When should we use what?
Once upon a time, not so long ago, I was a writer who didn’t think much about alternatives for conveying my thoughts and ideas. That I’d come to think of myself as a writer, and some people agreed, was satisfaction enough.
I studied the skill and art in those days of my writing youth. I learnt the value of brevity, spacing, avoiding excessive adverbs, keeping things simple, rewriting, catchy headings, etc.
Besides blogging, I published a book on architecture and leadership and then ground out a book of Philosophy that I considered my magnum opus. I had some success in getting a small following of readers on Medium and LinkedIn.
But something was amiss.
My blogs were not being read widely, and there were too few buyers for my books. I knew my thoughts were original and valuable to others. But they were not spreading as far and wide as I hoped. I needed to do something different. But what? If it wasn’t the message, it must be the medium, I thought.
It’s not like I was living under a rock. I not only wrote but read widely. One of the things I knew was the power of stories. Storytelling is a whole movement, with many businesses teaching it. Someone I respected, and a dear friend had both told me I should adopt the story format more. So why hadn’t I gone for it already?
I figured it was because I mostly write non-fiction, and it’s not a natural fit for stories. But I found enough famous writers of science, psychology and other serious subjects have used storytelling to convey their ideas with great success. Someone mentioned Ayn Rand in a group one day, and I realised how well she had used her novels to express philosophical views, even though I disagreed with them.
So storytelling was something I had to try. But was I prepared? I’d written a few fiction pieces and had lots of experience reading stories and novels. And I had thought about it enough even to have an epiphany that every story is essentially a work in sonata form, a musical term for the structure of most classical music’s as three main sections — exposition, development, and recapitulation. In this form, the composer relates an idea, introduces a dramatic tension, and resolves it by restoring the original idea. It is the primary form of most stories: “Once everything was fine, but something changed and a problem appeared, and the heroine finally resolved it.”
Hey, I thought this was an easy formula. I could write anything like a story or a set of ‘storylets’! I decided to give it a go, and here is what I published on Illumination as a story.I am Shashi’s Life Instinct and Here’s a Day in My Life
This is how I go about my workmedium.com
I was pleased with the result as more people than usual read and highlighted passages in it, and I got positive feedback too.
I decided to write everything as a story in my newfound silly enthusiasm.
My sensible side brought up the question — can everything be written as a story? And should it be? What about the Lancet or IEEE journal? Surely serious medical, scientific, or engineering research papers are not fit for stories? Yes, I told myself, let’s not go overboard. Everything should not be a narrative or story. There’s still a large place for writing as exposition, description, or persuasion. I clubbed these literary and subjective forms as essays.
But what about the hoary article, then? I observed that articles provide information in an objective, fact-based form in mass media. They had their place in the pantheon but were not an attractive option for subjective literary writing.
Okay, storytelling is excellent, but what if I could do even better by disguising my ideas as fiction? Wouldn’t that be even more popular? It ought to be, but how easy was it to convert a non-fiction idea into fiction? Did I have the imagination and artistic flair it would take? Am I an Ayn Rand, a Bill Bryson, a Carl Sagan? Not yet, but what was to stop me from becoming one if I tried hard enough? I vowed to give it a go sometime soon.
So the story so far is that I decided a few months ago to write my blogs and books as stories or fiction. But I paused and asked myself, are they the proper format for philosophical ideas, which is a large part of my writing? Naturally, I turned my mind back to the greatest philosophers to see what they’d used.
Even the greats fell into two schools — the dull, dreary and hard to read and the enjoyable and easy to read. The former were essays compiled into books. Bertrand Russell had an almost narrative style in the appealing lot, but Socrates and Plato expressed some of the most profound ideas in debate or dialogue, as in a play. And Shakespeare expressed supremely original thoughts and the most profound feelings through his dramatic plays.
But I realised it was no mean feat to compose a dialectic argument or a full-fledged play to convey something meaningful. What I saw in humour columns was usually shallow and often underwhelming. It was well beyond my ken to do it well and would likely remain so. I let it go as a viable option for me.
Having set aside plays, I wondered if there was nothing other than stories to convey my ideas potently. I applied my razor — ”there’s always something else” — and it came to me. Poetry!
Even before I turned to the problem of my writing’s low circulation, I’d started getting interested in poetry. Except for the most rhyming and recitation-friendly poems, free verse and other forms of poetry never appealed to me. But there sure was something magnetic about the poems I did like. I connected the dots, and poetry stood out as another option to convey my thoughts impactfully.
I’d read and realised that poetry is an intensified and concise form in phonetic rhythm and style that evokes an emotional response to a situation or idea. I had to try it.
My first attempts were uninformed, and I knew they were puerile in their form, if not their content in the eyes of the poetry cognoscenti. But I was shameless in my keenness.
Then I pulled back and decided to read a couple of books about poetry. Even if I didn’t follow the traditional forms, it would certainly improve my ‘voice’.
After some thought, I wrote the poem below about something I’d first thought of in the form of my usual essays. It’s something between a sonnet and ode and still unremarked by any decent poet, but it got some definite love from readers.The Things We Do to Be Remembered
A poem for your wisdom portfoliomedium.com
The wonder was that I enjoyed writing poems, whether they succeeded in the world or didn’t.
I began looking forward to finding more ideas to write as poems.
When I took stock early this year, I broadly ended up with five literary forms to express my ideas and feelings—essays, stories, fiction, poetry, and plays.
I knew that just choosing a suitable form would not ensure success. I still needed to be original and valuable and apply all the other devices of good writing. But the better form would undoubtedly be a big booster.
I decided to abandon essays as far as I could and forge ahead with story and poetry in the next few months. I’ll try my hand at fiction next year.
This story has not ended. It’s at the turn of the road where I see answers to my problem. Hopefully, there’ll be a happily ever after. Wish me luck, and I’ll let you know how it goes by relating the results here in a few months.
As I wrote this, I remembered that audio versions of my works read aloud or recited as podcasts are another way to get a larger audience. Lots of people prefer to hear blogs and books rather than read them. But that’s a whole different topic for another story.