Evil, even in the darkest moments, is impotent before the miracle of human kindness. This miracle defies prejudices and hatreds. It crosses cultures and religions. It lies at the core of faith. Take a brief journey through the eyes of American, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges to Jerusalem, Gaza, and Iraq, and discover the sacred bonds that make us human.
She might be the world’s most famous romance writer, nay the highest selling living author bar none, but there’s little room for flowers and chocolates in Danielle Steel’s writing regime. In a recent interview she laughed at the idea of young people insisting on a work-life balance, and has claimed she regularly writes for 20 to 22 hours a day, and sometimes 24. The result: 179 books in under 50 years, selling about 800m copies.
Some aspiring novelists might just have cancelled their entire lives to get on the Steel plan, but many more are probably wondering if it’s time to try something less demanding. We asked four creative writing teachers for their perspective:
Liam Murray Bell, University of Stirling
Steel’s claim reminds me of the thriller writer Edgar Wallace, who was known to write a novel over the course of a long weekend. He’d retire to his study on a Friday evening and not emerge until the Monday morning, dictating his words to a secretary and stopping only for half-hourly cups of tea. Poor secretary.
The only thing I recognise from that brutal regime is the need for copious amounts of tea. For me, a productive day is four hours of writing. Four hours of focused, uninterrupted time at the keyboard. This morning, I wrote for two hours and managed just shy of 1,000 words. Even that is a decent day; a steady day. To wrestle those hours of writing time free, I’m postponing teaching preparation, leaving my marking until the evening, relying on childcare. Most of all, I’m doing my damnedest to ignore emails. When does Steel answer her emails, is what I want to know.
There have been times, on writing retreats or under threat of impending deadline, when I’ve been known to stretch to six or seven hours. No more, though, because then the words stop making sense and the delete key takes a hammering. I start explaining my plot to the mantelpiece and rehearsing lines of dialogue with the cat. Instead, I go and do something else. It’s amazing how often clarity about your writing comes while washing the dishes, trimming the hedge, taking the dog for a walk. The writers I know are full of anecdotes of story ideas scribbled on bus tickets, or pulling over the car to jot down a poem opening by the side of the road.
It’s often when I’m out for a lunchtime run that I find myself reflecting on what I wrote that morning or find the thread for a scene to write the next day. Haruki Murakami talks about the similar feats of concentration and endurance required for long-distance running and for writing a novel; each endeavour requiring the person to turn up day after day for months or even years. At the University of Stirling, we’ve actually formed a research group to look at the links between creative writing and physical activity because so many writers are also keen runners or cyclists or swimmers.
The appeal of Steel’s process, then, seems to be that every day is race day. But you can’t sustain that. Little and often is my mantra, with every day building momentum. If you manage 200 words today then those are 200 words you didn’t have yesterday. That might take you 15 minutes or it might take six hours; either way, it’s progress. The aim isn’t to get as many words on the page as quickly as possible; the aim is to get the right words on the page, however long it takes.
Sarah Corbett, University of Lancaster
I’m sorry to say there isn’t a formula for how to write a novel (so don’t buy those “how to” books) – only hard graft, staying power, blinding self belief (rescued every morning from the teeth of doubt), and the willingness to meet the devil at the crossroads and outwit him. And to write, rewrite, write, rewrite, write, rewrite …
Perhaps this isn’t very helpful to the beginner; and I have to admit that I’m just finishing my own first novel – after five years. But having taught creative writing for almost 20 years across all genres, here are some things I can say from experience:
1) Read other novels. There’s no getting round this: you have to do a lot of reading – passionate, engaged and risky – but also the kind where you start to notice, and then investigate how the writer does things. Read lots of different types of books too: be curious, endlessly;
2) Practice, practice, practice. Write regularly even if you can only spare an hour in the evening or an afternoon at the weekend. Most writers have other jobs, families, pets, households, and you’d be surprised how much writing gets done in the gaps between other things;
3) Work at your technique at every level of detail from sentencing and phrasing to word choice, creating believable characters, immersive settings, dynamic scenes and authentic dialogue;
4) Write what saddens/moves/frightens/turns you on; write with the whole of your self and the whole of your senses;
5) Join a course, start a group;
6) Write because you enjoy it, and you enjoy a challenge;
7) Be prepared to tear it up and start again;
8) Remember that writing is work, the best kind, that transports and enchants you;
9) Keep going…;
10) Write your own rules.
