The Parable of the Story

I tell you a story.

There was a boy who liked to write music. He conned his friends into singing the songs with him. That was joy. This he did many times.

Some of his songs came out well. But the boy couldn’t tell why. Time passed.

Then he found a composing class. This would have the answer. He quickly completed a rigorous set of prerequisites and dove into the class with fervor. He left the class enriched. He left the class with the answers. He knew why his good songs sounded good.

After that he rarely wrote anything at all.

The End.

Not only is that a true story, it’s happening to me again.

When I write here I try to write as well as I can. I try to write stuff that people who don’t know me at all will enjoy. Occasionally it works.

But it’s happening again.

I’ve had this problem. The problem is, nobody but me cares about anything really important. Surely you know what I’m talking about. You are absolutely right about something really important and no other party can even fathom where you are coming from, then disaster strikes again.

The problem is that I can’t communicate. I mean the hard kind. Any boob can use a spellchecker and jump on a running meme. I’m talking about sowing a good idea in a field of indifference.

The only way people change their minds about anything truly important is with a good story well told. There are those who can tell a good story, and those who can’t. I have lived squarely in category B, learning a lot, but never able to effect much positive change outside of my own domain.

Then there are people in category A, like this blogger talking to the TV producer. The TV producer couldn’t imagine why the next generation of kids will want to work on Wikipedia when they could watch TV. How would you explain it? I, for one, would not have a story like this ready:

… But I’m not sure she believed me, in part because she didn’t want to believe me, but also in part because I didn’t have the right story yet. And now I do.

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she’s going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn’t what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, “What you doing?” And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, “Looking for the mouse.”

I was so impressed when I first read that. Why can’t I communicate like that? I knew why not. I can’t tell a story to save my life. At least I knew that much.

So then I found this book: “Story” by Robert McKee. I think things are going to change.

“Story” a book for screenwriters. Screenwriting is not one of my aspirations. Fortunately for the world, McKee wrote his book to focus on the timeless stuff.

A good story makes you shudder, or get angry, or laugh, and in the end say: “That’s so true.” As the storyteller, you get to pick what’s true. “Story” is about putting in and leaving out and arranging stuff to tell stories that ring true. The tricks of the trade are thousands of years old and he’s captured them in a way that even the densest of us can understand. Even I’m starting to get it.

I mostly highly recommend “Story,” but it’s really edgy in places. I couldn’t recommend it to a 12 year old.

The bad thing is that, at least for me, the burden of a little knowledge sometimes overwhelms my motivation to make. It’s a lot like what happened to my music writing.

It’s happening again. I’m already feeling the burden. But this time I have a plan. I’m going to keep writing with what I’ve learned from “Story” in mind. I’m figuring it will take a year. One year from now, with practice, I’ll be a formidable writer and two things around me are going to change.

1. There will be less enterprise software in my life. Because when that next enterprise software pollution wants in it will meet a poignant story which exposes it for the naked smoldering tragedy of loss and waste that it is. My memes will engulf my workplace in a wildfire of derision until the even the idea of paying for enterprise poo withers in shame. I will wield… I can dream. You keep yourself motivated your way, I’ll do it my way.

2. Somebody besides me will want to learn math. I’ll get to compare notes with some like minded learners over lunch. Maybe somebody will convince me to study something I never would have considered.

Wouldn’t that be a happy ending?

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2 Comments on “The Parable of the Story”

  1. Michael L. Says:

    The Apostle Paul was a brilliant communicator, but Jesus was even better. Paul knew how to present truth as concepts, but Jesus did the same in stories. Abstract and concrete approaches are both useful, and each have their place; but, stories are so very human that they certainly have a power that ‘bland talk’ cannot match.

    I will be anxiously watching for samples of your writing exercises. And as someone who has a keen fascination with math, but very little understanding of it, you’ll have an eager student in me!


  2. Dan T. Says:

    Extremely interesting. I’ve had some of those same feelings, and interests too. I even really like math (just not had the time or interests in proofs).

    Considering our discussion earlier today, I find it a humorous coincidence that I’ve been planning to purchase the following tool ( for extremely discounted price of $99), having secured a prerequisite for a small fee on e-bay. But, I swear this software is not enterprisy! (That version costs much more.)

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