Seeing my high school students walk down the hallways making films out of every insignificant tick of the second hand, I wonder if we’ll all look back on this era as a true renaissance, a time when technology enabled us to finally create the grandiose visions previously locked up inside our heads. Perhaps all these young minds needed was a piece of technology as awesome as a smart phone to unlock their true potential. We hear the messages the advertisers are sending loud and clear–WE’RE ALL STORYTELLERS! No longer are we consumers; we’re creators.
I teach journalism, and I find this message frightening. By taking the “We are all storytellers” message seriously, my students, really folks of all ages, run the risk of hubristically producing films and projects that abuse all the worst parts of our culture–stereotypical tropes, unlikeable characters, pointless special effects, and Michael Bay level dialogue. I’d choose Aunt Patty and Aunt Selma’s vacation slides any day.
Somehow storytelling became one of those jobs/hobbies/careers that the American everyman feels competent in doing, recreationally or professionally. I believed it in myself as well, for years. Just as I was convinced as a child that even though I didn’t make the junior high basketball team, I had what it took to make it to the NBA (that Michael Jordan story got to all of us).
Ever since I got started reading Stephen King novels at a young age, I wanted to write a novel. Obsessively. I mapped out horror stories about kids that killed people in their dreams and homeless people that knew the future. I suppose those exercises were critical in gaining a basic grasp of a narrative arc, but not until I took actual writing classes did I realize that I lacked the fundamentals that would make a career as a novelist remotely possible. I wasn’t a storyteller, yet; I needed to learn the craft from the beginning and push my ego to the side before I could create something of value.
My frustration with the “We are all storytellers” axiom furthered while reading a book I really liked, Jessica Abel’s amazing graphic nonfiction book Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. Early in the book she included a panel that illustrated various people brandishing boom boxes a la Lloyd Dobler with the message bubble, “We are all storytellers.” In the following 200+ pages, she disproves herself by explaining what the actual process of making a podcast entails. Those radio stories we listen to on NPR are a labor of love that take endless patience and attention to detail, not to mention an expertise in understanding sound, interviewing techniques, and editing. Being a storyteller takes ambition, dedication, and determination. Sure, we could half-ass it, but is a storyteller that fails to tell the story right really a storyteller?
I pray the advertisements spreading this message end, and soon. But they won’t. These messages inspire the everyman, and I’m sure they sell product.
A frequently run Samsung commercial begins with an awkward and insipid battle cry from a frustrated woman: “My movie is going to make that movie look like a dumb movie.” The stone-faced lead proceeds to quit her job and life while destroying her home in order to produce a movie that would likely be viewed by her 250 Facebook friends, liked for a day or two, then forgotten, something Samsung is telling America that we all could choose to do.
But why would we? What happened over the past few years to create the fantasy of the everyman storyteller?
Another Google commercial begins with someone typing “how to make a movie” into the search bar. I don’t doubt that certain aspects of making a movie are google-able, but how could a web search capture the complexity of crafting a story that people would actually want to see.
The results of this sort of message will be a lot of bad movies and stories that aren’t really stories. Those singers that got their reality checks from Simon Cowell on American Idol might refocus their dreams to become writers and producers and performance artists. Without interest in learning the craft, they’ll craft self-congratulatory drivel that misunderstands an audience’s needs. These commercials are feeding that part of our ego that convinces us OUR stories are the most profound. They’re profound because we’re the only ones privy to them.
And I want to make clear that I’m not touting myself. I spent the last three years of my life learning one single lesson: I have a lot to learn before I ever have a micro-chance of being successful. And I would never tell a student that his work is low quality or she should give up her dream of writing. I’d do the opposite. I’d urge those students to learn the craft at an early age and get a leg up on the competition that doesn’t feel like it needs to.
I adore the famous twitter account created by Cory Arcangel, “Working on My Novel,” which exposes the delusions of grandeur people have upon sitting in a coffee shop one day to write their tome. The concept is hilarious because we wonder, how many of those novels actually get written? How many of those people get past page 10? A lot of people look at writing a novel in the same way that some people look at running for president.
Stefan Sagmeister believes that people are believing the “We are all storytellers” message “because it’s in the air.” He tore the zeitgeist a new one with his video, “You are not a Storyteller.”
A band I love, Devo, feared the way technology would make us devolve, and though they didn’t predict the everyman storyteller, they did predict the death of common sense. I’d urge the viewing public not to fall for this sort of persuasion into the guiltiest part of our ego.
My heart broke a little when I put my guitar in my case one last time, vowing to refrain from playing, in public at least. I’d been embarrassing myself in public for over three years, pretending that I was the kind of singer/songwriter that people would want to listen to me. But, just like after a bad breakup, I found myself stronger–stronger in the realization that I had enough self-awareness to realize I wasn’t going to fulfill my teenage bedroom fantasy of being a rockstar.