Fiction Is All About Storytelling.
June 19, 2012
I have a weak spot (okay, several) when it comes to public speaking. I have an irrational concern that someone in the audience will have heard me before or that I will repeat phrases or thoughts and thus bore them.
Of course, any speaker repeats himself, but I almost never give the same program twice. Professional speakers much more accomplished than I long ago proved the fallacy of that, but I can’t seem to shake the irrational worry. I always search for a new way of saying something I have said before.
Fortunately, something usually comes to me from some source to allow me to make a slightly different take on the subject I have been speaking about for over a decade. That subject is books (primarily fiction)—writing and reading them.
While fishing around for something to say to Sulphur Springs Rotary Club members, I read a book review in “Writer” magazine about The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. The book was written by Jonathan Gottschall, a scientist and scholar, and the review was written by editor Chuck Leddy.
When a review of the same book showed up in two days later in Sunday’s Dallas Morning News, I knew that help had arrived.
I have been trying to make the case for the value of stories and how they change our lives for many years.
However, I had only personal experience and very little scientific evidence to back up my claims that reading and telling stories are good for us in countless ways. And that reading fiction rates right up there with non-fiction. Gottschall’s book now offers scientific proof.
I once had the unenviable job of teaching accountants how to become salesmen (that’s an oversimplification that will have to do for now). What qualified me to do that? Being an introvert (yes, I am). I have lost job opportunities because the trait showed up on the Myers-Briggs personality tests used by many corporations and universities. I didn’t change that natural inclination; I just learned how to maneuver it to my advantage.
My life’s ambition was to be a cowboy or baseball player, but God knew I was not qualified for either. I was stuck as an accountant. So I sat at the feet, read the books, and listened to the recorded messages of folks I considered some of the greatest speakers and teachers. A lot of them were salesmen.
One of the most useful but most discouraging things I was told is that people forget what they hear, remember what they see, and understand what they do.
Then another trusted source told me that people remember about ten percent of what they hear, twenty percent of what they see, and eighty percent of what they do the first time. However, repetition increases those numbers exponentially. You would think that information would have conquered my fear of repetition.
So what does that have to do with stories? As I began to apply the principles I had been taught, I learned something else. Months, even years after a presentation I had made, people would repeat one of the stories I had told. They may not have remembered the facts I provided, but they remembered the stories and the stories told them how to apply what I was trying to convey.
I never imagined then that I would be spending most of my time writing stories (fiction and non-fiction). When I wrote my first books on financial planning, most of my stories were edited out. I argued against it, but Wiley and Sons simply said, “We’re a big publisher; you’re an unknown writer. Shut up.” They were right about that unknown thing, but wrong about the stories.
When they asked me to write a third book, I talked them into leaving in a few of the stories. That book sold five times more copies than any of the previous ones. I attribute that partially to the stories.
Writing novels, however, is different. It’s a good thing I was naïve about the bias against fiction (and reading in general), or I might never have started a novel. Although I often kept secret my own taste for novels in the early years of my career, I never imagined the bias to be so prevalent and I certainly never imagined that so many (mostly men) did not read at all.
I went on a short research trip with three university professors shortly after I wrote my first novel. One had written a book on flora and fauna of Northeast Texas. I offered to swap books (mine for his). He said he didn’t have time for fiction.
I wanted to tell him I didn’t have much time for weeds, either, but I didn’t. I purchased a copy of his book, thinking it would shame him into buying one of mine. It didn’t. He took great pains to display his disdain for novels.
One well-known author said that his parents and his wife asked him when he started on his first novel if telling lies was really going to be his life’s work.
That wasn’t my first hint, but it was one of many that told me I had unwittingly chosen a difficult path. Not only are novels the hardest sell, but non-genre novels out of rural Texas raise the selling bar to an almost impossible height.
By the time I discovered this, I was well into my third novel, and I had a small cadre of devoted readers—enough for me to finally find a small publisher or two to take me on.