The Most Important Thing You'll Ever Do: WRITE

5 Reasons Writing Is Important to the World

The Most Important Thing You'll Ever Do: WRITEI find myself a little trepidatious as I sit down to write this post. I just downed my morning coffee, and the caffeine is kicking in and latching onto my nerves, making my fingers just a little trembly.

Why am I nervous?

Because this is such a big post. And such a deeply personal post.

Let’s face it, people, the world’s a mess right now. I think the vast majority of us agree on that, to one degree or another, regardless our worldview. And what are we doing about it? What can we do about it?

We’re just average people. Normal people. People who get scared and confused. People whose own little howling demons somehow have the ability to overwhelm us even more easily than the monsters that seem to be crunching our world for breakfast right now.

We’re just folks who put words on paper. We’re just people spinning little tales that make us happy or fulfill our own fantasies: romance and superheroes, dragons and femme fatales. We’re just writers.

That doesn’t seem like much right now. It certainly doesn’t seem like enough.

Why Am I Writing? What’s the Point?

Stories have always been my language. I told myself stories all through childhood. I read voraciously. I playacted constantly, pretending I was characters in my favorite books. My imagination spun webs of wonder and possibility all around me. Life was never just what it was. It was always more. It was always a portal to something bigger, something that mattered: a story.

I thought that’s what the world was. I thought that was how everyone saw the world.

Then, of course, I grew up. I became a writer, not so much because I wanted to do anything big and important, but because that something big and important was already a part of me. All that passion and wonder of storytelling was something that just flowed out of me. I couldn’t help but share it.

You-cant-depend-on-your-eyes-when-your imagination is out of focus Mark TwainExcept it seemed most people didn’t see stories the way I did. I’d close a book or come out of a movie, and the world would be shining because of the power I’d just experienced—the portal to immortality I’d just glimpsed. But others would just shrug. “Yeah, it was fun.”

Slowly, disillusionment crept in. I have always maintained, based on my own experiences as much as anything, that stories should be more than mere entertainment and escapism. That, indeed, they must be. Yet everywhere I looked, it seemed that’s all other people were getting out of their stories.

Is that all stories are? A soporific drug to numb our minds against the difficulties, confusion, and sometimes downright horror of our lives?

Is that what I’ve spent my life in pursuit of, as both a reader and a writer? Am I and a small handful of others the only ones who see stories as more and are affected by them on a soul-deep level?

Are Stories a Force for Evil?

Depressed yet? Let’s take it one step farther. Disillusioning as it may be to think of stories as a mere neutral force in the world, what if it’s worse than that? What if they’re actually a force for evil?

Anjelica Huston’s wicked stepmother has a line in Andy Tennant’s Cinderella retelling Ever After that always makes me snicker. She self-assuredly puts down her step-daughter with the pert declaration:

People read because they cannot think for themselves.

Anjelica Huston Ever After

It’s obviously a ridiculous statement. Just the reverse is true.

Isn’t it?

Those Who Tell the Stories Rule Society PlatoNo culture in history has ever been so saturated with stories as ours. Books, movies, television. Mass media connects us all and is undeniably used as a tool for propaganda. As writers, we are influenced by popular fiction in all its forms, even as it grows ever more violent, ever more gratuitous.

Sometimes I find myself asking, “Am I sharing my truths—or someone else’s?” Could it be that my stories and I are only contributing to society’s downward spiral. Am I helping at all? Or am I maybe even hurting?

A few weeks ago, I watched the documentary Kingdom of Dreams and Madness about Studio Ghibli and beloved Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, as he was working on what was thought to be his final film, The Wind Rises, about the inventor of the World War II-era Zero fighter plane. In it, Miyazaki mused that animation is like aeronautics:

You know, people who design airplanes and machines. No matter how much they believe that what they do is good, the winds of time eventually turn them into tools of industrial civilization. It’s never unscathed. They’re cursed dreams. Today, all of humanity’s dreams are cursed somehow. Beautiful, yet cursed dreams.

The Wind Rises

He went on to say:

Personally I am very pessimistic. But when, for instance, one of my staff has a baby you can’t help but bless them for a good future. Because I can’t tell that child, “Oh, you shouldn’t have come into this life.” And yet I know the world is heading in a bad direction. So with those conflicting thoughts in mind, I think about what kind of films I should be making.

Personally, I have always considered myself neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a realist. It’s my blithe answer: “I’m a realist.” But Miyazaki’s words hit me in the heart. I am, I think, a pessimist (or perhaps have become one), and yet, in my stories, my writing, I wake up and seek optimism every single day.