So how did I write my novel? Slowly – I published two poetry collections in the same period, did a lot of teaching and saw my son through his GCSEs and A-levels – and with a lot of gutting and rewriting; begging more experienced friends to read it and give me their toughest, most honest advice, and then acting on it, even when it meant radical cuts and changes.
Mine is a literary novel – about family, home and shame – but with a psychological twist. The character and her story came to me all in one go on the train home from Manchester after an unsettling encounter in Waterstones, and since then it’s been a process of excavation, as if the novel already existed somewhere in the world, and I just had to keep uncovering it, slowly, layer by layer. I’m still adding scenes, taking others away, fine tuning every line. I’m still working out the best way to tell the story, but I know I’m nearly ready to let it go because the next one has already arrived.
Edward Hogan, Open University
For his 2016 book Rest, the writer and Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang collected the routines of creative people throughout history. From the habits of writers such as Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and Alice Munro, he concluded that four hours a day is optimum, and you need to wake up early. Trollope rose at 5am each morning (a servant brought him coffee at half past), and wrote until 8.30am, before going to his job at the post office. On that schedule, he published over 40 novels.
As a writer with a family and a full-time job, I currently follow the 5am method, though I make my own coffee. In theory, this “little and often” approach seems straightforward: if you write 500 words a day, you’ll have a first draft in months. But it isn’t that simple. My first novel took eight years, but my third was pretty much done in 40 days. Writing requires two states of mind: you need the researcher’s brain, the clear-thinking editor’s, but you must be open to the dark mess of creation, too. My routine changes, because I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. When I do, I’ll probably quit.
I’m interested in Steel’s way of working. That sort of immersion, favoured by Kasuo Ishiguro, and Jesse Ball – who claims to write his novels in as little as six days – allows them to retain the vitality of the initial idea.
Paul Sheldon, the author and narrator of Stephen King’s Misery, describes “falling through a hole in the page” when writing. Maybe that’s the sort of compulsion that Steel experiences, and it’s refreshing to hear her address the physicality of the process. Writers are reluctant to talk about the (rare) sensation of extreme focus that results when they become possessed by their work. Rambling about raised heart-rates, losing track of time, and being “in the zone”, can make writing sound like a cross between yoga and golf.
The writer’s routine is where practical concerns meet the more ephemeral subject of inspiration. You have to decide what kind of writer you want to be. Jenny Colgan produces two books a year, and this involves hitting deadlines so that her novels appear around Mother’s Day and the Christmas season. Writing is work, the daily pursuit of a word count. For Hilary Mantel, that sort of regularity is alien. She talks about“flow days” when she has no idea what she’s written until she reads it back. But both writers are at their desks, daily.
The act of writing can be exhilarating, but it’s mostly quite difficult. Then again, it’s not like going down the pit. So if you want to write a novel, and find Steel’s method unappealing, let me refer you to the celebrated and prolific children’s author Jacqueline Wilson, who writes for about half-an-hour a day. In bed.
David Bishop, Edinburgh Napier University
Steel’s regime sounds extreme, but if that works for her – so be it. Every writer has their own unique sweet spot, a time and place where they can produce words that will be ready for reading one day. The trick is finding your personal approach, and also recognising it might not suit every project.
Some people say you must write every day to be a writer. Perhaps, but writing is not simply the act of typing words on paper or screen. There is so much more that goes into creating narratives from your imagination. Reading widely is often the sign of a voracious writer, though there is always the danger of a project being infected by the style or substance of whatever you happen to be reading at the time.
It’s also a myth that you need to write a certain number of words in a session. Some writers do benefit from a daily or weekly target, but others prefer to devote a fixed amount of time to writing, and trust that the words will come. Feeling guilty for not matching another writer’s productivity is certainly not good for your mental health. Besides, quantity is no measure of quality. I once had 600,000 words published in one calendar year, but they certainly weren’t my best work.
The act of not writing is just as important as writing. Never underestimate the importance of staring out of a window or going for a walk. All too often the knottiest story problems can only be untangled by getting away from the desk. If all else fails, try going to sleep and letting your subconscious do the heavy lifting. It’s amazing how often the resting mind can resolve a problem your active thoughts couldn’t fix.
