Do you watch much TV?
I mean, there seem to be only two kinds of people. People who watch TV and are willing to admit it… and liars.
Actually, that’s not quite true: even the people who admit they watch TV are liars. What they lie about is how much they watch. If a guy says he watches, you know, like 15 minutes of news every morning while he’s eating his whole grain breakfast cereal, he’s probably really an hour-a-day guy. He’s just not counting the 45 minutes of ESPN while he’s on the elliptical machine at the gym.
Some teenage girl swears to her mother she’s not watching more than the one show a day she’s allowed, she’s totally going to Hulu and streaming six others online from the laptop in her bedroom.
Even those of you who swear you only turn it on once a year, like for the Super Bowl or the Oscars, are still watching your way through the entire run of one TV series after another on DVDs you rented, which is really the same thing, you have to admit. What I’m saying is, everybody watches more TV than they say they do. It’s perfectly normal.
Of course, it goes without saying that it isn’t TV we want, it’s stories. We are mad for stories. When all we had was radio, entire families would sit stock-still around a wooden box, desperate to hear what the Lone Ranger or whatever was up to. Churches, when you think about it, are really just places to go to get stories, even if they are the same ones over and over again. Campfires are places for stories, and theaters, and the water cooler at the office. Even the plain wooden fence that neatly divides one neighbor with a satellite dish from another neighbor who can only afford basic cable is a place to swap stories. Books, of course, magazines, newspapers, newsletters, letters, emails… all stories.
Even the stuff on TV that you don’t think of as TV—the commercials, the political speeches, the news—those are stories, too.
The thing is, everybody needs stories. We have an endless, ravenous appetite for stories.
We think in stories. Something happens to us, and we make it make sense by telling a story about it to our friends, or by relating it to a story we’ve heard from somebody else. We overhear a few details about a situation, and we guess at the rest of the story from the littlest tiny bit of information. Or we just make it up.
As an species, there’s absolutely nothing we love more than a story. But we like our stories more than other people’s stories. We have great, huge, generations-long story wars, in fact. Evolution vs. Creationism? That’s just the battle between a PBS documentary and… well, some kind of fantasy cartoon for kids. Liberalism vs. Conservatism? Stream of consciousness poetry versus ritualized, unchanging recitations of dogma.
People say stories have to have conflict, and it couldn’t be more true. Our stories conflict with each other all the time, and in the end only the stronger stories win.
What makes a story strong? Fitness to its environment. (That’s how it works with natural selection, too, roughly.) What makes a story fit for its environment? It has to speak to and about and in the language of the people. It has to engage with the zeitgeist. It has to encode and reflect the memes of the moment.
Does your work do that? That’s what I hope mine does.