That is no force for evil.

The Devil Has No Stories

Heroes of the City of ManPeter J. Leithart opens his book Heroes of the City of Man (an analysis of Greek epics), with the introduction “The Devil Has No Stories.” The more I study story theory—structure, character arcs, and particularly theme—the more I can’t help but find this an inescapable truth (although I don’t believe in a literal devil).

Stories are, fundamentally, truths. Even when the author didn’t intend it to be so, even when he is unaware of it—even when the readers or viewers are unaware–a story is always a statement. If it is to ring true, then what it says must reflect reality—it must reflect what is true.

And what is true is always good—whether it is beautiful, whether it is dark, whether it is healing, whether it is painful. Truth is always a beacon, a guiding light pointing us back to the best things in life.

In that introduciton, Leithart wrote:

Somewhere, even in the stories of the most self-consciously rebellious storyteller, God’s story shines through.

In exploring stories, in sharing stories, humans are reaching for something better. Unwittingly, we are searching for the divine. We are trying to make sense of our world by seeking what is real, by rejecting what is false, and by exercising the greatest of our mortal gifts in pursuit of the immortal.

In his epic poem Mythopoeia (written for a then-doubting C.S. Lewis), J.R.R. Tolkien declares:

The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act.

5 Reasons Story Is a Power for Good

Caught Up in a Story Sarah ClarksonShortly after watching the Miyazaki documentary, I read Sarah Clarkson’s slim book Caught Up in a Story—an encouragement to parents to “storyform” their children’s lives. I read it primarily with an interest in finding appropriate reading choices for my young niece and nephew. But by the time I was finished, I knew I had read it mostly for me.

Clarkson argues eloquently for the unshakable importance of stories within our lives, especially during childhood:

Man still has the power to make sense of the world by telling a story about it.

Her affirmation filled a hole within me I hadn’t even realized had grown so deep.

Yes, writing is important.

Yes, stories matter.

Yes, stories change the world for good.

Yes, yes, yes.

writing 21st century fiction donald maassAs Donald Maass says in Writing 21st-Century Fiction:

[Great fiction] creates characters we become, brings us into their experience and makes that experience real. It then reveals to us through their inner journeys and themes of the story what it all means. Great fiction opens readers’ hearts and, once they are captive and pliant, then opens their minds.

Here are five reasons writing a story is possibly the most powerful act for good you will ever accomplish in your life.

1. Stories Give Us Good Truths

Every story is a variation of Robert Frost’s “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” Choices are made; consequences are met. That is life. Stories show us the “good” truths—the possibilities for joy and wholeness, peace and sanity—when we make the right choices. No matter how escapist or fluffy they may seem, our stories are working out the hypothetical questions of life. “If I did this, then would this happen?” Stories are the answers, an affirmation that when we seek Truth, we find Truth—and it sets us free.

2. Stories Give Us Bad Truths

“But what about the great tragedies?” someone might argue. There are a lot of dark and depressing stories out there (just as there are stories that lead us deeper into our own dark temptations). Not every story will affect every person in a positive way. But “true” stories, even the dark ones, always shine a light on reality. Tragedies show us the “bad” truths, the truths that inevitably eventuate when we choose the wrong path and must face its consequences.

3. Stories Open Our Minds and Teach Us Empathy

What are we without stories? We are individuals, isolated islands, aware only of our own inner life and our own experiences. Stories open our eyes to the larger world, allowing us to discover faraway places and possibilities. But, even more valuable, we glimpse—if only for those few hours—another person’s soul. We see into the characters’ heads, and, through them, we see into the author’s. That wide-open wonder of untapped possibilities I experienced as a child? That is the power of story: it is a window into the greater truths of the world at large, beyond the minuscule limits of ourselves.

4. Stories Offer Us Archetypal Role Models

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in the midst of a difficult experience or faced by an overwhelming decision—and you were helped in remembering a character who endured something similar. Books change our lives because they reflect our lives. We relate to our similarities in fictional characters. Then, when we watch those characters throw off the shackles of their own fears and doubts and insecurities to make right choices and hard sacrifices, the reflection bounces back to inspire us “further up and further in” as we strive to fight the good fight in our own lives.