For most writers, finding the best way to write a novel is trial and error: experimenting with different systems until they discover one that chimes. Some writers craft detailed plot outlines as a narrative safety net; others prefer a journey of discovery that could mean wholesale rewrites later. Some work in total silence; others needs background sounds such as music. An idea to spark your imagination is necessary, along with a trajectory to follow – but what happens next is up to you.
Steel has a sign in her office that reads: “There are no miracles. There is only discipline.” To be a writer does not require 22 hours at a desk each day, but Steel is right that there are no miracles, either. If you want to be a writer, you have to write – however you do it. That much is inescapable.
Sontag begins with the quintessential question asked of, and answered by, all prominent writers — to distill their most essential advice on the craft:
I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”
Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.
For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.
With the disclaimer that “descriptions mean nothing without examples,” Sontag points to Gordimer as the “living writer who exemplifies all that a writer can be” and considers what the South African author’s “large, ravishingly eloquent, and extremely varied body of work” reveals about the key to all great writing:
A great writer of fiction both creates — through acts of imagination, through language that feels inevitable, through vivid forms — a new world, a world that is unique, individual; and responds to a world, the world the writer shares with other people but is unknown or mis-known by still more people, confined in their worlds: call that history, society, what you will.
She cautions that despite all the noble uses of literature, despite all the ways in which it can transcend the written word to achieve a larger spiritual purpose — William Faulkner’s conviction that the writer’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart” comes to mind — storytelling is still literature’s greatest duty:
The primary task of a writer is to write well. (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.) … Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature — the matchless storyteller.
To write is to know something. What a pleasure to read a writer who knows a great deal. (Not a common experience these days…) Literature, I would argue, is knowledge — albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.
Still, even now, even now, literature remains one of our principal modes of understanding.
Everybody in our debauched culture invites us to simplify reality, to despise wisdom. There is a great deal of wisdom in Nadine Gordimer’s work. She has articulated an admirably complex view of the human heart and the contradictions inherent in living in literature and in history.
Nearly half a century after E.B. White proclaimed that the writer’s duty is “to lift people up, not lower them down,” Sontag considers “the idea of the responsibility of the writer to literature and to society” and clarifies the terms:
By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards. By society, I mean society in the normative sense, too — which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness that we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.
Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent… This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.
Every writer of fiction wants to tell many stories, but we know that we can’t tell all the stories — certainly not simultaneously. We know we must pick one story, well, one central story; we have to be selective. The art of the writer is to find as much as one can in that story, in that sequence … in that time (the timeline of the story), in that space (the concrete geography of the story).
A novelist, then, is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.
Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once … and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.
The work of the novelist is to enliven time, as it is to animate space.
Repeating her memorable assertion that criticism is “cultural cholesterol,” penned in her diary decades earlier, Sontag considers the reactive indignation that passes for criticism:
Most notions about literature are reactive — in the hands of lesser talents, merely reactive.
The greatest offense now, in matters both of the arts and of culture generally, not to mention political life, is to seem to be upholding some better, more exigent standard, which is attacked, both from the left and the right, as either naïve or (a new banner for the philistines) “elitist.”
Writing nearly a decade before the golden age of ebooks and some years before the epidemic of crowdsourced-everything had infected nearly every corner of creative culture, Sontag once again reveals her extraordinary prescience about the intersection of technology, society, and the arts. (Some decades earlier, she had presaged the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture on the social web.) Turning a critical eye to the internet and its promise — rather, its threat — of crowdsourced storytelling, she writes:
Hypertext — or should I say the ideology of hypertext? — is ultrademocratic and so entirely in harmony with the demagogic appeals to cultural democracy that accompany (and distract one’s attention from) the ever-tightening grip of plutocratic capitalism.
[But the] proposal that the novel of the future will have no story or, instead, a story of the reader’s (rather, readers’) devising is so plainly unappealing and, should it come to pass, would inevitably bring about not the much-heralded death of the author but the extinction of the reader — all future readers of what is labeled as “literature.”
Returning to the writer’s crucial task of selecting what story to tell from among all the stories that could be told, Sontag points to literature’s essential allure — the comfort of appeasing our anxiety about life’s infinite possibility, about all the roads not taken and all the immensities not imagined that could have led to a better destination than our present one. A story, instead, offers the comforting finitude of both time and possibility:
Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment. These alternatives constitute the potential for disorder (and therefore of suspense) in the story’s unfolding.
Endings in a novel confer a kind of liberty that life stubbornly denies us: to come to a full stop that is not death and discover exactly where we are in relation to the events leading to a conclusion.
