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The Importance of Storytelling in Turbulent Times

Am Anfang... by Olli Henze on Flickr
Am Anfang… by Olli Henze on Flickr [1]


Woes With the Territory

These are turbulent times. Aren’t they? I mean, we have but to scroll through our favorite social media feeds, or peruse our favorite blogs to feel it. It’s a bit odd, though. Violent crime is at a decades-long low, unemployment is below the post-WW2 average, and by most measures the economic recovery continues. Heck, even gas and milk are relatively cheap.

And yet, we all feel it. Terrible events continue to happen. Dark forces exist, and the very horror and terror engendered by their words and deeds is their tool. Resentment and anger are brewing out there. Resentment and anger that foster fear and hatred. Those who prey on, and benefit from, such emotions are busy fomenting their momentum.

Among my writing friends of late, I feel a palpable sense of woe. It’s understandable. Writers are generally smart and tuned in to the world around them. Writers are often adept at considering events in historical context.

Atop all of that, writers are generally sensitive souls. We have to be. It’s part of the gig. My friend and WU Editor-in-Chief Therese Walsh once explained it to me this way. Therese believes we writers have thinner skins because we need them to absorb the world at large, not just to accurately portray its events and its people, but to convey them authentically on the page to others. The raw side of having that thinner skin is that we perhaps feel the negatives—the hurts and pains—more easily, have less defense against them, and have a more difficult time recovering from what we’ve absorbed.

And let’s face it: these days there’s plenty of negativity—plenty of hurt and pain—to go around.

Big Sky Perspective

“The night sky is an excellent corrective to our self-importance. Everything superficial falls away. Vanity disappears. Politics, culture, and fashions of every sort fade to insignificance. It’s just us, alone beneath the infinite, as we’ve been since the beginning.” ~Author Jerry Dennis (from his essay, The Night Country)

My wife came home the other day, and had to ask me three times if anything was wrong. It was a gorgeous summer day, and I was grilling our dinner. I had to look up at the deep blue twilit sky to realize it myself: No—there’s nothing wrong. I mean, there’s always something wrong, right? I’d spent hours that day absorbing the woes of the world (mostly passed along though the online and media lens). I needed to step back and gain some perspective.

We writers know as well or better than anyone that so much of life is about perception and context. And about choices. I understand that most of us are in our heads a lot, and that many of us (including me) struggle with self-doubt. But when you think about it, we purposefully present our characters with fundamental misbeliefs and limited perception, all in the name of increasing conflict and tension. We ought to be in a good position to discern our own such issues.

And I believe it’s vital that we storytellers seek to look beyond the turbulence of the times, that we try to see beyond inundation to a cogent sorting of the meaningful. But in order to do it, we must strive to find and maintain our “Big Sky Perspective.” After all, times like these are when stories are needed the most.

Contributing to the Collective

“The purpose of the storyteller is not to tell others how to think, but to give them the questions to think upon.” ~Brandon Sanderson

“Perhaps it’s how we’re made; perhaps truth best reaches us through the heart, and stories and songs are the language of the heart.”  ~Stephen R. Lawhead

Stories matter. You can take it from a scientific angle, as WU story guru Lisa Cron teaches—that “…we think in story. It’s hardwired in our brain. It’s how we make strategic sense of the otherwise overwhelming world around us.” Or you can simply be satisfied that it’s your best means of relating to and interfacing with the world. (It is, isn’t it? I mean, you chose to write fiction for a reason, right?) Stories inform our worldview, and create a common basis for our interconnectedness. Our stories define us. And it’s what we share that defines our humanity.

And so, we as storytellers matter—particularly during turbulent times.

Now I’m not suggesting that you seek to sermonize or politicize your fiction. Nor am I suggesting that every story has to address the wrongs of the world or to delve into the meaning of life. And I don’t think that you need to write a bestseller, or even have a vast audience, to have an impact. Remember to keep that Big Sky Perspective. It’s not about ego, or even about us as individuals. What I’m talking about is human connectivity. It’s about contributing to a collective. It’s about sharing, and—in some small way—helping to define our humanity.

A Covert Communion Conduit  

“What is writing? Why, it’s telepathy, of course.” ~Stephen King

Think of the power we storytellers wield. If we do our jobs well, we offer respite. An exciting, comforting, or arousing ride, a hearty laugh or a good cry. We offer transportation from the monotony of a daily grind. And it’s not just escape we offer. At our best we offer our fellows solace, and renewal.

Beyond all of that, through our characters we are allowed access to our readers’ cerebral cortex—the part of the brain where reasoning, emotional processing, and problem solving take place. Reading fiction is a chance for each of us to slip into the skin of someone else, to experience something innovative—often things we might not otherwise experience, and might even hope to never need to. Through such vicarious experience, readers are offered an opportunity for evaluation, of themselves and of the world around them. Using our reason, our emotional processing, and our problem solving capabilities, when we read we compare and contrast ourselves against a fictional character—how we might react, how we hope we would react, or even how we feel we should react to the experiences we encounter on the page. And, as Lisa says, it’s hardwired into our brains—we all hunger for such opportunities.

“The demonstration of character may almost be called the essence of persuasion.” ~Aristotle

Not to suggest that, through your characters’ actions, you will invariably persuade your readers to accept a viewpoint or change their beliefs. Merely telling someone to believe something almost never works. But showing them… now that can change the odds a bit (effective writing so often circles back to knowing when to show and not tell, doesn’t it?)

In other words, if we do our jobs well, our stories become a conduit for us to commune with our fellow human beings. By providing the stories we all hunger for, we are granted the gift of access to our readers’ system of evaluation. And it’s a precious gift—not to be taken lightly.

Pen-Wielder Power!

Ah, the power. Writers unite! Together we can rule the world! Muh-wah-ha-ha.

Seriously though, think of it. Isn’t it wonderful, having the power to transport someone to another place, to make them feel something—to offer catharsis or even a simple respite?

Keeping that Big Sky Perspective intact (remember, it’s not about each of us, it’s about all of us), it can get even better. If you can nudge even a handful of readers to consider their own views in a new light, to question their preconceptions or to perceive their personal dogma; if you can cause even a few to confront their fears in a more honest way; provoke just one of your fellow humans to renew their belief in the power of kindness and love over resentment and hate—well, isn’t that worthy of our diligent effort?

Of course it’s important that we, as writers, speak our truth, and that we keep touch with the pulse of the world. Social media are powerful tools for writers. But it’s important to remember that we are our own moderators of their use and consumption. And perhaps even more importantly, that we are never distracted from the most effective vehicle for the delivery of our truth. Storytelling is our super-power!

So, my powerful Pen-Wielders—what shall we do on the next dark day, when we’ve absorbed too much of our fellows’ woes? We could spent it on Facebook and Twitter, telling people what they should believe, absorbing even more of the detached dissent, and the occasional escalation and hostility the internet tends to engender. Or we could spend a greater share of our energy on our stories, showing our worldview through our characters, striving to make them worthy instigators of wholehearted contemplation.

Personally, I’m rooting for the stories. And I’m more hopeful for the world because of you. I look forward to our next communion.

Can you think of stories that changed your outlook? How? Are there aspects of your stories that you hope will instigate the wholehearted contemplation of your fellow humans? Let’s share the power of collective positivity in the comments.  

About Vaughn Roycroft [2]

In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.