5. Stories Teach Us to Hope

We’re all toiling, like the Hebrews in the mud pits of Egypt, up to our knees in muck. We’re all struggling to do the best we can. In the midst of that struggle, it can be so incredibly, ridiculously easy to pour our entire focus into the mud at our feet. We begin to think that’s all there is. We forget to look up; we forget to hope. Stories remind us. They show us the big picture of another person’s struggle and they remind us we are not surrendering to darkness. Rather, we are walking through darkness to the light.

In M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Village, William Hurt’s character insists, “The world moves for love.”

But when I hear his voice in my head, those aren’t the words I hear. What I hear is:

The world moves for stories.

The world is a story. In writing stories, we are capturing a tiny part of that. We are celebrating it. We are experiencing it, and we are sharing it. We are taking each other’s hands, and we are raising each other’s chins, and we are walking toward hope.

Write your stories. They do matter. They are enough.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you think writing is important? Why? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. My dear K.M., It’s four o’ clock in the morning on the 29th and I am just reading this enigmatic post. I love that I’m a writer. It didn’t begin that way for me. My ancestors told their stories orally. These stories revealed many truths and taught many morals and lessons using various creatures and animals. In my neighborhood, we played many games that were passed down from generation to generation orally. I now am a member of the Griot Storytellers of Maryland and we still tell the ancient and our modern stories orally. It is truly a lost art. As a young teen,I loved making up ghost stories at bedtime to ‘scare’ my youngest sister and her friends. However, I have found it most rewarding to tell my stories via the written word. I love telling stories orally, but I love writing stories more! Nothing has been lost as long as the audience whether it be someone who is listening or someone who is reading comes away from a story told well. So, I make you an honorary Griot because you weave intricate stories that elevate your readers! Thank you for this incredible truth !

  2. Garrett says:

    There’s so many truths here, I feel I almost have a comment for every single one.
    That must mean your post has evoked some thinking!
    Hmm, but above all that thinking, I tried to focus more on the feeling. And I’ll admit, I don’t know what to feel about all of it. Not that I disagree in any manner, but that I don’t know what to say or contribute that would be just as aptly put or deeply stated.
    The only thing I can think up to say is: if all this is true, as a humanity, and that we really do value stories as we do, we can’t underplay the necessity for telling meaningful and heartfelt stories. I don’t want to say it should be a prerequisite for writers, but I will: we should all do our very best in crafting stories that will stick around, even through the passing of time, the passing of what is popular, or what our culture seems to value at the time. Good stories always stick around and remind us, as you have wonderfully stated.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Amen. Something I realized in rereading this post was that perhaps I gave the impression that *all* stories are worthy. I don’t necessarily mean that, although I do believe all stories have the potential to share something true. As writers, we need to take up the challenge to write stories that matter. Not stories that preach, heaven forbid. But stories of honesty and quality. Those are the kind of stories the world needs.

      • Elizabeth Richards says:

        I read a mystery once where an interesting character was introduced only to be killed off a few chapters later. The plot needed the incident but it felt as if the author had committed murder simply to further the story. I was quite indignant. If the author was going to bring the character to life, the author had a responsibility to make their death more meaningful than a convenient plot point.

        It was an odd feeling to have about a “person” who would never have a life outside of words. But I continue to believe that authors who kill characters without fully developing a believable motivation, are callous and shallow.

        As I read the conversation here, perhaps I get a sense of why I felt so indignant.

        I am writing a historical mystery. I certainly don’t expect to change the world with it. And I can’t say that I am compelled to tell the world about the Colorado of 1893. So what does it mean to write a story that matters?

        Even writing a genre murder mystery can reveal something true about the world. It can help someone develop compassion, avoid making a bad decision, see how their life could turn a certain way. But if it’s written on the surface, without character development, using coincidence to get out of a plot jam, then the reader learns nothing true or useful.

        That doesn’t mean the story should preach. But just showing believable characters reacting in believable situations, allows a reader to reflect on their own beliefs and values. And maybe grow.

        How interesting. Does that begin to get at why I love to read a good book so much? And doesn’t that provide a great deal of motivation to keep improving your craft?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Excellent thoughts. This is exactly why consequences are so crucial in storytelling. Without consistent–and sometimes brutal–cause and effect we lose the bite of reality.

          • Ruchama says:

            Actually, I think reality is a lot more random than fictional “consistent cause and effect.” We love order. We long for perceptible, even if brutal, cause and effect. It is precisely this longing that literature, especially mysteries and romances provide. So, if a character appears only to disappear for no apparent reason, we are uncomfortable. We lose the comforting order of fiction.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Interesting. I tend to believe there *is*–and indeed must be–a cause for every effect. It’s just that sometimes we don’t know what it is–a la the butterfly effect.