The pleasure of fiction is precisely that it moves to an ending. And an ending that satisfies is one that excludes. Whatever fails to connect with the story’s closing pattern of illumination the writer assumes can be safely left out of the account.
A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders. One could describe the story’s end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.
There is an essential … distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have, as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.
For Sontag, these two modes of world-building are best exemplified by the dichotomy between literature and the commercial mass media. Writing in 2004, she saw television as the dominant form of the latter, but it’s striking to consider how true her observations hold today if we substitute “the internet” for every mention of “television.” One can only wonder what Sontag would make of our newsfeed-fetishism and our compulsive tendency to mistake the latest and most urgent for the most important. She writes:
Literature tells stories. Television gives information.
Literature involves. It is the re-creation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances — immures us in our own indifference.
The so-called stories that we are told on television satisfy our appetite for anecdote and offer us mutually canceling models of understanding. (This is reinforced by the practice of punctuating television narratives with advertising.) They implicitly affirm the idea that all information is potentially relevant (or “interesting”), that all stories are endless — or if they do stop, it is not because they have come to an end but, rather, because they have been upstaged by a fresher or more lurid or eccentric story.
By presenting us with a limitless number of nonstopped stories, the narratives that the media relate — the consumption of which has so dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading — offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.
Indeed, this notion of moral obligation is what Sontag sees as the crucial differentiator between storytelling and information — something I too have tussled with, a decade later, in contemplating the challenge of cultivating wisdom in the age of information, particularly in a media landscape driven by commercial interest whose very business model is predicated on conditioning us to confuse information with meaning. (Why think about what constitutes a great work of art — how it moves you, what it says to your soul — when you can skim the twenty most expensive paintings in history on a site like Buzzfeed?)
In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always … an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle. It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution — which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our media-disseminated glut of unending stories.
Television gives us, in an extremely debased and untruthful form, a truth that the novelist is obliged to suppress in the interest of the ethical model of understanding peculiar to the enterprise of fiction: namely, that the characteristic feature of our universe is that many things are happening at the same time. (“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once… space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”)
And therein lies Sontag’s greatest, most timeless, most urgently timely point — for writers, and for human beings:
To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.
To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.
When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.
The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.
But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.
Studies show that writing down your pain actually has a positive effect on your immune system. Not only that, it can help with the healing process.
In the following article, we will look at the science behind how the cathartic properties of writing work, as well as some ways to help you get motivated to write.
The positive physical effects of writing on the body were first noticed by James Pennebaker in 1986, who was then the chair of the psychology department at Southern Methodist University.
Pennebaker made this startling discovery while performing a rather simple experiment involving “expressive writing.”
Pennebaker asked a number of test subjects write for fifteen minutes about the worst thing that had ever happened to them in their life.
The subjects were told to open up completely, letting out their innermost thoughts and details regarding this traumatic event. The process was difficult for many students, many of whom broke down crying.
However, students also found the process comforting, and when they were asked if they wanted to stop, always asked to be allowed to continue.
Pennebaker contrasted these students to a control group who wrote about normal things, describing their bedroom, a tree outside, or something equally bland.
He observed these students for six months. After this period of time, he observed that the students writing about something traumatic went to the doctor significantly less.
You can listen to an interview with Pennebaker here.
Pennebroker’s groundbreaking experiment opened up a new field of research called “psychoneuroimmunology,” an area of study that explores how expressive writing actually improves the functioning of our immune systems.
A few days before she turned 61, writer Anne Lamott decided to write down everything she knew for sure. She dives into the nuances of being a human who lives in a confusing, beautiful, emotional world, offering her characteristic life-affirming wisdom and humor on family, writing, the meaning of God, death and more.
In 1986 the psychology professor James Pennebaker discovered something extraordinary, something which would inspire a generation of researchers to conduct several hundred studies. He asked students to spend 15 minutes writing about the biggest trauma of their lives or, if they hadn’t experienced a trauma, their most difficult time.
They were told to let go and to include their deepest thoughts, even if they had never shared these thoughts before. Four days running they did the same thing. It wasn’t easy. Pennebaker told me that roughly one in 20 students would end up crying, but when asked whether they wanted to continue they always did. Meanwhile a control group spent the same number of sessions writing a description of something neutral such a tree or their dorm room.
