We tell ourselves stories in order to live.–Joan Didion
Stories. It has now been a couple of months since Entangled Moon was published. Between marketing, attending writing conferences, working on my second book(s), and enjoying summer activities with family and friends, I have been stewing over a random statement made by another writer. “Stories are for entertainment and their marketability depends on their entertainment value.” He wasn’t wrong. It just felt oversimplified. As a reader, I usually walk away with a pot full of feelings and sensations after I read a good book because it does more than entertain:
1. Stories pass down and reflect the social norms of a group. In many cultures, elders are the storytellers. Passing down the stories of culture, they share values of “social cooperation, empathy, and justice.” And sometimes, those norms, or narratives, can work to the exclusion of others.
2. Stories impart knowledge of how to survive. Beyond their power to impart wisdom like “don’t put your finger in the light socket” by telling the lesson in a story, they also impart wisdom about navigating the social and natural landscape. Besides understanding one cannot stick a heart under the floorboard (just kidding), random tidbits like “don’t poke the bear or it will poke you back” swell the library of human knowledge. We understand best through the medium of story.
3. Stories reflect an understanding of the human condition. How does one deal with a co-worker who is a narcissistic sociopath? Imagine someone so charming and cunning that they embroil an entire workplace in drama. Or how does one navigate a workplace in which the boss’ moral compass is so deviant that you are asked to perform tasks that are immoral and, sometimes, illegal? That is exactly the story my Dad told me when I was contemplating a career in the State Department. And it hit close to home just recently. The complexity of the social landscape is hard to boil into a textbook, but tell a good story and chances are the reader will take away their own solutions. Yes, I write corporate thrillers. We spend so much time in the workplace and, as an employee relations executive, I have been a witness to a lot of drama but those same shenanigans exist outside the workplace, too.
4. Stories help us understand our world. In addition to the points in #3, we just get the world better when it is presented to us in story form. We all know exactly what the dark forest means. We avoid the monsters in our fears because they were often the monsters of our ancestors. But we also embrace those attributes that give us meaning as humans. Empathy and justice and love. As a writer of suspense thrillers, it is precisely those attributes and their attainment that give stories their meaning.
5. And yes, Virginia, stories entertain. In allowing a storyteller to articulate the ineffable or transcend the physical limitations of being human, the art of storytelling allows humans to rise above those limitations and break free from that which holds him/her back. They give us a valuable moment away from our problems and simultaneously allow us to solve those problems.
As humans in society, we all want to know how to secure our future. The most ancient motivators of love, power, and revenge remain those of the present. And there’s always a story to help us discern their pull. We are hardwired to take certain cues from the environment, distill them in our complexly wired brains, and make a decision that will secure our survival. But stories get us there a lot more quickly.
So before you head into the wood’s heart of darkness, take a picnic basket and a good book. It might save you.
You can’t be neutral on a moving train.–Howard Zinn