Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why stories?

Why do we write? Ask a writer and you’ll probably get an answer like this: “Because I have to.” I would answer the same way, but it’s not a very interesting response, really, so I’m going to back up and ask a different, more basic question: Why stories?
People have been producing and consuming stories since the dawn of humanity. Our children, from the time they comprehend language, demand stories. Where does this drive stem from? This question is more central to the storyteller, I believe, than the “why write?” question. If we know why humans crave stories, that helps us understand our role as storytellers. I have some ideas, and I’d like to hear yours, too.

My first thought is that stories are about disseminating a society’s values to its young people. Aesop’s fables have the moral nicely laid out for the reader at the end, in case she is too dense to get it on her own, but every story contains some moral message, even if it’s a subtle one. Pick up a book of fairy tales and notice how often you come across a decrepit beggar woman or old man requesting assistance. The first young person who meets the beggar refuses to help, and is usually rude about it to boot. The hero of the story, however, stops and is kind and generous, giving up his or her cloak and some much-needed food rations. The old man or woman turns out to be a magician in disguise, and the young person is rewarded or punished accordingly. The moral of the story? Help the old people, dagnabbit. (A useful if self-serving moral for the older generation to impart to the next one.)

Second, stories serve the purpose of giving readers practice at dealing with tragedy. Every story has to have a conflict, as we know, and as we watch the protagonist grapple with the problem, we experience her suffering vicariously. Many stories center on not just a conflict, but a massive crisis or great loss. If we’ve already been through such a thing, we feel a sense of solace and companionship: someone understands our grief. If we haven’t been through such an event yet, stories give us a clue what it might be like. And when tragedy befalls us (as it must, because we are human), stories give us a roadmap for how to survive it. Kids are usually required to read tearjerkers like Bridge to Terabithia or Where the Red Fern Grows for school, and these stories might be the first taste of loss and tragedy they have. It’s like a dry run. A fire drill. You go through the fake thing enough times and, when the real thing happens, you have at least some idea what to do.

A third purpose of the story, no less important than the other two, is to build bridges of empathy between individuals and even cultures. I have no idea what it’s like to be an escaped slave facing a man trying to regain ownership of me and my children, but after reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I have some small sense of that horror. I don’t know what it’s like to be a grindingly poor Indian peasant living under an oppressive caste system, but Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance gives me a glimpse into that dark world.

I suspect this is why we associate a well-read person with a wise person. In understanding our world, we need facts (what nonfiction is for) but we also need the emotional framework to understand those facts (what fiction is for). When I meet people who hate, despise, and fear others, I assume I’m meeting someone who is under-read. Someone who hasn’t had the advantage of stories, which allow us to experience another life, feel another pain or joy or sorrow than our own. We won’t cure racism by insisting everyone read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Invisible Man, but it would help. I have a hard time believing anyone could get through Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns and not see Afghanistan in a whole new light than the one we get from the evening news.


How does this help us as writers? If we think about what the consumers of our products really hunger for, what they’ve demanded from storytellers for millennia, we have a more focused reason to write than “because I have to.” We do it because stories really matter, and we know it. Storytelling is one of the deepest, oldest, and most important aspects of humanity.

So, why do you write?

25 comments:

  1. Stephanie - I love this post. Very reflective and linked to something I was thinking about earlier today. We're watching the moral decline of our society as our younger generations get less compassionate and more self-seeking, mostly owing to the Lord of the Flies state of the schools in which they must survive. In many cases, these young people are growing up on a steady diet of stories that teach them nothing but superficiality and narcissism (e.g. many reality shows about rich celebrities). If our stories are shallow, our culture will be too. (This is not to say that all young people are this way--I know some really terrific teenagers. But it's a disturbing general trend.)

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  2. Very insightful post! I write books for the same reason I read storybooks to my children - to explore what's possible and to try and see past its horizon. :)

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  3. I suppose I write mostly to entertain myself, and hope that it entertains others as well. Sometimes, it's to give a real life story a better ending than the one destiny chose for it. If it has a twist at the end, it's sort of like I'm sharing a joke (I'm one of those people who can NEVER remember to tell a real joke properly). Most of all, I love when I'm reading and I stumble on a sentence, image, or thought that makes me gasp, or think "Wow, I know that feeling!" or "that character could be me!" and I hope that I can create the same sort of feeling in one of my readers.

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  4. Sister Stephanie, what a great and inspiring topic! Many of us got a good moral education from reading. If there is anything good in me, I owe it to Louisa May Alcott. Sadly, literature nowadays is getting darker and frivolous.

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  5. Stephanie, I like that you beg the question "why stories." I think that many times as writers we are told we shouldn't write unless we are constantly feeling compelled to put something on the page (meaning we aren't really writers unless we're constantly churning something out). The truth is, is that we only feel compelled to write when we have a story to tell. I think that's why "writer's block" exists. It became an excuse for writers to say why they aren't writing something, but in actuality, the story runs dry or we just can't figure out how to properly tell the story in our heads.

