I 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.
Except 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.
It’s obviously a ridiculous statement. Just the reverse is true.
No 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.
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
Peter 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
Shortly 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.
As 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 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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