This article was originally written for The Visionary Fiction Alliance and posted on their website in two parts. It’s one of the most important and, for me, most cathartic pieces I’ve ever written. It helped clarify why I’ve always wanted to write, why I’m passionate about the power of storytelling, and why I will probably still be churning out words when I’m 90! I hope you find it interesting!
It’s estimated that nearly 130 million books have been published in modern history. 28 million books are currently in print in English alone. When contemplating writing a book, I can’t help but reflect on these staggering statistics, as indeed I think all authors should. Does the world really need another book to add to those 130 million others? In what way is writing a book going to benefit the world and enhance the lives of its readers? Is there a reason for telling a new story – a need, and a purpose for doing so? If not, then why invest the substantial time and effort in writing a book? If it’s just to make money, then there are certainly easier and less labor intensive ways of doing so – particularly with the market as saturated as it is, with more books published than any time in history and an apparently downward trend in readership.
A changing landscape
The publishing industry is in the threshold of a transformation comparable to the advent of the Gutenberg print press over 500 years ago. The way we read is changing substantially, and the way writers release work is also changing. The advent of digital publishing has resulted in an explosion in the number of books being published. I’ve heard it said that we are experiencing an overproduction of books. The scarcer a commodity the more valuable it is, and indeed vice versa. There are more books to choose from than ever before, and to compete in this wild new literary world, authors and publishers must keep prices rock bottom and increase their output to compensate.
Our 21st century civilization is guilty of the crime of excess, if nothing else. In the current information age, we have more information than we’ll ever know what to do with, all readily available via magical little devices we keep in our pockets. Whether this unprecedented access to information has made the human race any wiser is a matter for debate. As far back as 1984, John Naisbitt famously remarked that our culture is “drowning in information, but starving for knowledge”. This clearly extends to the literary world. We’re drowning in a sea of readily available books; ours to download at the press of a button. Upwards of 4,000 books are being published a day. But of these 4,000 books, how many are adding something new, something necessary to the world?
Have writers lost their way?
The issue of social entropy is something I find interesting and a little disturbing. It’s a basic law of physics that any system will, over time, veer from a state of simplicity and order to ever greater diversification, complexity, chaos and eventual degradation.
I believe the writing world is, like many other things in society, experiencing a degree of entropy. There’s greater diversification than ever before and an immense volume of literature being pumped out. Anyone can be a writer now. You could theoretically write a book this morning and have it ready to download on Amazon by suppertime. Heck, if you’re lucky it might even sell! Some of the bestsellers of the past few years haven’t even been particularly accomplished in a literary sense. This ‘democratization’ of publishing is in many ways a good thing but it does have many implications. Although anyone can now be a writer, perhaps only a few of those writers are likely to spend the time learning, developing and honing the skills and craft of storytelling.
I believe it is essential for a writer to have a clear understanding of the basic function and purpose of storytelling. We need to understand why human beings have a compulsion to tell stories, and how these stories have the power to shape our culture, society and our views, beliefs and our very experience of reality.
When writers lose touch with the purpose of storytelling, stories lose their power. They become merely a form of superficial entertainment; distraction and escapism, bereft of meaning and depth. Oh, we keep telling stories, but without an understanding of whywe’re telling the story and what it’s actually about, the stories become mechanical and lackluster, often relying on gimmicks, clever marketing and shock factor to grab our attention. Otherwise it’s a case of, as Dexter Palmer wrote in his novel The Dream of Perpetual Motion: “Stories? We have no time for them; no patience.”
If the storytellers have forgotten why they even tell stories, beyond the obvious material gain and the desire to be creative, why should the readers and audience care?
The ancient power of storytelling
The greatest writers do not write to entertain the world. They write to change the world. And the very best of them actually do.
Truly classic stories have a timeless power to them — which is why they can endure for hundreds, even thousands, of years. They are not just a succession of meaningless events interwoven to distract, entertain and amuse, no matter how cleverly written. They have a meaning to them; a purpose, a message to impart and questions to explore.