    I could agree with Rosslyn and Violante -- the well seems to have run dry when it comes to decent literature for young adults today (I would say children, but I don't think fictionally-speaking that it dries up until they hit the teen years), and the sad thing is that most of them aren't reading the good stuff and some of those great classics that helps one understand why our culture is what it is today.

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  6. Thanks, everyone! I agree that some young people are being fed on a diet of literary shallowness. I checked a Gossip Girls book out from the library to see what the fuss was, and I was horrified. The writing was appalling, first off, as if no editor was involved, which was probably the case. But maybe worse, it was so vapid. We all like an escape-from-reality book but why anyone would want to escape to *that* world is beyond me.

    Hasn't shlock been around for ages, though? VC Andrews was popular when I was a teen, as was Danielle Steele. We probably forget the existence of bad books throughout history because, well, those don't tend to get read beyond the first generation. :)

    I am more sanguine about the current state of kid and teen fiction, maybe because I have a kid and a teen and am really pleased with what they're reading. There's more of everything than when I was a kid: the good, the bad, the ugly. I've reread some of my own childhood favorites to my kids and found many books don't seem as wonderful as they once did, and the current story crop (putting my nostalgia aside) is often superior.

    If you put aside Twilight and vamp fiction generally (the VC Andrews of today?), you find a treasure trove of actual literature for teens, beautifully-written stories that are just as enjoyable for me to read. Sometimes I think YA writers are more willing to dig into the Big Issues than those who write for adults.

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  7. Li: I'm so glad you mentioned entertainment, because of course that's a huge function of storytelling. It's interesting to consider why we find stories so diverting: it's made-up stuff, it's not real, so why should we be so fascinated?

    I also love what you said about "Wow, I know that feeling!" It's such a great feeling to share something with a fictional character, especially a point of view or feeling we thought nobody else could understand.

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  8. But VC Andrews and Danielle Steele were writing for adults, whereas Gossip Girl targets kids so you are right in demanding more depth. I agree that YA litrature is fantastic (it always has been) I happen to enjoy fantasy and historical YA tremendously precisely bcause characters are so strong and inspiring.I wish the Dan Browns and Dean Koontzs of the industry would take a clue from them.

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  9. What a fascinating subject! You point out great reasons why we are so drawn to storytelling. Your post reminded me of Christopher Booker's book "The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories." Booker says that perhaps the biggest reason why we tell stories is to understand ourselves. Stories give us an insight on all aspects of humanity: psychology, morality, history, politics, religion and the "pattern and purpose of our individual lives."

    When we say we turn to storytelling for "escapism" we are partly right but not entirely as there are other forms to escape from our reality (games, sports, arts & crafts, sleeping, ha!) But there is something we identify about ourselves in stories that compels us to listen/read/watch them. (And our fascination with stories goes beyond fiction. We also seek for them in other venues, like the news, documentaries, history.) Through stories we can live other lives and like you say, see what could happen in X circumstance without actually suffering the consequences of a bad decision, ha ha.

    Personally, I am drawn to writing stories first and foremost to entertain, and second, for one of the reasons you mentioned: to expose others to another culture and way of life.

    Great post!

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  10. Ha! I remember a specific VC Andrews novel that got passed around my seventh grade class because of a rather in-depth rape scene that was in the book. It became such a trashy fascination for all the kids in my class, and we were what? Twelve or thirteen? Sorry, Violante, but where I grew up VC Andrews was for the YA crowd. (It's rather sad now that I think about it.) Danielle Steele, on the other hand, was just as crappy a read, but most definitely for the adults. But then there's Joan Collins . . . Ah, the days of reading absolute trash! Don't you just miss 'em?

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  11. I write because the world will only let me be one person, but the page will let be a thousand of them.

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  12. I dont miss it Sister Mary, Mary because I still read it! Now, I confess to still read that old trash, the new junk doesn't work for me. You had V.C. Andrews, with us it was Looking for Mr. Goodbar. But I remember a librarian that once pulled me away from the bodice-ripper section and pushed me towards the YA shelves. I am sorry to say, that I moved to the earest library. Oh I do miss Queens with public libraries every fifteen blocks.

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  13. Now that you got me in Memory Lane, I remember that there were YA books that made my mother cringe. And none of them are considered trash today! She resented "Go Ask Alice" because it would gear me towards the drug scene; "Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jones" because she thought it would drive me towards pregnancy, and "My Darling, My Hamburger" because it would give me ideas to have an abortion (if I got drugged abd pregnant after reading the previous titles) so I went back to read Tolstoy and that made her very happy.

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  14. I love what you said, Lucy! (And I think all writers probably feel the same way you do!)

    This talk about YA reminded me of some of my own disturbing reads during my teenage years: Did any of you read "Ode to Billy Joe" or "Little Darlings"? These were mellow in comparison to VC Andrews and "Go Ask Alice" (I never read this one, but I read the second book which in Spanish was translated as "Remember Alice". I think the English version may have been called Voices.) I remember my best friend and I were obsessed, in a "can't-look-away-from-an-accident-scene" sort of way, with Flowers in the Attic. We just loved to hate that ghastly mom.

