These days it often feels as if we have very little power to change things. After all, how can one actual flesh and blood-type person make a difference in the world if the Supreme Court says that corporations, with their billion dollar megaphones, are people too? Money talks exponentially louder than you or me, even when we’re shouting. We live in a country that fully personifies George Orwell’s Animal Farm maxim: All people are equal, but some people are more equal than others. Citizens United, indeed.
Thinking about it, my blood always begins to boil. That’s when (after taking a deep cleansing breath), I remind myself of the power we do have – not in some new age “we are all one” sort of way – but as writers. Because story is the most powerful agent of change on the planet. You have more power than the Supreme Court. You have more power than the biggest corporation. You can affect people directly because story mainlines meaning deep into our hearts and minds. It’s a biological truth. Story changes how we see the world, how we feel, and therefore what we do. Want some proof?
People, Reading People
Before we read books, we read each other. In fact, it’s what we’re wired to do. Your innate goal is to intuit the motives of every person you encounter, everyday, from your significant other, to your boss, to that strange guy on the subway who might be talking loudly on a cellphone you can’t see, or . . . maybe it’s better to head for another car, just in case.
We’re always wondering, what is that person’s agenda? What are they thinking, how are they interpreting what I’m doing, what I’m [pullquote]The more fiction people read, the better they are at perceiving the specific emotion in the eyes of others, and at correctly interpreting social cues.[/pullquote]saying? Are they hearing what I’m really saying, or are they reading another meaning into it altogether?
Which is why mind reading is a very valuable skill. One that we hone by reading novels. Studies have shown that reading novels gives you more empathy for other people, and more insight into what they mean when they’re talking to you.
In fact, a study in 2006 by academic researchers Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar, found that the more fiction people read, the better they are at perceiving the specific emotion in the eyes of others, and at correctly interpreting social cues.
And devouring novels doesn’t just help us navigate our social life. Even the Harvard Business Review recommends reading novels in order to get ahead, noting that: “a study of Fortune 400 health insurance companies conducted by Peter Salovey, a psychology professor at Yale, looked at the correlations between emotional intelligence and salary and found that people rated highest by their peers in emotional intelligence received the biggest raises and were promoted most frequently.”
In other words, stories help the actual flesh and blood-type people who work in corporations succeed. Sheesh, if corporations really were people, maybe they could learn a thing or two about how to treat actual people by reading a couple of well chosen novels. Animal Farm, perhaps.
We Don’t Turn to Story to Escape Reality, We Turn to Story to Navigate Reality
Here’s something that sounds like it came straight out of The Onion: “A fascinating new study shows that sappy relationship movies made in Hollywood can actually help strengthen relationships in the real world.” Actually, it came from the New York Times. Along with this:
“A University of Rochester study found that couples who watched and talked about issues raised in movies like “Steel Magnolias” and [pullquote]When you’re lost in a story the same areas of your brain light up as would if you were doing what that main character is doing. You’re not passively watching it, you’re actively living it. [/pullquote]“Love Story” were less likely to divorce or separate than couples in a control group. Surprisingly, the “Love Story” intervention was as effective at keeping couples together as two intensive therapist-led methods.”
Mindless entertainment? Nope. Because when you’re lost in a story, you haven’t broken with reality. Instead, you’re vicariously experiencing it. When you’re lost in a story the same areas of your brain light up as would if you were doing what that main character is doing. You’re not passively watching it, you’re actively living it. If the character is angry, fMRI studies show that your brain is experiencing anger. If the character is feeling giddy with the first blush of love, your brain experiences that feeling too (along with other choice parts of you). You’re not watching Jane Eyre, you are Jane Eyre. Stories are anything but mindless – instead, they’re mind (and thus life) transforming.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
Have you noticed how, in an incredibly short amount of time, a surprising number of states have done a complete about-face when it comes to gay marriage? My home state of California, for instance. As Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal says, it’s a massive social change that’s been taking place with dizzying speed, profoundly (and humanely) altering our social contract. Social [pullquote]Sometimes good change does happen – and many times, it’s thanks to writers wielding the power of story.[/pullquote]scientists have discovered one of the big reasons it happened: TV shows. They’ve dubbed it “The Will & Grace Effect.” For those of you who haven’t seen the sitcom Will & Grace, one of the main characters is gay, and the show treats him, and homosexuality, in a completely non-judgmental way. The show was a hit, for years. And it, along with Glee, Modern Family and Six Feet Under, changed how a significant number of Americans viewed gays. Think about it: the writers of those TV shows changed the world.
Their shows – which we tend dismiss as fluff, mere entertainment – were anything but. They instilled empathy, changed public sentiment and ultimately, the political landscape. Not to mention the lives of millions of gay Americans who are now free to marry the person of their heart’s desire. I’m getting a little misty just thinking about it. Sometimes good change does happen – and many times, it’s thanks to writers wielding the power of story.
What about you? How would you like your novel to change the people who read it? Because whether you want your novel to change people or not, it will. We’re affected by every story we consume, whether we know it or not. All stories are a call to action.