Modern society provides us with every luxury conceivable, but it comes at a price. We are all cogs in the capitalist-consumer machine, and for all the latest smartphones and smart watches and smart TVs we have to distract us, on some level we are crying out for something more: greater wisdom, greater meaning to our lives, and some kind of inner nourishment to counter the relentless stress and struggle of modern life. What we yearn for is to be free — and, at heart, all the greatest stories are about freedom of the human mind, heart and soul.
Human beings are born storytellers. The story was invented long before the wheel and we’ve been sharing them since possibly before the advent of linguistic communication. Cave paintings are believed to be the earliest records of storytelling, in which the history, myths and narratives of ancient tribes were set, literally, in stone. As I explored in my article ‘The Power of Storytelling and Mythology’ storytelling is hardwired into the human brain, as one of the ways that we interpret and make sense of reality. Mythology, one of the world’s oldest forms of storytelling, was a way of understanding the universe and mankind’s place in it. Whether as creation myths or tales of heroes battling gods and demons, mythological stories were deeply symbolic and metaphorical, holding significant meaning for particular tribes and cultures.
It’s often said that there are no new stories, only the constant recycling of various plot elements in different combinations. Indeed, Christopher Booker wrote a book in which he claimed that there are only seven basic plots, which can be reconstituted and adapted in various ways. Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell believed that all stories and myths at their basis were in essence variations of a single story, which he called the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, “the song of the universe” being sung in different ways by various cultures and people throughout history. Is it possible that all stories can be boiled down to one essential story?
We tell stories for a reason
Mythology, which is storytelling at its most essential level, was not purposeless. It played an important role in shaping and sustaining society and, according to Campbell, had four primary functions. The first was to open the eyes of the individual and awaken a sense of awe, humility and wonder about the very nature of existence; to become aware of an interplay of tangible physical and elusive metaphysical realms.
The second function was cosmological; using stories and metaphor to help people understand the universe around them, making sense of time, space and biology. On a sociological level, mythology was also used as a means of forming and maintaining social connections. Having a shared narrative enabled tribes to stick together, supporting the social order and maintaining customs, beliefs and social norms.
On a more personal level, the tribe’s stories provided signposts for navigating life, sometimes reflected in ritual and rites of passage. The individual was not left to muddle through life without guidance. The epic tales of mythology were used as metaphors for dealing with the challenges and conflicts we face along life’s journey. These stories, properly understood, contained great wisdom and guidance.
Mythological tales were reflections of the human psyche and the conflicts and desires that drive it. The catastrophic battles between heroes and demons, the sacrifices, betrayals, jealously and love were reflections of the forces powering the human mind and heart. Furthermore, as stated before, Campbell believed that they could all be reduced to the same basic pattern, the same essential story: a story of trial, transcendence, rebirth and redemption. It was always a story of overcoming great adversity and conflict and finding that most cherished of all things, the true goal behind all human endeavor — freedom, whether a literal freedom or freedom of mind, heart and soul. Adversity and emancipation were therefore the themes of this ancient monomyth.
The basic motif of the mythological hero’s journey is repeated endlessly throughout time and across widely different cultures. It still has relevance to us today, for it is a universal story that transcends any particular cultural context. It is the story of the human condition and our striving to overcome conflict and adversity (both inner and outer); to know ourselves, to find our place in life and to be all that we are and are capable of being. It is a tale of redemption and the quest for power through transcendence and self-knowledge.
This message is needed as much today as it ever was — perhaps even more so. We live in precarious times. Economic and social structures are eroding, political and religious conflicts are rife, and through exploitation and greed we are in danger of irreparably damaging the environment that sustains us. We are essentially destroying ourselves–a long, slow suicide caused by human insanity on a wide scale. If we as a species are to survive and thrive, we clearly must change our trajectory.