          • Joe Long says:

            Ruchama:

            I believe the events in a story need to make sense, to be believable, even if they are random.

            I saw the new Star Trek movie yesterday. Overall I enjoyed it, but I knew it had flaws. Reading comments on imdb. the biggest complaints were about “plot holes” – where the characters did one thing when it was more likely they could have done something else. There was often a lack of logical consistency, and that bothers readers and viewers.

            I’m writing my second act while visualizing parts of the third. I know what major events happen but am working out the details. I constantly play devil’s advocate with myself, making sure things make sense. For example, I want the cousin and new girlfriend to met at some point, and for the girlfriend to leave with a bad impression, as in, “Why didn’t she like me?” (She doesn’t know that’s the old girlfriend). So I ask how to bring them together rather randomly. Walking through the mall? But if there’s bad blood at that point, the cousin may just walk away instead of talking. She needs to be with someone. Her mother? She may be upset too. How about her brother and his girlfriend? Better, because the girlfriend does like the MC as a friend and isn’t privy to all the drama that’s occurred – so she is the most logical person to say “Hi!” and drag the others along uncomfortably.

  3. A.P. Lambert says:

    Thanks for writing this, it’s one of your most powerful and timely posts and, much like a good story does, it points to something bigger: the truth behind the truth, if you will. I seem to recall a similar one (in weightiness) you wrote earlier this year which was equally inspiring. I really appreciate it as such posts are not easy to write, but no less important.

    And I agree, stories are immensely important as a culture-changing artform. Even Jesus was a big-time storyteller, often using tales to convey matters of great depth such as forgiveness and mercy. Stories shape us, they unveil reality through the dream. I often think in some ways this life is a dream from which we will one day wake up and, if so, perhaps stories hold more of the real stuff than we give them credit for.

    So thank you again for writing this. I hope you keep writing stories and continue to encourage others to do the same for many, many years hence.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think one of the reasons stories are so powerful is that they are gentle. Even when they slap us in the face, it doesn’t feel like a slap in the face. It feels like an elbow nudge from someone who loves us.

      • Yes! Stories are only about us to the extent we engage with them, which makes them a very gentle and indirect approach to wisdom.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That’s an excellent way to put it. Art is subjective to a huge degree, which means we all see ourselves in it. We only engage with a story insofar as it has something to say to *us.*

  4. Ruchama says:

    Philosophically, I agree with cause/effect concept. However, our experience in the “real world” involves a lot of randomness. Why does this one survive and that one die in an accident? When suffering comes, the almost inevitable question is “why me?” The book of Job is all about the desire to understand the causes suffering and ends with the insight that we will never be able to make sense of suffering. Still we try. We attribute causes to events that have no logic. This is need for order seems to be innate. Our passion for justice is a product of this need. So are many irrational fears. It’s the randomness, for example of the recent terrorist attacks that makes them so frightening to us. Chance at any moment may make us victims.

  5. Elizabeth Richards says:

    Yes, interesting point. Mysteries do provide a sense of order in a world that can be chaotic.

    What’s interesting to me, though, is how reading helps me understand the humanity of us all. Even the terrorist attacks have some sort of logic even if it’s not a belief system that I ascribe to. Reading can help you see another point of view and even if it’s antithetical to my own beliefs, if I understand more what drives people, I can be more understanding, compassionate or even concerned.

    I just finished reading Mary Doria Russell’s Epitaph, the story of the OK corral and Wyatt Earp. She dramatizes all the multitude of events and actions that led up to the 30 seconds of mayhem. As I read it, I thought about what it took to build a civilized society. The balance of freedom and law and how hard it is to get it right without destroying peoples lives. It was like reading a symphony about how humans arrive at violence as an inevitable conclusion. For me it was a riff that echoes in current news.

    Is her story the truth of the OK Corral? I don’t know. She is factually correct for the facts that are known (and agreed upon.) Does it matter to me that it might not be the truth of what happened? No. Because she wrote a Truth. One that for me resonates and demands that I think harder about my world.

    Even Job is a story about a person who grappled with Truth. And aren’t we all better for living through Job’s story?

    Thanks for helping me think through these ideas.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Epitaph sounds good! I got to visit Tombstone last summer, and it was fascinating to hear some of the realities behind the legends.

