The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Notes from a work in progress about the climate emergency

I’m struggling to write a piece about climate change. It’s pretty easy to fall into a funk as I consider what can happen. What can one person do? So much has been done for us already, by energy companies hungry for profits, by extraction capitalism built to make cities destroyers of nature, by colonists who stole land from indigenous peoples and erased the healthy ways of working and living on the earth. 

Looks like a mess. Long time in the making.  

I’ve been looking for inspiration, not only to write this for you, but also to work on a podcast about being an activist in this unstable time. A few key people have helped me through this. 

The first is my wife, a Utopian who believes that one person, taking a small action each day, can make a difference. The others are my children, because I know it would be wrong to leave them with a world they can’t live in. 

“Know what you are fighting for, not just what you are fighting against.” 

Emma Marris wrote that in the New York Times recently. Her words became for me a way to pull off the trick of thinking positively in dark times. But, of course, it’s more than a trick. To take a first step toward action you need to grab ahold of a moral imperative without being pretentious about it. You have to believe in a positive future which only our generation can make real. A future, “in which children don’t need to take to the streets in protest and alarm, because their parents and grandparents took action. Instead, they are climbing trees,” as Marris put it. Yes, I get that. 

Also: It’s about the stories. The stories we tell ourselves. Stories, internal and external, shape how we think about ourselves, how well or badly we love and get loved back, create everything about how we are in the world. The stories we tell ourselves about the climate emergency shape what we will do about it.

“We’ll still know in 2020 that we have to do a lot better, but admitting we’re in an emergency means we can start to tell ourselves new stories that will help get us out of the crisis.”

That’s Eric Holthaus writing about climate change for The Correspondent. He wrote a piece of speculative, Utopian fiction that reads like a news article from 2030 looking back on the present. He describes all the things we will do to solve the climate crisis in the ten years ahead.  His suggestions have a little to do with policy that is startlingly new but everything to do with the stories we tell ourselves. We need to start telling new stories about how we can get ourselves out of the mess we’re in. “In a climate emergency, courage is not just a choice. It’s strategic,” he wrote. 

I’ve found more of that strategic courage writing this for you. It’s made me see that my podcast project will make a difference because, as Holthaus also wrote, the most urgent thing we can do in an emergency is to passionately tell others that it exists. We need to build and tell new stories to “stop seeing Earth as an external thing to be saved. We’ll realize that we are inextricably linked to the Earth: saving it is, in fact, saving ourselves,” wrote Holthaus.  

In Marris’ Times piece (link above if you want to read it), she covers many ways to take action. For story builders like me, and I suspect many of you who read this blog, our job is to create the new stories that reconsider what we are supposed to accomplish during our time on Earth. Telling those stories is the only way to remain optimistic and to remain optimistic is the only way to move forward. Courage is not just a choice. It’s strategic.

Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash

A note on this post. I’m starting a series of more “work in progress” posts that are really about thinking out loud and feeling my way through the start of new projects. I hope you like them. Comments? Add yours below.

Looking for a Way to Speak

Until recently, I’ve been an advocate of nearly all forms of social media and self-publication. I liked the freedom from gatekeepers, the chance to step out on stage unrehearsed, the touches of humor from people whom I never thought might be funny.

As this decade has unspooled the internet, launched with the best of intentions, has become a dumpster fire. Worse, the internet is the leading symptom of the unraveling of tech generally. In 2010, tech was supposed to solve a lot of problems for everyone. Yet somehow tech mostly made a lot of money for people who are already rich. And the internet, which was going to unite us, has divided us instead.

Now, it’s not all bad. We have delivery on demand! And 3D modeling! And protestors in Hong Kong using social media (when they can) to coordinate their protests. The internet is worth fighting for as a medium of free expression, as I’ve written elsewhere. But we’re in a fix now, with the online universe increasingly populated with misinformation and a place that is dangerous for women with a point of view.

On all social media, the drumbeat of paid advertising steadily drowns out personal posts that have some feeling to them.

What Works?

If you have something to say, where do you say it online? What works? Well, this works, writing here on Substack, a time machine of a platform where the art of blogging is alive and pretty much well. On Substack, the blog has mated with the email newsletter to create an awkward but bright child with traits of both parents. I’d hazard a guess that most people don’t get Substack. (“Is this thing a blog or is it a newsletter? And I have to pay for it?”) But I persist in writing here because it’s a safe place and the people who started it seem like good folks.

Safety Slips Away

But safety. This has become a big factor online. Most places I post don’t really feel safe, and I am the product of years of whiteness, maleness, and the resulting privilege of both. On the edge of 2020, the internet is a lot less safe for a lot of people than it was ten years ago. But as Buckminster Fuller said, don’t fight the bad system. Invent your own. (“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete,” is what he actually said. It does sound a bit better than my paraphrasing. You get the idea, though.)

Writing in Public

With Bucky’s good advice in mind, I believe that if you want to speak online, you have to claim your own platform as best as you can. In the past ten years, we’ve seen the rise of writing in public, creating in public, failing in public, and building in public. This is new. It’s like thousands of comics are working out their material in small clubs, playwrights are workshopping in community theaters, directors are holding private screenings that aren’t private at all on YouTube or Vimeo. Posting a work in progress has become a thing. I like it, although it’s easy to post something that isn’t ready yet. Like this blog. Maybe you can live with that because it has that fresh-out-of-the-oven aroma. At least, I hope so.

