Although I’m pretty comfortable with and excited about being a citizen of the digital era, at the end of the day, my skills are, well, kind of analogue. I’m good with words and stories. Grammar and spelling still matter to me…a lot. There are some pretty nifty devices with screens out there (I may even own one), but I still prefer the printed page. For a while, I was pretty nervous that I had been born in the wrong century, and that me and my like were unfortunate throwbacks from a bygone era, essentially doomed to join the T-Rex in the “it was a good idea at the time” bin.
Okay, okay, writers are prone to fits of hyperbole (and to calming these fits with large amounts of caffeine). We’re a sensitive lot, and we sometimes let our thesaurus, rather than cooler heads, lead us in our reactions to the world around us. But still, how does a writer, a person who makes their living (or hopes to, anyway) with such outdated skills, compete with things that light up and make noise? Why on Earth would anyone take time to read what what a wordsmith has to say, when there are emojis to convey one’s thoughts? Does anyone really need people like me anymore?
I’m happy to report that everywhere I look, people are still telling stories. In fact, in some ways, stories are taking a front seat in ways they never have before. Here are some examples:
- Content marketing. It’s a catch phrase, but as trends go, it’s pretty interesting. Advertising used to be about logos, jingles, comparisons, and promotions. Increasingly, it seems that consumers want to know what’s behind the product or service, the people who make them, and the people who had the original vision. In essence, they want to know their “story”.
- Our obsession with celebrities. It’s gross and invasive, but we’re definitely fascinated with how the rich, famous and notorious live. Even those with their own reality shows are still hounded by photographers and reporters, looking for their real, less edited “stories”.
- Social media. We tweet, we like, we post, and we reblog, all because we want to hear the stories of as many human beings as possible. I’d wager about 99% is pure tripe, but we’re still willing to wade through it in search of something interesting or touching.
- Binge watching. When you read an incredible story in a book, and you don’t want to put it down until it’s finished, well, you don’t have to. Viewers are starting to do the same thing with television. We get invested in the characters and their stories, and we stay up until the wee hours with our eyelids propped open because we need to know what happens. Fandoms even fight over what should have happened, or what should happen next.
Marshall McLuhan wasn’t kidding when he said “The medium is the message.” Gone are the days of slaving away with quill and ink. You can’t even use a typewriter without being accused of acting like a hipster weirdo. The menu of media has become an all-you-can-eat, 24-hour buffet, and the stories have changed along with it. Nevertheless, even in the digital era, we still crave narrative, compelling characters, a little conflict, and an interesting denoument. It still matters that we use this word instead of that word, and that we include as many stories and as many points of view as possible. Technology screams ahead at a startling pace, but we’re still not satisfied with “just the facts”.
So no, writers aren’t going extinct. We do, however, have to evolve a little. Writing in new media requires that we learn to speak a kind of new language. We have to accept that in some instances, we have as little as 140 characters, that we have to be even more nimble and careful in our choices of words and phrases. We have to be aware that a larger, more diverse group of readers will be coming along for the ride, and that we’re going to get virtual rotten tomatoes hurled at us once in a while, often anonymously. We need to know that our audience will be readers, but also listeners, and watchers. They’re going to want to play in and with our stories, to get virtually immersed in the worlds we create. We have to be better readers ourselves, as the pool of subject matter our readers care about gets wider and deeper.
The more time passes, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that writing and storytelling are most definitely not dying arts. They’re both in the midst of a major metamorphosis, and as is often the case, change is scary, but it’s not automatically bad. There are more ways to write, more channels through which to share, more genres, more sources of inspiration and support, and more people reading than ever before. I’m going to have to ditch a few vestigial organs in order to adapt, maybe grow an extra set of legs or a pair of wings, but I’m excited about this brave new world into which I’m stepping.