Campbell was adamant that we need mythology: for “when a civilization loses its mythology, the life goes out of it.” Without a functioning mythology to make sense of reality, to provide meaning, self-knowledge, inspiration and social cohesion, society begins to break down. Mythology must continually adapt itself to stay relevant to the ever-changing society, or else it becomes not only obsolete and irrelevant but maybe even dangerous — as might be seen with some religions. When our stories no longer serve us, we must invent new stories that utilize the same monomyth framework but which work for the age, culture and context in which we live — reinvigorating the ancient wisdom for a modern age, sharing the same essential tale of redemption and emancipation in new and accessible ways.
Words and ideas can change the world
Writers have a responsibility. As Robin Williams’ character in the film Dead Poets Society said: “No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” While it’s perfectly permissible for writers to write and sell trashy fiction (and there is a sizable market for it), writers have a higher calling.
Words can set people free. The greatest novels have always been about the emancipation of the human spirit. That is why books such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are still celebrated and immortalized centuries later. By exploring the nature of human suffering, writers can offer solutions, answers and new paradigms of thought. Like the shamans of ancient times, writers have the potential to be healers in some way, offering a way out of pain and suffering by presenting new ideas, new interpretations and new ways of understanding and relating to life.
Amid the increasing diversification of the literary world, a number of writers are pioneering a new genre called Visionary Fiction. Really this isn’t a new genre at all, for writers have been producing visionary works for thousands of years, from the Indian epic The Mahabharata, to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hesse’s Siddhartha and Coelho’s The Alchemist. There is now a growing recognition that words have the power to heal, to inspire and to change our experience of reality from a mindset of lack, loss and disconnection, to one of wholeness, connection and power.
Visionary Fiction echoes the best of ancient myth, utilizing the functions of mythology as elucidated by Joseph Campbell, by reinventing the great monomyth for a modern age. If we’re essentially telling the same great story, the story of human adversity, struggle and transcendence, then it has to continually be told in fresh, engaging and relatable ways.
Many books can have a visionary element. Such stories draw attention to the power and potential of the human mind and spirit; our inherent struggle for identity, wholeness and freedom from limitation. The story is driven as much by the internal journey of the characters as by external events, exploring the expansion of mind and consciousness. Following the timeless pattern of the hero’s journey, the characters face adversity, challenges and a symbolic (or perhaps even literal) death and rebirth. These stories may question the nature of reality and consciousness, opening the reader to new ways of looking at life. Some of the most famous authors whose work includes a visionary element include Richard Bach, Herman Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Paulo Coelho and James Redfield.
Visionary Fiction is not about getting the reader to share the author’s same beliefs and ideas, but an invitation for the reader to explore for themselves, to question, think, dream and push the boundaries of what they previously thought possible. An entire life can change in an instant with a simple change of perspective. As Marcel Proust said, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” The best stories enable us to see with new eyes; taking the reader out of our ordinary, mundane existence, and presenting new ways of understanding and relating to life.
That is the gift of a great story. That is why storytelling is still immensely relevant to our lives and why, if they choose to accept the challenge, writers have a whole lot more to offer their readers than simple escapism. They can offer people the tools they need for dealing with life’s inevitable pain and suffering. Joseph Campbell stated, “If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.” Changing the stories we tell changes the way we see life, which in turn changes life.
There tends to be a great focus on darkness and human dysfunction in modern literature, film and television; a fascination and almost glorification of the very worst distortions of human nature. Many excellent writers are adept at exploring the darker side of the human psyche and its reflection in our culture, but visionary writers take us beyond the darkness into the light at the end of the tunnel, revealing that which is highest and best in us, and highlighting our endless capacity to grow, reinvent ourselves, and rewrite our own faltering narrative. Literature needs this. The world needs it.
Writers are not just here to entertain the world. Writers have the potential to change the world, and they should be content with no less than that. More and more people are waking up to the reality of 21st century life — that we have to change the way we are living in order to survive and create a sustainable future for our children. As this continues, I suspect that Visionary Fiction will come to the fore as a means of awakening our collective imagination and our capacity to live, dream, love, and change our cultural paradigm for the better. A good story can change lives. A great story can change the world.