  6. Ruchama says:

    I’m not sure that Job grapples with Truth. I think he grapples with what seems to be cosmic injustice. He arrives at the unavoidable conclusion that we can not expect to be able to make sense of everything, to believe in justice when the universe does not seem to “play fair.”

    For a long time I’ve thought that there is no voice from Heaven at the end. Just Job ruminating and reaching the conclusion that since he was not there when the earth and all that dwell therein were created, he cannot expect to understand the Cause or causes of his suffering.

    Some Buddhists say that whatever happens could not be other than what it is. On the other hand, some people posit alternate worlds where everything is the opposite of what is in this one. Each time a decision is made, or an event occurs, in some other World the opposite is real. Great subject for an ambitious author.

  7. I absolutely agree that IN STORY events mus make sense, cause and effect be palpable in order for the story to be believable. My points is that we need order in story, not to make it reflect reality. On the contrary, it is the randomness of reality that drives us toward the order of story. We all have been taught that it’s not a defense to a criticism of a story to say “but it’s true, that’s what happened.” Verisimilitude, being “like reality” only satisfies if carefully curated to provide meaning and order we often cannot find in reality. A little girl and her father walking on a beach. A rogue wave takes her under. She and her father both drown as he tries to save her. Just happened to a family from Berkeley where I live vacationing in Hawaii. Seems pretty random to me. If you put that incident in a novel without more, it would not satisfy. And just look at the news. After every terrorist attack even hardened professionals are obsessed by trying to find out what drove the terrorist.

    • In my view, in both fiction and reality, there must be cause and effect. However, in reality, the “causes” are not necessarily related to the people affected, while in fiction the universe is a little more closed.

    • Joe Long says:

      Perhaps in our stories we can write about how the characters deal philosophically with the randomness. It bothers me so much to hear sports commentators search for “why” something happened when it’s was simply randomness. We want a narrative so that we can try to predict the future.

  8. That part where you talk about how the people around you seem to only be getting entertainment and escapism, but you were seeing more than that. That’s me. My husband and I recently watched The Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks and it was fantastic. The values on which Tom Hanks’s character, James B. Donovan, stood despite the mindset of America at the time are inspirational and convicting. I learned about the Cold War and the Berlin Wall sophomore year in high school, but nine-ish years later in the context of espionage and spies and lawyers and *seeing* the wall being built right in the middle of a street (“They built it right in the middle of a town?!” I kept asking over and over again) the Cold War and the heartbreak and sadness and fear of the Berlin Wall came alive for me in my living room. And then to learn that James B. Donovan was a real person and this movie was inspired by real events–that floored me. “Where was this in my history class?” I asked myself.
    And it’s the same for books. If I had never read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini I wouldn’t know what life was like for women in Afghanistan (or the people in genreal) or that country during all their problems with government.
    Fiction, stories, it’s all eye-opening and I learn so much from the characters a writer developed. I love that.
    And I’m learning that when something in a story causes me to think, I don’t have to rush to the next thing to read it or watch it. I can give myself time to process it and soak it in, maybe even read it (which is exactly what I did with A Thousand Splendid Suns) and watch it again. Because that’s how I’m challenged to grow and learn and think. Reading books is one of the best educations I can give myself, and writing books and sharing them is one of the best things we can give to people.
    Thank you for this post, K.M. Thank you for putting into words what must have been difficult to express.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I need to get into the habit of letting stories soak in more. I’m a habitual rusher-to-the-next-thing, and I know I don’t get as much out of things as I might otherwise. Thank *you* for that reminder!

  9. Thanks for an excellent article, K.M.! I realize I am reading this well after many of your earlier readers and commenters, but as it stands, in early 2017, your message in this post resonates more than ever. The world as we know it is going through enormous change. What better time to be a writer, with the power to influence the world in a positive way!

Trackbacks

  1. […] 5 Reasons Writing Is Important to the World (K.M. Weiland) – “Let’s face it, people, the world’s a mess right now. I think the vast majority of us agree on that, to one degree or another, regardless our worldview. And what are we doing about it? What can we do about it?… We’re just folks who put words on paper. We’re just people spinning little tales that make us happy or fulfill our own fantasies: romance and superheroes, dragons and femme fatales. We’re just writers. That doesn’t seem like much right now. It certainly doesn’t seem like enough.” […]

  2. […] thought process was sparked by a pair of posts K.M. Weiland wrote a few weeks ago entitled 5 Reasons Writing is Important to the World (her reasons) and 15 (More) Reasons Writing is Important (reactions from people who read her […]

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