How to Not Make Bad Propaganda

Confession: when I started the post about slow-clapping and my dad, I didn’t really know where it was going. I could write that style of writing off as an anomaly, or I could justify it and claim to have two wildly different writing processes that I switch between for different goals, audiences, etc. Obviously, I opt to justify, and I’ll give each process a descriptive, if hyperbolic, name: the “market-y, sell, sell” process and the “painfully honest” process.

The “market-y, sell, sell” (or “purpose-driven”) process starts with an idea, theme, or result: “I want to say X!” In order to say X in an engaging way, I need to tell a story. Now I start to mine my creative depths and experience to either find a great story or create one. I’ll find a story that can connect with the people I care about, and I’ll get a point across or drive them to action at the same time.

If I’m creating a website or a marketing strategy, I’m 99% guaranteed that I will have a goal, an agenda, laid out before I create the story. It just makes sense. It’s not dishonest, but it has to start with the agenda and work its way backwards. This is how some people write great stories, and how I write better-than-average stories.

The other process, the “painfully honest” process, starts out with only the goal of writing and being honest. It might turn out delightfully honest, pleasantly honest, or ambiguously honest. The point is that, above all, it is honest.

The honest process always starts with the story. You start typing. You tell a story. You tell the hell out of that story. You dive in headfirst, and you tell that story like the last five minutes of a deathbed confession. After you dig deep enough, you start to find the meaning in the story. You find the kernel of truth. You know that you’ll find that kernel of truth eventually because the story is true. After you find it, your job is just to bring that kernel to the surface so that the rest of us can share in the discovery.

That’s how I write this blog, and it’s how my favorite documentaries are made. The filmmakers may have acknowledged some goals or biases at the beginning (I mean, something motivated them to raise money, do research, and pick up a camera to begin with), but they are open to wherever the story wants to take them. Stephen King famously likes to create the characters and follow them down the path; sometimes they veer or change the plot in ways he wouldn’t have expected. They may be created out of this own thoughts or ideas, but they’re free to do or say whatever makes sense as reflections of real life.

After all this talk of honesty and truth, it may sound like I’m declaring “painfully honest” to be the best process at all times, but that’s not really true. Sometimes you need to use a little persuasion or take people down a clear path, and sometimes you need to blindly feel your way to the nugget at the center of the story. The key is always knowing which one you’re doing and sticking to it. I believe that what turns a good documentary into bad propaganda is simply being dishonest about (or confusing) which came first, the story or the conclusion. I don’t want to make bad propaganda.