Studies have shown expressive writing can reduce the amount of times people visit the doctor (Credit: iStock)
Then he waited for six months while monitoring how often the students visited the health centre. The day he saw the results, he left the lab, walked to his friend who was waiting for him in a car and told him he’d found something big. Remarkably, the students who had written about their secret feelings had made significantly fewer trips to the doctor in the subsequent months.
Ever since, the field psychoneuroimmunology has been exploring the link between what’s now known as expressive writing, and the functioning of the immune system. The studies that followed examined the effect of expressive writing on everything from asthma and arthritis to breast cancer and migraines. In a small study conducted in Kansas, for example, it was found that women with breast cancer experienced fewer troublesome symptoms and went for fewer cancer-related appointments in the months after doing expressive writing.
There is one area where the findings are more consistent and that is in the healing of wounds
The aim of the study wasn’t to look at long-term cancer prognosis, and the authors are not suggesting the cancer would be affected. But in the short-term other aspects of the women’s health did seem better than for those in the control group who wrote about the facts surrounding their cancer rather than their feelings about it.
But it doesn’t always work. A meta-analysis by Joanne Fratarolli from the University of California Riverside does demonstrate an effect overall, but a small one. Nevertheless, for an intervention that is free and beneficial, that’s a benefit worth having. Some studies have had disappointing results, but there is one area where the findings are more consistent and that is in the healing of wounds.
In these studies brave volunteers typically do some expressive writing, then some days later they are given a local anaesthetic and then a punch biopsy at the top of their inner arm. The wound is typically 4mm across and heals within a couple of weeks. This healing is monitored and again and again, and it happens faster if people have spent time beforehand writing down their secret thoughts.
Simply imagining a traumatic event and writing a story about it could have health benefits (Credit: iStock)
What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing.
Summary: A new study reports that for those who wrote emotionally about previous stressful events prior to having a skin biopsy healed faster than those who wrote about factual events.
Source: University of Auckland.
People who wrote emotionally about past stressful events two weeks before having a biopsy had their wound heal faster than people who wrote about factual day to day activities, a study has found.
The study, “The effects of expressive writing before or after punch biopsy on wound healing”, was published in the journal Brain, Behaviour and Immunity.
The research was conducted by Doctoral Candidate Hayley Robinson and Associate Professor Elizabeth Broadbent of the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. They were joined by Professor Kavita Vedhara of the University of Nottingham and dermatologist Dr Paul Jarrett of Counties Manukau DHB.
The aim of the study was to investigate whether expressive writing could speed the healing of punch biopsy wounds if writing was performed either before or after wounds were made compared to writing about neutral topics.
The study recruited 122 participants from Auckland aged between 18 and 55 years that were randomly allocated to one of four groups, expressive writing pre biopsy or expressive writing post biopsy, or control writing pre biopsy, or control writing post biopsy.
The expressive writing groups were asked to write about their “deepest thoughts and feelings about a traumatic, upsetting experience of your entire life”. Ideally participants were to write about something they had not discussed in great detail with anyone else.
The control groups were asked to write factually about their daily activities.
A dermatologist performed a 4mm punch biopsy to each participant’s inner upper arm.
After 10 days the results showed that 52 percent of the people who had written expressively before the biopsy were healed, while only 27 percent of people who wrote expressively afterward the biopsy had healed.
The results were worse for the two groups that wrote facts without emotion. Only 15 percent in the controlled writing before the biopsy had healed. And for those who wrote about the control topic after the biopsy, only 23 percent had healed.
Hayley says the results suggest that expressive writing has its greatest effects when it occurs prior to an acute wound.
“This is because the writing initially makes you feel worse before you feel better,” she says.
The aim of the study was to investigate whether expressive writing could speed the healing of punch biopsy wounds if writing was performed either before or after wounds were made compared to writing about neutral topics. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.
“So ideally you have finished writing and are starting to feel better during the period when your wound is healing. The results are important because they suggest that when you write is important, not just what you write about.
“Future research needs to look at the effects of expressive writing on the healing of chronic wounds, when writing can only be done after the wound has occurred,” Dr Broadbent says.
About this neuroscience research article
Source: Anna Kellett – University of Auckland Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain. Original Research: Full open access research for “The effects of expressive writing before or after punch biopsy on wound healing” by Hayley Robinson, Paul Jarrett, Kavita Vedhara, Elizabeth Broadbent in Brain, Behaviour and Immunity. Published online March 2017 doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2016.11.025
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