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?