Why Writers Are More Powerful Than The Supreme Court

5506440741_0f8703feb7_z
photo by Rob Chandanais

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

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.

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

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. 

“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

Sometimes good change does happen – and many times, it’s thanks to writers wielding the power of story.

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.

Citizens, unite!

0

About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.

Comments

  1. says

    Although I’m pretty sure I don’t want to think about how my stories might change people as I work, I do aspire to immerse them and move them. For example, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for scores of young women training to become lethal with swords, or to disavow emotional entanglement with males, or anything. But it might be cool if young women felt empowered to embrace their inner kickass warrior. When the situation calls for it, of course. ;-)

    This post gives me hope. Thanks for starting off my day with such an uplifting message, Lisa!

    0
  2. says

    Lisa–
    An excellent post, thank you. For me, here’s the most important point you make: “Studies have shown that reading novels gives you more empathy for other people….” I spent years teaching lit courses to undergraduates, and I became convinced of the truth of this. Why? Because technology has so relentlessly reduced the “face time” and “quality time” we spend with others that the natural capacity for empathy is at risk. Often, I think an intimate relation with characters, developed over many hours spent with a book puts the reader in a closer, more intimate relationship than is true of many of his or her human contacts. And it improves the odds of actually seeing and hearing other persons.
    But I’m not convinced that reading novels will help anyone make more money. In fact, an improved capacity for empathy may very well cause someone to appreciate others in a way that makes it harder to wheel and deal. But since life is, or should be much more than getting and spending, I urge everyone to take the risk.

    0
  3. says

    Lisa, I really like when you say: “We Don’t Turn to Story to Escape Reality, We Turn to Story to Navigate Reality.” What about stories navigating the unreality or the mysteries we don’t understand?

    I write ghost stories and supernatural mysteries (not your routine everyday events for most of us). I don’t know what my readers get from experiencing my metaphysical stories. I personally learn a lot from writing about ‘the other side of life’ or ‘life after death’ whether it be ghosts, vampires, or evil entities.

    Because my stories fall into the “horror” category–which a lot of people think is at the bottom of the literary list–these stories are said to be purely escape reading for vicarious thrills. But here’s a thought: Anne Radcliffe, one of the first Gothic writers (The Mysteries of Udolpho) said in speaking about terror, horror, and the sublime, that it “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life.” Carl Jung talked about “the shadow” as an archetype of the dark side of human personality. I’m not sure how horror stories act as a ‘call to action,’ except to say there are values to stretching the imagination beyond our known physical world and into the mysterious Heaven and Hell we all wonder about. Thanks for a very inspiring post, Lisa!

    0
  4. Denise Willson says

    Great post, Lisa.

    When readers finish GOT, I want them to stop and think, just for a moment, “What if that were true, if it really happened, if there were no cars, no roads, and man moved about differently?”

    To me, a good book opens a whole new world of thought. Is there more power than that?

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

    0
  5. says

    What a powerful post, Lisa. Thank you. I will treasure these words.

    A beta reader kindly offered to read my previous WIP a few months ago. I’ve since abandoned that story, but he surprised me two weeks ago when he told me he was halfway through and would soon be done. We met at a Starbucks and discussed the story with great enthusiasm (I was so caught up in it I didn’t realize I was getting sunburn on my face). Over the course of that meeting, he hit on some points that brought me to a great “aha” moment – the great WHY of my writing.

    One thing that he brought up was that despite my story being set in a medieval world, there is a lot of homonormativity in the social landscape. I found that a fascinating comment and tried to dig deeper. He referenced several examples, and I explained to him a little behind the scenes, that I am intentionally taking a different route from what medieval fantasy writers often do by assuming that arriving at a specific technological state (i.e. what we think of as “medieval times”) does not necessarily imply the same history. It goes further than this, of course: in many places women are more powerful than men, one nation’s economy is built on flesh, and I have a race of slaves who secretly control their masters. So while it is common to replication feudal medieval society because it is familiar, it is also limiting because many of our biases are bound up in the history of the world we have grown up in.

