Words to Live By – Sex, Love, Warfare, and DeathPosted: March 4, 2020
The first Wednesday of every month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.
Sex, Love, Warfare, and Death
People will fool you if you let them. Consumers especially. Consider the old marketing adage coined by Steve Jobs, “A lot of the time, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Every single morning, especially with the elections coming up, I turn on the news to get a glimpse of my world. The media skews reality so badly it sometimes seems pathological, but hey, let’s face it, if I really wanted raw unbiased information, I wouldn’t get it from CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC.
Coronavirus is about to go pandemic. That’s scary, which means the news will deliver it to me at accelerated intervals. Donald Trump tweeted something nasty again—big surprise there—and I’ll hear about it at the top of the hour, every hour. A new celebrity sex scandal? I eat those up, because, well, I’m a human being and gossip about sex somehow makes me feel like an active participant. It really isn’t the media’s fault, of course. They only sell what I’m willing to buy. Whatever else it may have become in the modern era, the news business has always understood our psychology far better than we do.
No matter how old we get, how wizened, educated, experienced, or jaded, there are but a few key elements we demand like clockwork from our stories: sex, love, warfare, and death. The news is a storytelling racket, after all, no different from books, movies, or anything else worth binging till our eyes bleed. Broadcasting the truth (or something designed to look like a reasonable facsimile thereof) is supposed to carry with it an added degree of responsibility, but if you find yourself screaming at the anchorman for his disastrous manipulation of the facts, don’t blame his boss or parent company. We are who we are. Humans possess a higher mind, higher aspirations and beliefs, altruism, compassion, faith, family unity, a virtuous sense of community. But we have a lower mind, too, a famously inconvenient and uncompromising wilderness of dim subconscious junk, and any storyteller worth her salt knows to engage us there first and foremost.
Think about your favorite stories. Every single one of them, I’ll bet, contains some degree of sex, love, warfare, or death. Now, your all-time top ten may not include all four at once, and maybe one or two of those elements, more or less to the point, is dressed up to resemble something else entirely. But they are there. 50 Shades of Grey wasn’t a pop culture phenomenon because it was a good book, and War and Peace would’ve sold far fewer copies historically if Tolstoy had simply called it Peace. I know what you’re thinking. This is all pretty cynical, Jeff. Surely people aren’t so basic as that. Why yes we are, and don’t call me Shirley. Anyway, it’s not cynicism. It just might be helpful to know what you’re up against before you decide to tell your next story.
Here’s what you’re up against. You are a human being attempting to entertain, enlighten, provoke, or otherwise affect on an emotional level other human beings, a species of meat-bodied, highly intelligent yet conflicted primates with a long, glorious history of blood for blood, sex for pleasure, and a penchant for looking for love in all the wrong places. Just so you know I’m not biased, I also believe each of us has a soul and a sovereign and divine spiritual destiny. To my mind, we’re a perfectly perfected, haphazard merger of things both high and low. It’s just that sometimes higher things can seem lowly and lower things can get us really, really, really, awesomely freaking high. There’s no shame in it, at least there shouldn’t be. You’re a warm body and an isolate personality. You get lonely sometimes, have to eat, sleep, and contend with day-to-day living. I also happen to believe in God and the unified consciousness of all things. Good thing, too. It helps to remember my mantras while I’m stuck in traffic, barely suppressing the urge to hop out and punch the guy sexting his girlfriend in the Hyundai next to me.
Have you ever read a really boring novel and thought, there needs to be more conflict, more romance, just a touch more daring and danger? I have, I do, all the time, especially when I’m reading something written by a beginner. Novice writers often confuse circumstance for story. These things aren’t mathematical, you aren’t working an equation, and outlining your latest plot to within an inch of its life will only render the storytelling equivalent of procedural asphyxiation. If artificial intelligence ever takes over the world, it won’t be writing stories. Not good ones, anyway.
