Story is essential to life. Life is story.
Every day, the universe provides me with more examples to prove that this is true.
The latest came this weekend. I’d been working on a new story all week, trying to come up with a realistic character arc. I don’t want to get too technical, but bear with me for a minute through a little story lesson. It’ll pay off, I promise. If it doesn’t, you can have first dibs on my collection of rare Celine Dion records.
A well-written story plays on the tension between what a character wants and what she needs. Based on a lie, our lovely heroine begins chasing what she wants. Over the course of the story, the truth beats on her lie, chipping away at it until it falls tattered and shriveled to the floor. Eventually, she realizes she cannot live with the lie (especially with it lying all pathetic on the floor), and she gives it up in favor of what she needs. Her need may set her on a more difficult path, but she’ll be a better person for it.
We are all characters in life’s story.
But often, our story doesn’t wrap up as neatly as our heroine’s. We don’t get the Prince Charming, or if we do, it turns out that after the story ends, he turns back into a frog.
So what’s the point in telling stories? Are they just a waste of time?
Let’s go back to my example from this weekend. My husband has a good friend, let’s call him Brent, who stayed with us for the weekend after a tough break-up. The relationship had problems from the start, so it wasn’t much of a surprise to us. This was only the latest in a series of difficult break-ups.
Once, Brent explained to me what he wanted in a woman.
He didn’t want much, just someone:
- Well-educated (preferably with a master’s degree); and
- Making a decent amount of money so they could live comfortably.
Celine, what do you think?
However, this weekend, it became clear he wanted other things as well. For one, he wanted someone who would take care of things around the house.
Okay, that’s still a reasonable request.
But here’s the kicker: he also wanted someone who would submit to his will.
This stunned me. He wanted a well-educated woman who had a full-time job, took care of the house, and who didn’t challenge him.
Good luck with that, buddy.
Brent has a strong personality, and so much potential. He doubts himself, and sometimes, his insecurities overwhelm him and he says hurtful things. What he thinks he wants is a woman who will bend to his will, but what he needs is someone to with the courage to challenge him. Someone willing to push him, to show him that he’s worthy of success.
The reason he can’t find someone to share his life is that he’s so focused on what he wants, that he’s blinded to what he needs. It seems like he would benefit from reading a good romance novel, eh?
That’s where story comes in. When we can’t imagine how to get through something, it can show us the path.
Even before the cave men started writing on the walls of their lovely abodes, people were telling one another stories. Possibly, at first, to help convey information about food, shelter, and enemies. Some speculate that it also brought people together and improved cohesiveness (I guess the walking in a group thing helped the cave men too :-P).
But think about it. When you read or hear a story, what do you do in your head? You create a mini movie, right? That’s why it’s frustrating sometimes to watch the movie version of a book. You go to see the Hunger Games, all excited. The movie starts, and all you can think is, “THAT’S NOT WHAT KATNISS LOOKS LIKE!” (Sorry, JLaw, I still love you.)
Anyway, I got a little off topic. What I mean is that when we read about Katniss getting stung by all those creepy killer bee robot things, our stomachs clench a bit in fear.
Don’t believe me? Read this, from The Hunger Games itself:
My eyes follow the line of her finger up into the foliage above me. At first, I have no idea what she’s pointing to, but then, about fifteen feet up, I make out a vague shape in the dimming light. But…of what? Some sort of animal? It looks about the size of a raccoon, but it hangs from the bottom of a branch, swaying ever so slightly. There’s something else. Among the familiar evening sounds of the woods, my ears register a low hum. Then I know. It’s a wasp nest.
More likely they will be one of the Capitol’s mutations, tracker jackers. Like the jabberjays, these killer wasps were spawned in a lab and strategically placed, like land mines, around the districts during the war. Larger than regular wasps, they have a distinctive solid gold body and a sting that raises a lump the size of a plum on contact. Most people can’t tolerate more than a few stings. Some die at once. If you live, the hallucinations brought on by the venom have actually driven people to madness. And there’s another thing, these wasps will hunt down anyone who disturbs their nest and attempt to kill them. That’s where the tracker part of the name comes.
Feel a tingle down your back? Or a pressure in your chest? Yeah. Story makes us feel, it makes us experience things that might be a danger, so we can avoid them when we come in contact with them. So, you know, next time you see a solid gold wasp — run for your freakin’ life!
It’s not all bad. Story can also show us good things.
It can show us the path to loving ourselves, or to loving other people. It can show us how to achieve our dreams. It can take us on an adventure, to places we’ve never been.
Ideally, it will make us more tolerant of differences. If reading something helps us to experience it, then reading books by different authors helps us to experience different cultures and ideas. I’d argue that even reading fantasy and sci-fi can make people more tolerant.
Amazing, huh? That’s why I read — and that’s why I write too. I want to learn and explore, until I can no longer do so.
There’s a bit of danger in this — even in my own writing — of falling into the mainstream. I grew up in a conventional world as a white woman, and write from that perspective. I can’t write from any other. But that won’t stop me from including different kinds of people in my books. And I hope, as I become a better writer and get to know more people, that can do this more often.
Here’s another danger:
Story can show us the path, but does it also constrain us? If my life is a story, who is the author?
I’ve been reading an illuminating book called Whistling Vivaldi, written by the social psychologist Claude Steele. It’s about how our identities, and the stereotypes associated with those identities, define us and can sometimes hold us back.
It talks a lot about women and math. You know the stereotype: women suck at math.
Steele took an equally high-performing group of men and women and administered a difficult math test. The result: the male test-takers scored higher across the board.
This would seem to imply that women were, in fact, bad at math compared to men. But Mr. Steele didn’t think that was the case. He suspected that it ran deeper (a good man, indeed). He thought that it was not some inherent female flaw that made women perform poorly, it was a fear of confirming a stereotype that blocked them.
So, he administered the test again. This time, he told the women that the test did not show any gender differences. And what do you know? The second time around the women performed equally as well as their male counterparts. With the threat of the stereotype removed, the women had the brain space to succeed.
Reading this, it really got me thinking — how many secret things are embedded in my identity (the story I’ve created about myself)? And what about the negative voices in my head? The ones that say, “You’re not good enough,” “You’re doing this wrong,” “You’ll never amount to anything.”
Those are stories, too. Those are stories we tell ourselves every day. I’m not sure, but perhaps cultivating an awareness that these are stories told to us by our our brains or by society, can help us take control. It can help us to grab the pen and write our own destinies.
What do you think? Do you see life as a story? Why do you like to read?