Previously published elsewhere on the site and now moved and reposted to here.
Why do we write stories? Why do we read them? How much do they really matter?
Think about how we often discuss stories in our culture: Pleasure reading. Guilty reading. Saying “I’m going to do absolutely nothing and read.” Using movies to “unplug and relax.” Writing “for fun.”
Now, I have no real problem with any of these phrases on their own. Reading should be fun. Movies are a great way to relax. We should be able to enjoy creating and sharing our stories. But how often is storytelling considered the opposite of being productive? Why do we feel the need to downplay or justify the books we read? How often are stories separated from the “important” things of life?
I’ve seen an idea expressed in various forms throughout our culture–that it’s not worth getting too upset over political correctness or representation in the arts because in the end, it’s just words. “Sticks and stones may break my bones,” they say, “but words will never hurt me.”
This is the idea I have a problem with. This sentiment bothers me to such an extent that, as the expression goes, it is the hill I will die on. I wholly reject the idea that words lack power, that they can be disregarded without consequence.
People can heal from a lot. And sure, words are quick invisible and can sometimes be ignored. But listen to someone who has carried one comment from childhood throughout the entirety of their adult life. Listen to someone whose life has been changed because of words.
“You’ll never amount to anything.”
“You’ll never be able to achieve that dream.”
“Your voice doesn’t matter.”
These words, simple as they are, can shatter a person’s life. Words matter.
But still this value for words is missing from so many parts of our culture. Arts programs, theater, music, writing–these are the programs that get cut because they are “less important.” Libraries get reduced funding. Reading and literature are phased out in favor of math and science and “real” studies.
Now, there is nothing wrong with these fields. Math and science are vital, and we need people passionate about studying them. But if math and science and all that they entail are valued at the expense of the arts–this is when problems arise.
Humans are made for story. From the early moments of human history, story has been the means we use to understand the world. From myths and legends, to ghost stories, to tales of tragedy and triumph, to heroic epics, to the individual narratives each of us crafts for our own life–stories shape who we are and how we understand the world. By its very nature, the human mind is drawn toward causality and linear understanding–towards narrative.
Math and science have allowed for incredible strides in human understanding and achievement. But in a void, without narrative, these facts and figures are meaningless. We throw around information and statistics every day, but the context in which these facts exist is where they find their significance. It is in individual experience that the agony and ecstasy of life are truly found.
Often, art and story provide the voice of human experience. They are the lens through which we understand, not only our own lives, but the lives of people far removed from us. It is through stories that we make sense of things right in front of us, and things far beyond our own experience or understanding.
Art gives shape to our greatest dreams and our darkest fears so that we may better understand them and ourselves.
And as we shape the stories we tell, so we are also shaped by them. Images, characters, themes, ideas–when these things are repeated in our storytelling, they are reinforced. They become part of our reality. If every story portrays a certain culture the same way, that image of the culture becomes part of our reality–at the very least until we are exposed to another way of seeing. Stories hold the power to either reinforce or challenge what we believe.
This is why representation matters–representation not only of race and gender (though these are important)–but of everything. Our versions of history, of culture, of morality–all of these are influenced by the repeated forms they take in the media we consume and the stories we tell.
Look at recent releases in cinema. From 2017 to 2018, we saw the release of movies including Wonder Woman, Get Out, Black Panther, and numerous others. And not only did these movies experience critical and financial success, but the cultural response was enormous. People who had waited so long to see themselves represented in mainstream media finally felt that their stories were being told–and told well.
Examples such as this go far beyond entertainment. They serve as a validation of experience and shine a light on voices too often unheard.
This is the power of stories.
They allow us to understand our own world and the worlds of others. They open us up to experiences, locations, and feelings that we might never encounter firsthand. They broaden our understanding and can help to make us better human beings.
And what are these stories? Memoir and history, romance and tragedy, fantasy and horror, prose and poetry, art and music and dance–stories take many forms. Some are factual, some are imagined. Some are designed primarily to entertain, while some take another focus. But whatever their form, wherever they appear and whoever is creating them, stories matter.
There is a wealth of further scholarship available on this discussion. People have studied the ability of stories to promote empathy and to heal, to educate and to shape the direction of culture. This essay isn’t just the efforts of one writer defending his craft. Time and again, we’ve found that words and narrative are fundamental to what we do and who we are–they are part of our very humanity.
They take many forms, appeal to many audiences, and embrace all the subject matter of human experience, but stories are vital to our existence. They are not going anywhere, and we devalue them at our own risk.
For me, all of this is true. It is why I write. Through story–through these characters who have never existed beyond the page–I am able to say things I would be unable or unwilling to say otherwise. Some of these things I am afraid to say myself. Some I have no words for on my own. Some of these words can only exist in the mouths of characters who are not me.
And as much as writing is an act of speaking, it is also an act of discovery. In giving voice to these characters, I realize truths about myself and the world that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. From the most factual memoir to a fantasy adventure in the farthest reaches of the universe, story can capture core elements of human experience, holding them up to the light so that–just one step removed from normal–they become clear.
They matter for all of the reasons listed above. And they are equally important for the simple fact that we enjoy them. The fact that something is fun does not take away any of its worth. We need things that bring us joy.
So enjoy your historical memoir about the strength of the human spirit. Enjoy your graphic novel about a dragon battling robots in another dimension. Let yourself have fun.
Remember the importance of stories, and never stop enjoying them.