Today, the book on attacking Iraq
Sure, President Bush is surrounded by all sorts of well-meaning consultants,
analysts and spin-masters, but it seems that he's been getting some bad advice
about story-telling especially the story about Iraq. I'm no political pundit,
but I have taught literature and creative writing for a while, and I had a few
lesson-plan notes I thought President Bush might find useful.
Show, don't tell: This is the oldest creative-writing-class axiom of
all. Readers crave tangible details in a story instead of bland assertions. It's
much more convincing to have physical proof that Saddam Hussein is capable of
or planning to injure us than merely declaring he's part of an "axis of evil,"
which is actually a fairly weak abstraction.
Pacing is crucial: Stories have to unfold at a natural, organic tempo
in order to seem genuine. Pressuring Congress to make a hurry-up decision on a
question as big as whether to attack another country, about two minutes before
a major election, feels forced and manipulative.
Don't drop your story lines: Readers like to follow a story from beginning
to end. Don't trail off in the middle of hunting Osama bin Laden to attack a new
villain that just leaves us all dangling.
Avoid cliché and hyperbole: A term like "war" implies there are two
sides capable of fighting each other. But Iraq has already been devastated by
the Persian Gulf War as well as our economic sanctions and foreign policy. Previous
weapons inspectors tell us that Iraq barely has an army much less any real
"weapons of mass destruction" (see above: hyperbole, cliché and abstraction).
Draw on personal experience: The most authentic stories come straight
from our own life experience. Merely having your father state "I hate that man"
(i.e., Saddam Hussein) is not satisfying to readers. I've visited the Middle East
and taught lots of Middle Eastern students and I've found that they respect and
admire America and that most of them would love to live here. The "bad guys" are
a distinct minority just like in this country.
Familiarize yourself with your subject: If you haven't read any novels
or seen any Hollywood movies told from an Arab perspective, you might ask yourself
why that is. Ask yourself: What am I not hearing? Ask yourself: Is this really
the story that I want to tell?
Consider this: There may be other, more powerful and immediate narratives
we need to hear right now tales of corporate greed and ruined life plans,
right here at home; stories of pollution, disappearing forests and clean water,
and global warming the world over. True, "war" is a grand story full of sound
and fury, to paraphrase Faulkner, but maybe we want a different story right now.
Maybe what we need to hear is the story of ourselves.
Diana Abu-Jaber is a novelist and writing professor at Portland State University.
Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company