    Getting to my point: take the homonormativity, for example. You mentioned Will & Grace (loved that show), and the impact of TV. Well, I live in Canada, where gay marriage has been legal for many years. I personally think it is a freedom that is good for us (by freedom, I don’t just mean for those who are gay, but also those who aren’t but can accept others who are and be at peace with diversity in the world). So, quite naturally, when I set out to tell my stories and I built the world as I went, it felt right to break the mold a little. Why not? After all, I’m free and I want to give my readers something new, something fresh. I want to give them a piece of me and how I see the world. Every time I encounter a new character and dig into their ethnic background, I get ideas for a unique nation and culture with something unique to teach us, something that hasn’t been done in our history.

    And that was the great AHA moment for me. Not that I want to change the world or that I have a covert agenda when I write a story. I’m not advocating for gay rights or prostitution or societies where women rule men (or perhaps I might be); I’m simply going in and pouring my heart onto the page. And in my heart there is a message, something I only dare to dream of and am only brave enough to make real when I write: that it is possible for the world to become a better place, for our minds to be freed of biases, judgements and untruths, of all weeds that choke the flowers of common civility and grace. That is perhaps the biggest cliche and most overused image in history, but it is nonetheless valid, I think, and it is this dream that fuels my stories when I seek to show readers some wonderful ways the world could be a little different, when I dare them to make the slightest changes to how they think about the world.

    As for my beta reader, he was fascinated (though I’m not sure if it was the heat stroke or not). Although I’ve set that story aside, I reassured him the story I’m working now is set in the same world, and he will be seeing more of it soon.

    0
    • says

      John, as an aside, your comment brings Jacqueline Carey’s world of Terre D’Ange to mind. She remade history in such an interesting way, including the religious tenet: Love as thou wilt. Thought if you haven’t read her Kushiel books, you might be interested. Best wishes for your continuing progress!

      0
  6. says

    Just one thought – Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That book did more to convert Americans to abolitionism than all of the social and political arguments combined. It made people see slavery for what it really was – not as a doctrine, or a style of economy, but what the actual human effects of it were. And that is something the Supreme Court will never be able to do.

    0
    • says

      I’ve been reading a lot of slave narratives and this struck me too! Harriet Beecher Stowe changed the landscape of America for the common good.

      0
  7. says

    Lisa-

    It’s tempting to rail against our political system, where special interests get their way. Money buys elections. Even the Supreme Court seems to be serving something other than the Constitution.

    But there’s one thing they can’t take away from you: your vote. Nor your writing. Not yet anyway. Not in this country.

    Novels change the world. Just look at how many other places in the world suppress and even kill writers. Write. Powerfully. It matters.

    0
  8. says

    Disability and illness are common to ALL humans – across the board – and feared more than death.

    We are woefully short on novels that treat disability as a part of life (Americans are five times more likely to become disabled before retirement age than they are to die).

    Disabled people are pariahs, pitied, ignored, marginalized – not allowed to want what ‘normal’ people want, and certainly not allowed to get what normal people want.

    Disability and its consequences to both disabled people and the rest of the world are a thread that runs from the first to the last page of Pride’s Children. They matter – and they don’t, in fundamental ways.

    It is but a tiny part of the tale.

    Not every story has a perky 20-year-old child/woman finding her handsome, rich, and sexy sugar daddy.

    0
  9. says

    Very thoughtful post, Lisa. I don’t set out to change the world, or even one person’s mind, when I write, but some novels clearly have that power. Novels that deal with broader social themes, done well, can change or at least open people’s minds. To Kill a Mockingbird did as much to raise consciousness about the evils of discrimination and prejudice as any Supreme Court decision. Why? Because of Harper Lee’s brilliant decision to show the trial of Tom Robinson through the eyes of a child. I’m sure there are countless other examples, but I need a couple of more cups of coffee to come up with one. Thanks again.

    0
  10. says

    Lisa,
    What great wisdom on the power of story. My stories have women’s and lgbt issues as important themes. I’ve always said I want to portray strong lesbian protagonists in the telling of a good story with central themes that are universally relevant. My goal is to improve my storytelling in order to make the other facets of the protagonist secondary. I hope they see her as a strong, interesting character who happens to be lesbian.

    Your blog today supports the message of story in your books. I’ve read and re-read them for inspiration. Thanks.

    0
  11. says

    Thank you. You’ve expressed what I’ve often felt — that reading can help us navigate our world, not just escape it — so articulately.

    0