Finding a platform that works is a challenge because you’re not about to build your own server or put up your own antenna (as it were) and begin transmitting. For ease of use, you have to use other people’s platforms and make them your own as much as you can. Therefore: Substack. Or an oddball platform like Blot that takes your Word files, your TXT files, your embeds, your iframes, your Markdown jottings, pretty much any raw materials, and turns them into a blog post instantly. Here’s my example: Universal Story Engine, an uncharted mindscape of random celebrations, hat tips, nods to superior thinkers, goofball rants, and whatever comes to mind when I want to write in public. Also, the good people at Postlight Labs have created something called Yap that is a personal chat room for friends. You post there without anybody tracking you, recording you, or even preserving the posts. And it’s free. There’s still WordPress, Squarespace, and even a platform called Ghost. You can run your own world on any of those platforms, or post your videos and podcasts on others.

Open platforms without ads were the best of the past and they will be the best in the future. But they have a downside. They tend to be open secrets. When you use them you have to get people to come by your neighborhood. People have to find you. Your audience has to be composed of seekers. You leave the door open for them and wait.

Now, dammit, what I have always feared in writing has come to pass in this post. You’ve graciously boarded my train and we’ve riffed together, sliding downhill faster and faster past some interesting conceptual scenery, and now the brakes are shrieking as we slam to the end of this sentence. What I’m saying is I don’t have an ending for this thing. I only wanted to ask some questions, and we’ve done that, haven’t we? And it’s kind of like the feeling of reeling from one decade to another, one significant moment of change sliding imperceptibly into the next. At least that’s how I might justify this lapse, as a writer who believes in his craft, to leave you gracelessly, boldly right here.

Have a good 2020 online and IRL.


Shape-Shifting Media

Being a writer-hyphenate used to mean that the hyphen connected your writing with editing or producing. Media is a shape shifter now. That old hyphen is a weak link. Your novel may become a podcast. Your television script might sound better to you as a series of short stories.

In the past, we made these transformations because capitalism let us down. Something we worked hard on didn’t sell, so we, ever resourceful, turned it into something else. I know of a few novelists who have become successful podcast producers. And as for me, I have found a lot of satisfaction in creating podcasts that I can put out into the world without waiting for a gatekeeper’s approval or a bulging budget to be approved.

Things are different now. Working on hybrid projects has become more normal. It’s creatively stimulating to develop a project along several tracks, as a graphic novel and a podcast, for example, or a web series that has additional assets to offer its Patreon subscribers. Some things don’t change: Money can be the driver here. We all need something extra to offer our Patreon subscribers. But something else is happening, too. Many projects need to live across more than one platform. Future of Food is a podcast that I started that has spawned a book. Even before the book, the podcast itself was conceived as a multi-media project, with audio, searchable text posted on the web, deep dive articles, and soon we will go into production on some short form video. The podcast media will also go to Instagram Stories.

Why? Because readers are not only readers. They are listeners and viewers as well. It makes a lot of sense to me to go where your fans are, creating the media they want in the formats that are easiest for them to discover.

The multi-media approach may become part of your process, as it has become part of mine. I couldn’t imagine writing a non-fiction book without doing interviews for it if only to gather information about the topic. And if I’m doing interviews, why not turn those interviews into a podcast?

I’m not pretending that this approach suits all media, all the time. Some complex narratives need to be a non-fiction book.

There’s a trick some writers use when they are closing in on a final draft. They will print out the manuscript in a new font or change the margins. Reading it like that gives them a fresh view. They edit with a clear eyes. For me, it’s the same with shape-shifting media. Remaining open to the different forms a project can take keeps my creative motor running smoothly.

The notebook

I am starting work on a new novel and going over old notes both digital and paper. I found a note that I wrote to my father after my mother died.

Jane was an artist. She wrote in notebooks through most of her working life. We found a stack of them after she was gone. They were large composition books, the kind you use for homework, brightly-colored, spiral-bound, hers bent with age and worry, her handwriting spidering over the pages in straight lines at the beginning, then not so straight at the end. Her tone in the notebooks is by turns petty, bold, inventive, and finally heartbreaking. My father didn’t want to read the notebooks. He was afraid of what he would find in them. So he asked me to read them. Here is what I wrote to him about the last notebook.

I have read Mom’s notebook. It is quite short, covering only the last 18 months of her last terrible time. There is not much in it that will surprise you.  But there are many things in it that are true. She calls you heroic. Her love for you, Dad, shines through.  She says that Liz [my sister; their daughter] is great. She means it.

Jane’s intellect comes through loudly. Yet her will to finish what she started in art slowly dissipates page by page. That is heartbreaking. But it is only a slice of 40 years of making art and there is ample evidence of her courage.  

Reading this again reminds me of how important it is to seize the time you have to make good work. The struggle for me is to make my purpose sharp but also to turn away from the unknown deadline, to ignore the steadily approaching moment when the curtain is drawn shut and the room goes dark. What we need is a steady sensation of desire. Open the notebook. Press the button. Pick the right pencil from the jar. Just begin every day. It’s as easy and as difficult as it sounds.

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