Story ecosystems

ancient-aboriginal-art

Ancient Aboriginal art – Australia

Modern graffiti – London

Modern graffiti – London

Silk’s Post #145 — Sometimes the most valuable writing insights don’t come from books or courses or conference workshops. They just pop up out of “real life” and open your eyes to some different way of understanding that you can apply to your craft.

One of these perspective game-changers hit me recently and I wanted to pass it on.

Every hear of biocultural diversity? I hadn’t until last week, when I met up with some very smart sailing friends from an NGO called Terralingua, whose mission it is to preserve biocultural diversity through research, education and policy-relevant work in cooperation with some pretty impressive supporters and partners – like the United Nations Environment Program, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

I mean, Wow. As interesting conversations go, this was a 10 out of 10. Here’s a quote from their literature (emphasis mine):

“For millennia people have been part of nature and have co-evolved with it. Over time, we have adapted to the natural environment, while drawing material and spiritual sustenance from it. By interacting closely with one another and with nature, we have developed thousands of different cultures and languages — distinctive ways of seeing, knowing, doing, and speaking … This is the true web of life: interlinked diversity of nature and culture.”

Okay, a bit wonkish – but I get it: people are part of the ecosystem, just like the plants and the other animals. And not just any generic ecosystem, but the specific and unique geographic neighbourhood they live in. And the culture – including language – that they create is specifically in response to the realities of that locale (debates about the number of words Eskimos have for snow notwithstanding).

Seems obvious when you think about it. Existential, even.

But somewhere along the path to “civilization”, I suspect our big brains started thinking of ourselves as a species somehow apart from – and above – the messy web of other organic life and landscapes. God-like, perhaps.

Maybe it started breaking down when people got mobile – left “the garden”, so to speak, in search of greener grass. And then, of course, there has been the levelling and disruptive effect of technology – our deus ex machina with unintended consequences.

Today, if you don’t happen to live in an unmolested tribal village, you probably don’t think of yourself as an example of biocultural diversity. And maybe the top of your worry list is not dominated by preservation of what now seem like outmoded – even doomed – tribal cultures in remote places with names you can’t pronounce.

Because we live in a global culture now, don’t we? It seems like there’s no place left on Earth where you can’t find a McDonalds, or a Starbucks, or a smart phone, or the industrial waste of some international corporation, or someone who can speak English (though, as I wrote in an earlier post, There’s more than one English). In contrast, there’s not much undisturbed wilderness anymore, if any. Instead, we have zoos and what Joni Mitchell called tree museums (aka “parks”).

Nevertheless, it didn’t take much to convince me that biocultural diversity matters and needs to be preserved. Count me in. Maybe it’s just my incurable idealism, but I say grab on to whatever bits of wisdom and harmony you can, wherever you find it, because there’s little enough of it to go around. It might save your life sometime.

But hold on – what does this have to do with writing?

Well, you know how brain synapses work. They let thoughts wander, and ideas morph into other ideas, and concepts find unlikely applications. And it all started me thinking about story ecosystems.

For a writer, biocultural diversity is the perfect model of a story world. You just have to expand the element of the natural environment to include all types of environment … urban neighbourhoods, alien planets, gated suburban communities, farm lands, resort destinations, refugee camps … you get the picture.

Three big things have changed in the modern world: the nature and impermanence of these new environments, the mind-boggling pace of life, and the inescapable connectedness people have with each other far beyond their own home territory. Nothing is slow anymore. Nothing is isolated. And, foolishly, we live today as though nature has been “conquered”.

What hasn’t changed as the world has gone “global” is people’s adaptation to their own local environment, although we now have to learn our survival skills way, way faster than our forebears. We’re not only still part of diverse ecosystems, we cling to them, sometimes desperately. Everybody needs to belong – to have their own territories and tribes.

Their own different cultures and languages — distinctive ways of seeing, knowing, doing, and speaking.

For a writer, this perspective reveals character, plot and setting as completely unified aspects of a story. It put my head into the story I’m writing in a whole different way. It gave me the key to my main character’s motivations, interactions with others and with his environment, way of thinking, way of talking, plans and actions, consistencies and inconsistencies.

Thinking of my protagonist as part of his ecosystem – not just a character who dropped into the plot and setting from “somewhere else” – was a subtle shift, but a profound one. Why? Because I saw that the inevitable “somewhere else” was my own head, and when I first dropped him into my plot, I now realize, he took with him all my own personal cultural referents. In other words, the author was present in my story – too present.

The received wisdom, we’ve all heard, is that there’s a bit of autobiography in every writer’s protagonist. And that’s okay. We all have a little Walter Mitty in our souls someplace. But I think the greatest books, and the most memorable characters, get their authenticity and uniqueness from their cohesive story ecosystems.

For me, it’s more clarifying to see things through this holistic lens than to think about character and setting and plot and dialogue and pace as separate elements, then try to somehow knit them together. I think wrapping your head around your story ecosystem helps with character POV, fends off the dreaded author voice, and lets characters be who they are and do what they’d naturally do.

This is the sought-after flow state that writers report when they say their characters “take over” and insist on how they’ll act and react. The polar opposite is the character who initially captivates the writer and reader, then – when put to the test – doesn’t live up to his billing, but rather devolves into the author’s pawn to serve the plot. Sound familiar?

I may have just written 1,000 words to state the obvious. But sometimes simple truths take the long way around to get into your head.

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