Because we’re not synthetic lifeforms, you may every so often encounter people with beating hearts, barely controlled primal urges, a whole host of neuroses (both subtle and extravagant), and oh yeah, a crippling sense of self-doubt and self-limitation, stemming from one very basic fact: we’re all going to die, and there’s not a single thing any of us can do about it.
We care about sex because the survival of our species depends on it. We care about love and tragedy because they tend to define our most guarded, significant moments. And when it comes to warfare, we’ve all gotten a taste. What’s the difference between arguing with your neighbor for playing his music too loud and desiring to invade a foreign country because you don’t like the way they’ve been eying your stuff? A matter of degree is no matter at all, as it turns out. The trouble with reality as we know it is that we as individuals are just so damn, well, individualized. Relating to others in empathetic and wholly loving terms sometimes requires feats of superhuman strength, especially because I’m so terribly separate from you, and you’re so terribly separate from me, and I have my own needs, desires, limitations, and personal wounds to contend with.
But that doesn’t mean we’re alone. We aren’t, not one of us. It also doesn’t mean the stories we tell, the stories we love, have to be manufactured to meet primal criteria and primal criteria alone. The warmth and splendor of our experience is only equal to the depths of despair and loneliness we may encounter. That’s just the way it is. Life is a roller-coaster ride, and truth be told, we wouldn’t have it any other way. As The Beatles put it, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. How much love have you made recently? Was it worth writing about? If so, why the hell are you reading some stupid blog post? Jot it down. Hurry! Hurry! Before it disowns you and moves to upstate Antarctica!
Sometimes fiction writers neglect their own experience in favor of concocting synthetic lives, synthetic characters, synthetic prose. I imagine to some the old chestnut, write what you know, seems like a bad idea. It isn’t. You’ll have to trust me on this. Your experience is equally significant as mine, as hers, as his, which is to say, both significant and insignificant as dirt. But that’s okay. In fact, it’s the way things are supposed to be. In the course of any given lifetime, fortunes will change hands, lovers will dispose us or face our disposal, babies will cry, enemies and friends will be made, laughs will be had, tragedies endured, and at the end of it all, we’ll have to give the whole shebang back and pretend it was some kind of season finale to a sleeper hit show the network neglected to renew. It seems unfair, but immortality is reserved for vampires, Highlanders, homogenous national virtues, and other mythical beasts. It is precisely our temporal nature that enables the existence of storytelling in the first place. The people who remind us of our limits, who console us, make us feel understood, the ones who tempt us or frighten us or leave us hanging, we call them storytellers, and we honor their place in our lives.
Every single day is story unfolding, and every individual you encounter is a supreme co-author of yours. It is entirely possible to acknowledge these things about ourselves, these dark and dirty, foible-filled things, and to still enjoy the hell out of each waking moment. More than possible. Perhaps mandatory, because hating your life is just a way of saying you love it with all your heart. The real miracle, the fact that any of us are here at all, necessitates our uncompromising need to build the biggest, most luxurious sandcastles, and then to watch helplessly as the tide swallows them whole. This is the essence of storytelling. It’s the essence of life. All things must pass. All things must pass away. Just remember that the next time you sit down to write. You’d better entertain me, wow me, seduce me, or otherwise completely jack up my mood, because if you don’t, I’m putting your book down and turning on the news.
Oh look, Trump just tweeted about Coronavirus, Joe Biden, the Chinese economy, Russian election meddling, Nancy Pelosi, Roger Stone, his persecution at the hands of our political system, and he managed to use the term fake news a total of seven times. That’s got to be some kind of record. What a storyteller! Guess I’m watching CNN all morning again.
It’s in the bloodstream, you see, always was and always will be. And thank goodness for that. No need to make America great again, Mr. President. Or the rest of the human race, for that matter. We’re all pretty great already. I mean, we invented War and Peace and 50 Shades of Grey, and we haven’t even learned to conquer death yet. Bet there’s a good story in there somewhere. You should totally write it, dude, before someone else beats you to it.
Talk at you next month, everybody! Have a good one. 🙂
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