Good Writing Makes Sense of the World

25 Feb

I’ve often heard it said that the act of writing helps us make sense of the world.  I quoted Alan Watts yesterday, who says that myth serves the same purpose. Ever since I received D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths as a child, I’ve been drawn to them. As a friend pointed out in the comments, the short piece I posted a few days back, The Body is a Fairy Tale, is a creation story.

Arguably, all good stories help us make sense of the world. The stories I’m drawn to often also illuminate and reveal a particular environment, culture, or time and place. They’re not necessarily mythic, but they’re as much about a specific society or subculture as they are about an individual character. When they’re well done, they pull you in and make you care about that world, while at the same time reflecting back on your own.

Here’s a short list of stories that I love that fit the bill, some of which have elements of myth and fairy tale.

Chinatown (Robert Towne, screenplay)
The Wizard of Oz (Frank L. Baum, novel)
Arcadia (Tom Stoppard, play)
In the Skin of A Lion (Michael Ondaatje, novel)
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, screenplay)
Dogeaters (Jessica Hagedorn, novel)
Network (Paddy Chayefsky, screenplay)
A Disappearing Number (Complicite Theatre, devised play)
His Dark Materials Trilogy (Phillip Pullman, novels)

What myths, creation, subculture stories do you enjoy? Have you ever tried to write a creation myth?


5 Responses to “Good Writing Makes Sense of the World”

  1. Adam February 28, 2010 at 23:14 #

    I have often referred to myself as a subculture voyeur. One of my favorite and most enduring subcultures is the hacker subculture, specifically the culture described in the Jargon File ( In high school I spent hours pouring over the entries, entranced by this subculture that developed its own codes, myths, heroes and way of thinking. I still find it fabulous and fascinating.

    I also love the way in which writing can either mask or reveal the hierarchies of the (sub)culture. Ultimately I feel a good story reveals and makes sense of these, since without a stable and reliable hierarchy a story becomes confusing, but the best stories are determined by the way in which these hierarchies are revealed. In “Momento” the narration is chopped up and given to use piecemeal, in Tarantino films these hierarchies are often revealed in rich, seemingly off-context, nearly mythological stories. The Wolf and Marsellus in Pulp Fiction are good examples of the way in which Tarantino uses hierarchy to establish tension and narrative microcosmicly within a subculture and macrocosmicly within a story.

    • cxw March 24, 2010 at 17:51 #

      Another good word for what these stories create: ecology. Hierarchy, but also a system of relationships.

  2. cxw March 2, 2010 at 19:54 #

    Articulate as always my friend. You should be a professor. We can have offices next to each other and makes jokes about Chris Diffy.

    Subculture voyeurs a good descriptor for it. And I agree that hierarchy is important. We understand character by how they relate to others; status is a big part of that. I’m not sure that the innovative structures of Memento or Pulp Fiction make them better than other stories, but it definitely makes them stand out. As I recall, what Memento gains through its impressive chronologically reversed structuring, it loses in emotional impact. It becomes more about spectacle than good storytelling. That’s not necessarily a fault with the film. The thrill of it is as much about “How are they going to pull this off?”

  3. SW March 2, 2010 at 23:59 #

    On myths, I could not agree more. Joseph Campbell will point you to the tenets of religion and myth, listing among them an explaining of the world and the inducement of a sense of awe for the audience.

    Written stories are a personal code from a single source-a subscribed hypnotic trance that we allow to occupy our minds, in tandem with our thoughts. Or at least that’s one way I think about it. I’ll also point to PIXAR (myth-makers of the modern age), which focuses on the three major points of (if I remember correctly) Character, World, and Story.

    I’d also submit an oft-quoted phrase of my poetry mentor at Irvine (apologies for the looseness of the quote–it is not exact): ‘A good poem tells you what you didn’t know you knew.’ I think that the connections we make from word to word, world to world, story to story are the reason why we are drawn to these artforms. To go back to Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, the hero in the cultural/mythic fabric gains the treasure and brings it back to the world. If our stories do not allow our audience to do that, I think there had better be either an adjustment, or a very good reason…

    I could go on about Memento. But will save it for another time.

    Brilliant list. Many things to look at here.

    My own quick list, where I feel engaged in a world that echoes the external by reframing it:

    Jitterbug Perfume (Tom Robbins)
    Dance Dance Dance (Murakami)
    The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
    Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar bergman)
    Rushmore (Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson)
    Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy Sexton)
    The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo)
    The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon)
    Shakespeare in Love (Tom Stoppard & Marc Norman)

    I’ll cut the list off there, lest it go on too long.

    Happy hunting (writing)

    • cxw March 24, 2010 at 17:50 #

      Thanks for the list, S-diggity. I’ll have to check out some of the things you mention. I need to see Children of Men and read Kavalier and Clay. Re: Pixar, do you know if that list represents their priorities in creating a project? As in, first we develop characters, then story, etc.

      I’d like to think that stories give something to people to take back to the world. Maybe even the entertaining one’s do; if nothing else, maybe they take people away from their problems and release them back a little more light.

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