What Fiction is About – The Modern Shaman

In the ancient days of presumably all cultures, before reading and writing, there was an oral tradition of stories instead. Storytellers managed the myths and legends of their people, keeping them alive, teaching the youngsters who listened, holding the morality of their culture in their hands. When you had a moral dilemma, there was most likely a story where someone had a similar one, and what they did was helpful to know. Even before you got to the point where you had a dilemma, the stories had shaped you, all your life, to the ways of your folk.

In addition, storytellers answered all those ‘why’ questions. In the just-so sort of story, you learned why Badger has stripes, or why we can’t reach up and touch the stars, or where everybody came from. You learned what your responsibilities were to each other, to the world, to the gods, and who had responsibility for you. That’s big learning.

Our task as fiction writers is in direct descent to that.

Ever notice that fiction from earlier times doesn’t have the same cultural base as yours? Some things are timeless—Huckleberry Finn, for example—but the attitudes and assumptions underlying it are so different that at times older fiction is hard to read and understand. By the time you go back to Shakespeare, you need a whole high school semester to begin to comprehend it. (It’s worth it though.)

Fiction is, in part, telling our own story to ourselves. It’s about showing us who we are, in the little things and in the big. Older fiction is about showing us where we came from, which teaches us how much has changed and part of why it changed, and what that means to us. And speculative fiction, in particular, although all fiction to a degree, is about asking what would happen if things continue to change. Where would our current cultural mores and assumptions be then? In a world where things are changing very fast, that’s a vital question to explore.

These are not things a writer should be thinking about while he does his work. “Oh dear, I’d better not let my main character be a drug addict… it might push the culture in the wrong way.” No, don’t change your fiction with this in mind. You’ll get a case of centipede’s dilemma. Telling the world to itself is your task, but it’s an emergent property of your fiction. Of, collectively, all fiction.

I think of it as an almost shamanistic thing. Your work represents your culture—to itself, to other cultures, to other factions within your culture, to the individual, to whatever deity you care to believe in. You stand, in your own modern way, between mankind and the gods, just as the storytellers did of old.

In order to be the best you can—as writer, and as this kind of modern shaman—you need to be open. The information must flow both ways. Be open to the world, never stop reading, read outside your genre, experience everything you possibly can, have all the relationships you can manage, accept all the pain and harassment of living in the world you live in. And yet find time to do your work and manage the business side of it as well.

That’s the challenge of a writer.


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