Words vs. Stories

The more I write, the more I value story over words.

Bruce Lee once said that before he studied martial arts, a punch to him was just a punch and a kick was just a kick. But after he studied martial arts, a punch was no longer just a punch, and a kick was no longer just a kick. After he understood the martial arts, a punch was just a punch and a kick was just a kick.

However tedious that may be to read, it holds a simple but profound truth that also applies to writing.

I started dreaming of becoming a writer in grade school. What that meant escaped me for decades. I only knew that I loved to write and needed to write. Sure I loved words, but not as a linguist. I loved them because of what they did in my head. The words themselves weren’t important. They were tools for putting together a movie in my imagination, and great writers, to me, were not great wordsmiths but great storytellers. In a sense, words to me were merely words.

Then I went to college and studied creative writing for eight years. There I learned that words are not just words. They are the essence of what writers do. They are the focus. They must be dissected and arranged into beautiful patterns that exist for the sake of existence. Great words, I learned, make great stories. Silly words make silly stories.

This of course is pure hog swill, and it took me years to rid my mind of its effects. Words are indeed just words. They are powerful, yes, but only because they are the tools of creation. They are the building blocks, not the building. The brickmason and the architect have two different visions. The first doesn’t care if the plumbing works as long as every line is level. The latter cares not just about levels and lines, but about how each room will serve its occupants.

I should have realized the philosophy of writing taught at universities is wrong by the effect it had on me. Before I entered college I had already written two novels. But in eight years of college I wrote only one, and only because I was required to do so. Once off campus, I started writing again for the love of it, and finished a fourth novel in nine months.

Once out of school I began to value story over words. I didn’t think this through. I only knew that when I sat down to write a story I was interested in, the words came easier.

Isaac Asimov once said that it takes about a million words of prose before a writer is ready to have a book published. I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that self-discipline is essential. Writing consistently established a realistic understanding of the craft. The man who writes a thousand words a day acquires a great storehouse of words. Producing a boatload of words won’t make you a great writer, but it will strip away your pretension. Plentiful things are cheap things. What holds real value is that which is rare. To the writer this means Story.

When I was younger, words came harder, and required a much greater investment of my time. A four page essay? Are you kidding? That will take forever! A ten page short story might take two weeks to write, and two weeks was such a long time back then. As a result, I valued every word. I resented suggestions that whole paragraphs (or, worse, whole pages!) had to go for the sake of story. I hated cutting because my words were bought at such a high price.

Worse, story itself was a mystery. No one taught structure and fulfillment. No one taught the basics of conflict and meaning. People were either born with the “gift” or they weren’t. The muses, those traitorous old hags, either loved you or they didn’t. Since I had nothing to compare my precious words to, I settled for rearranging them into beautiful shapes.

Later I started to see the techniques of story, and I thought, What has Calliope ever done for me?

But stories! Stories can be shaped and chiseled! They can be made beautiful, even if they begin life as chunks of granite prose. Isn’t that what art  is about? Reshaping the ordinary to communicate truth and beauty?

Suddenly individual words were not so important. They were necessary, and sometimes even beautiful, but not so valuable that I wouldn’t sacrifice one (or a thousand) if doing so could make the story better or more true.

Now such a sacrifice is not hard at all. This is what words are for! They do not exist for their own sake, but to give form and substance to something greater.

Words are just words. They are not true unless a story makes them so.