Do Stories Matter?

Today’s Friday Guest Post is by Carmen.

Carmen Rane Hudson has been ghost writing non-fiction for three years. Recently, she’s begun publishing her own fiction, beginning with Backlash.  All of this trouble started when a teacher handed her a “story starter” at age 6; she declared she wanted to be a writer when she grew up, eventually defied the advice of well-meaning people who told her to find something to fall back on, and never looked back.

(You can buy Backlash on Amazon. I have read it and it is very good.) You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @petercorbie or visit her website at www.petercorbie.com.

Do Stories Matter?

When you write, are you merely setting out to tell a good yarn, or are your words accomplishing more?

Fiction doesn’t have to be “simple entertainment.” Indeed, some people recognize this fact a little too much and spoil the whole story by trying to hammer home some moral or another, often to the point where the reader tunes everything out. Indeed, bad morality stories have been told often enough that they’ve caused many writers to cringe from the notion that their stories could matter. The idea of a story that means something is sitting in a corner in disgrace, but only because it’s been mistreated by the ham-fisted.

We should get this idea out of the corner, however, because stories are a uniquely human pursuit. Every single human culture tells stories. Stories pass on wisdom, teach, inspire, and impose a bit of order on the chaos present in both our inner and outer lives. They help us understand ourselves, our situations, and the human element of issues that would otherwise be debated in only the most abstract of terms. And nothing is more damaging to real people than abstracts applied!

Stories have changed the world in a positive way. Look at Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Would we even have the dialogue that allows us to question the darker side of technology’s crime fighting abilities without George Orwell and 1984?

In my case the impact was much more personal. I simply wanted to be like the heroes I read about in my favorite fantasy novels. I had models of the good guys, from the classic Robin Hood to Terry Brooks’ Shea Ohmsford, Mercedes Lackey’s Herald Talia or even Robert Jordan’s snappish but courageous Nynaeve al’Meara. I took on values from these fictional people: bravery, compassion, a willingness to stand up for those weaker than yourself, the willingness to work hard, the value and meaning of true friendship. Herald Talia didn’t change the world, but she helped change me.

Fiction can do so much more than non-fiction in this regard because it can make the reader feel empathy. This is how people actually work: we feel first and then justify our feelings with logic later. Whether you’re addressing an injustice or encouraging people to be better an ability to empathize with someone else, to walk a mile in their shoes and understand their needs and lives as somehow relevant to your own is important. Without this ability it’s all too easy to chop up the world into absolutes, where those who don’t agree with you absolutely are dehumanized, pushed to the side, and labeled as the enemy. Fiction gives people a different framework for understanding others who may be different from themselves. It lets them think about who might get hurt by a course of action because they can now see and feel what it would feel like to be the one that’s hurt by it, even if, outside of the world of the book, they are a person that benefits from that course.

Fiction gives us new ideas and new paradigms to understand. It helps us explore what’s possible. It examines what is—and helps us define what “should be.” And when it finds the “should be” it challenges us to look for the way to get ourselves there.

All of this only works if the writer’s heart and mind are in step with the meaning he’s trying to convey. If it’s in his heart, the author really can just consciously concentrate on making a great story without trying too hard to do anything else. And the author can’t try too hard. The author can’t preach. The author has to concern himself with telling a great story: delivering the goods with real people, compelling worlds, tangible details. The process of delivering all this meaning has to be all but unconscious once the tale telling starts. Otherwise the author commits the cardinal sin of calling too much attention to himself or herself, shattering the empathic link and calling the veracity of the human experience into question.

Yet all of these truths do place a burden of responsibility upon writers, because it makes something clear. The tales we tell help shape the world we live in.

If we want a world where peace is given more priority than war then we must tell stories where peaceful justice, and not war, creates change and saves lives. If we want a world where values like honor, loyalty, compassion, and honesty prevail then we need to write heroes who either embody these qualities or figure out how to embrace them by the end of the story. If we aren’t at a place where we don’t secretly believe we need the right combat paladin Chosen One to storm into our world and solve all the problems then we’ve got to write in such a way that we teach ourselves a better way, too, and keep writing till we find the path that corresponds to our beliefs, both inside and out. We perhaps even have to keep testing our own beliefs in fiction, to keep holding them up to scrutiny until they pass muster from the point of view of individual experience, or ultimately fall apart.

All of these are daunting tasks, and they give us writers a very fine line to walk. But the power of the story is ready to burst onto the scene like it never has before. In the past, publisher-gatekeepers controlled which stories reached audiences. That meant we got a steady stream of combat paladins, war heroes, hunters, and door kickers, because that is what publishers were buying. The range of experiences that readers were exposed to was limited by the prejudices, conscious or unconscious, of a relatively small group of people who probably didn’t give much thought to what messages they were sending or to the type of world those stories were creating.

But here we are, Indie authors bursting onto the literary scene. Since we can circumvent the gatekeepers we can tell new stories. We can, if we wish, find new ways for our heroes to solve problems. We can, if we wish, demonstrate the power of love, faith, forgiveness, understanding, beauty, and wonder. And we can still, as we perfect our craft, tell a damn good yarn while we do it.

As always, we welcome your comments.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Do Stories Matter?

  1. Pingback: Independent Bookworm Blog Post -- Peter Corbie

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