Greatness: The Power of the Written Word

We went to see The DaVinci Code yesterday….

Here’s the thing. I’m often going to be called a snob, or just generally hateful toward popular culture, and to some extent both of those things are true. I mean, I just hate Tom Hanks because I hate him — I’ve got no good reasons.

The DaVinci Code, though, and that damn Anne Rice — those I hate for different reasons.

See, I’ve lived most of my life thinking of myself as a writer. And, as all of you know, I’m a very introspective sort of person, so I’ve paid close attention to what I was doing. More than that, I’ve always felt it was my religious calling to write, that my gifts were given in order to accomplish something.

And that leads straight to my point. Writing matters. Art matters. Our cultural symbolism and stories shape the worlds we live in, and they can do that in very powerful ways. This includes popular music and dime novels and all of it. Interview with the Vampire shapes our view of the world in exactly the same way that Stoker’s Dracula does. Except, of course, for the new shape presented.

And if that’s true, then it says something about the role of writers. Not just that they’re important (which, of course, I believe is true), but that they have a responsibility. If I’m writing two hundred pages of chitchat to entertain you in your free time, then my sole responsibility is to write something that entertains. I could throw in some deep, thought-provoking dialogue if I wanted to, as long as it didn’t detract from the entertainment value. That’s how Kris, for instance, feels that most popular entertainment works. I think that’s how most people approach it. “It’s just a movie.” That sort of thing.

But if our entertainment shapes the way we view the world, then everything changes. Then every book you read and every movie you write changes your world (for better or for worse). The entertainment value, then, is not the point of the piece, but the bait that keeps you in the trap long enough for it to have its full effect.

Everything I’ve seen of literature (and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of it) indicates that the latter is true. And, as I’ve said, not just for high literature but for every soap opera or trashy romance novel you ever read (or, hitting closer to home, every opinionated website or goofy collection of flash animations). There’s a thousand ways in which it works, too.

First, we all build meaning in our lives based on stories. You learn that the stove is dangerous through an autobiography: “And then, in spite of all the ‘nos’ and ‘hot! bad!’ from Mom, I touched the hot stove, and it hurt.” That story gives meaning to “no” and “hot” and “bad.” They’re no longer just shouted admonitions, and no longer just empty instructions, backed by the threat of punishment. They are meaningful warnings of the dangers the world holds.

As we get older, we get better at interpreting and applying stories. We learn to listen to biographies. “Tommy got caught lying to teacher and he got fifteen swats!” And so we add pieces to our picture of the world without having to directly experience them. Of course, this is also when we become vulnerable to lies (and fiction) misshaping our world.

And, of course, we eventually learn to respond to fiction, to allegory, to metaphor. We learn to listen to a story that’s not real, or not about anyone we know, or not directly applicable to our lives, and take the meaning out of it that does apply to our lives. Think of your favorite parable (Zen or Christian, doesn’t matter), and you know exactly what I’m talking about.

A major portion of the human experience comes from listening to stories and applying them to our lives. A major portion of the adult experience is burying that process so deep beneath our conscious awareness that only Literature and Film majors are expected to ever talk about it, and they’re considered a little goofy for doing it.

But you do it. You internalize the messages of the media that you participate in. This doesn’t mean you ape the actions you see on the screen or read on the page. Watching a violent movie or playing a violent video game doesn’t make you a violent person. Rather, it adds a vivid awareness of violence to your view of the world. There are some people who really believe the world isn’t a violent place, and for them, watching (I dunno) Pulp Fiction or playing GTA would seem so terrible….

You know why? Because it’s actively challenging and reshaping their world.

And here’s the thing: violent games can make violent people act violent. It’s not the game making them violent, though. It’s a part of their personality made visible in their environment. If violent games couldn’t do that to us, then inspiring stories couldn’t lead people to do great things, and romantic stories couldn’t melt hardened hearts. The world around us is far too big to take in all at once, so we view it, constantly, through personal filters. Dynamic filters. Stories help us to change the filters, ever so slightly, to see something that was hidden before, or to see something familiar in a new light. In the most dramatic cases, this leads to action (good or bad), but far more often it’s a subtle change, that will persist until the next story changes your filters again….

It’s a deliberate process, too, from the writer’s point of view. Let me use an example that I mentioned to Trish yesterday, after watching the movie. There’s a scene in the movie (I doubt this is any kind of spoiler) when Joe and Magneto are debating some of the finer aspects of mythical history. They accept from the start that the church is a fraud actively perpetrated against humanity, and (from that base) get into a really heated debate about whether the fraud was perpetrated this way or that way. It’s easy to get caught up in the debate.

That’s something we are taught in Creative Writing classes. It’s a fantastic trick. Because the reader, who (knowing they are reading fiction) is actively working to believe your fantasy story (at least enough to keep reading). Part of the unconscious process of reading fiction is distinguishing which parts of the story you’re supposed to take for granted (just as part of the story), and which parts you’re supposed to consider suspect (such as individual characters’ motivations). If I wrote a book on Church history and said outright that this or that had happened, you would stop and think, “No, that can’t be right, it goes against so much other historical evidence.”

If, though, I hand you a fictional story and say, “Read this, it’s entertaining,” and then within the story I suggest that the same thing happened, you are trained to accept that just within the confines of the story. That works out really well for sci-fi and fantasy, because usually the fantastic premise is something that you’d have to work really hard to incorporate into your regular worldview. Something like “the Catholic church is out to get us,” though…that’s something a lot of people want to think anyway. So it’s a lot easier to accidentally take it with you when you put the book down.

So, back to my example from the movie. When Forest and Gandalf are arguing the fine details (“The Christians started it!” “Nuh uh, the pagans started it!”) you evaluate these items the way you normally would a story element (that is, decide to accept it within the story, but reject it once the story is over). The very action of their debate keys you in that this is something you’re supposed to consider suspect. And, by contrast, the things that they agree on seem even more reasonable and less suspect than it normally would, because these dissenting voices agreed on it out-of-hand.

It’s just one of the tools that we, as writers, are taught to use to deliberately affect the way you, as readers, view the world. Sneaky little things that we drop between paragraphs while we’re crafting a story that’s entertaining enough to keep you reading. That’s the work of the author, and he has a responsibility to treat his readers right. Every orator out to change his audience’s mind has the same responsibility. The better you are at it, the more compelling your message or the more receptive your audience, the greater your responsibility to impact their world in a positive way.

Naturally, there have always been those who have abused the power of oratory. Some earnestly believed the message they were preaching (corrupt though it may have been). Some manipulated others for personal gain. The worst, though, are those so irresponsible that they toss world-changing words on a crowd at a whim, without thought of the consequences. Those who twist words for a quick buck, or just for the spectacle it produces.

I’ll spend most of my life striving to be able to impact people with my words, and the rest of it trying to make my words worthy of the people who hear them. It disgusts me, deep down, to see someone abusing that power.

That’s all.