    In 6th grade, we had to read a Brazilian writer called Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos. His most famous book "Mi Planta de Naranja-Lima" (which roughly translates as "My Orange-Lime Plant") is a semi-autobiographical work which exposed us to an infinity and variety of cuss words we had never read/heard/conceived before. (It was also a heartbreaking story.) Needless to say, this became one of our favorite reads, ha ha!

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  15. Violante, I'm still laughing about your favorite "trashy" novels and your mom's fears (she didn't mind that Tolstoy had an unfaithful wife for a protagonist?)

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  16. Sister Lorena, as you know, my mother handed me the classics (Shakespeare and Greek drama) when I was eight-years-old, and she bought me Colette's works (that dealt with lesbianism) when I was 12. Her philosophy was that everything was alright if set in days of old. However, these YA novels took place in contemporary milieus similar to mine. She was afraid I would identify myself with the characters and that would give me license to sin.

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  17. Lucy wrote, "I write because the world will only let me be one person, but the page will let be a thousand of them." Well said, Lucy! Sometimes it's the act of writing, even more than reading, that allows us to imagine ourselves as someone else, somewhere else. I think it must be similar to Method acting. You really need to immerse yourself in your protagonist (well, all the characters, but especially the protag), imagine her history and her motivations, to try and give her responses that seem honest and realistic and ring true. It's essential for good writing, but it's also a blast! (Unless you're dealing with something really grim, in which case it can be kind of traumatic.)

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  18. You guys are making me laugh with the trash-novel talk. The one that went around our school was a godawful sci-fi series called Gor, which I think I mentioned before. Lots of female bondage in that one; we were fascinated. I didn't read "Ode to Billy Joe" but I know the song! The stuff we read for school was just as disturbing: Have you all read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery?" It was required reading then and still is (my daughter just read it). Talk about a twist ending. I was so freaked out.

    And like all dystopian stories, Jackson's definitely imparting her values via a big warning: let's not let our society get like this. I think "The Hunger Games" is basically an extension of that short story. "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood (and "Oryx and Crake" by her) are similar "warning" novels. 1984 is probably the classic example.

    One thing we haven't talked about yet, along these lines, is how to avoid being preachy. I really don't like novels that feel like a polemic or manifesto. Any words of wisdom from the group on how to avoid that?

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  19. I should clarify that I don't consider Vasconcelos's novel "trashy." In fact, it's still one of my favorites. My intention was to give an example of how different YA novels were before and how teenagers/kids are obsessed with racy subjects. (It wasn't only the cussing, the novel dealt with really harsh issues like extreme poverty, child abuse and death in a very emotional/effective way.)

    I don't want to give away the ending of "Ode to Billy Joe" in case somebody wants to read it, but that's where the controversial issue comes into play. (I'm curious whether this novel would be considered YA nowadays...) What is interesting to me is that the book was written after the song (to give an answer as to why Billy Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.) The novel and screenplay were both commissioned to writer Herman Raucher. (The movie starred Robbie Benson, who I think was perfect for the role.)

    Sister Stephanie, you pose an interesting question: how to avoid being preachy? That is a tough one. I'm going to have to think about it and see if I can come up with any examples.

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  20. Tough question, Sister Stephanie, it’s why I would never write YA. Knowing that the unwritten rule is to make it inspiring and edifying, would put me under such pressure I would end up lecturing. And yet, fine YA Lit is anything but preachy.

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  21. I'm sorry to say that I've never read or even heard of "Ode to Billy Joe." You have my interest peaked, though. Along the lines of "The Lottery", we had to read things like "The Most Dangerous Game" and "The Necklace." Both are cautionary tales and what-would-you-do morality tales.

    As to not being preachy with YA, I'd say many writers today have tossed that ideology to the wayside. I did post a review on Jeffrey Brooke's "Kissing the Rain," a British YA novel that deals with what-would-you-do type morality tale, but in a way that really works on the page. As an adult reader, I really enjoyed it. Plus it gets a lot of hits, so I'm assuming it's a popular book. I think it's all about finding the right balance for your intended audience.

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  22. I meant to say Kevin Brooks. It had been a long day and I was tired ☺.

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  23. I write because I like the escapism. I also love the exploration of concepts, worlds and people. I also love the art of the written word.

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  24. I recently read that storytelling has a major influence on the neurological development of a child- the cadence of the words being spoken by an adult, the non-verbal cues which imprint our earliest values about the larger social animal. I've always contended that as authors we bear a certain responsibility to outfit the positive mechanisms of a culture which is both ingrained and reinforced. And if I'm honest, this is exactly why I write.

    Fab post, Stephanie.

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  25. Thank you, Suze! Have you ever come across the Read Aloud Handbook? He has some very interesting essays on the role of storytelling in child development.

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