially gifted “show runners” (“show curators?”) and everyone wants to work with us. We will get our name in the credits and some part of the proceeds of the culture content so crafted. Again a lot like Hollywood.
collaborative story telling in real time
Another idea we have about creativity is that it happens somewhere sometime, and comes to the audience only if and when it’s perfect. But an Atlas might open up the possibility of a showrunner who assembles the story in close to real time in an act of literary improv, with meanings flying all over the place before a breathless audience who gasp as the story materializes before them. (There is some small parallel here with the people who know “play” a video game by watching it played in a run-through on YouTube. I watch Uncharted 4 this way. It was mesmerizing.)
a directory for story sources
In a recent blog entry, I looked at the relationship between the show runner, Natalie Chaidez, and world builder Seth Horowitz at Brown, and the collaboration between them that enabled them to create a rich story called Hunters. God knows how Natalie found Seth. It compares to Malcolm Gladwell’s miraculous detection of “research juste” in a university library. The Worlds Atlas could make this easier, so that world builders can search for academics who can help.
There is an anthropology piece here. And I’m sorry to take so long to get to it. Anthropologists are good at the communicative and cultural materials of a world. They can specify rituals, patterned behavior, clothing codes, material culture, style and fashion. They can help you think about those cultural moments when people are being “whipsawed back and forth between competing cultures (official, unofficial, ancient, orthodox, emerging, marginal).” In some cases, they can supply worlds fully build, but not yet occupied for literary purposes.
Take for instance the extraordinary world captured for us by Gordon Mathews in his book Chungking Mansions. I give you the description on Amazon.
There is nowhere else in the world quite like Chungking Mansions, a dilapidated seventeen-story commercial and residential structure in the heart of Hong Kong’s tourist district. A remarkably motley group of people call the building home; Pakistani phone stall operators, Chinese guesthouse workers, Nepalese heroin addicts, Indonesian sex workers, and traders and asylum seekers from all over Asia and Africa live and work there—even backpacking tourists rent rooms. In short, it is possibly the most globalized spot on the planet.
World builders, start your engines. But first call Mr. Mathews. He can help.
Also, come to think of it, call me. I’ve spend the last couple of years looking at how people look at TV and the results are, I think, interesting. The fundamentals of story telling have been transformed. Many of the old rules of culture, the ones that gave us popular culture after World War II, have been systematically rethought. It’s not too much to say that they have changed what a “story” is and what “telling” has to be if it wants to engage an audience. (Here’s the somewhat general view I wrote for Netflix and Wired.)
The Atlas should be an opportunity to contemplate how we want to tell stories, the imaginative grammars that may, and in some cases must, be employed.
I remember reading an interview with David Lynch. He was talking about the origins of Blue Velvet. I believe he said that the entire story seemed to him implicit in a particular flower. Sometimes what we need are not the bits and pieces of the story but a sense of a world from which all these details will then follow. The Atlas could make these available too.
A case in point is the work of Michael Paul Smith who escaped the after-effects of a brutal childhood by building a miniature world called Elgin Park. It’s a provocative place, a world well built, and at the moment story free. (Except for the ghosts of Smith’s past which flit here and there.) The Worlds Atlas can be a catalogue of frames of mind, sense impressions, and other materials out of which worlds swim.
Thanks to Jenny Odell for the second image. See more of her magnificent work here.
This essay was first posted on Medium. It has been slightly edited. This is now the definitive version.
I think Michael Paul Smith’s website appears down at the moment. I have left the link in place in the hopes that this gate way to Elgin Park comes back up.
a last thought
I was talking to, Tommy, one of the people who listened to Lisa W.’s spell binding story. We were talking about the courses he plans to take next year at school. I blurted out, “Too bad there’s not a course on world building.” If anyone knows of a course on world building, please let us know below.