Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Power of Story

Friday night (February 15) I had the privilege of speaking to the Lewis County Writers Guild (at The Matrix Coffeehouse in Chehalis, WA) about a subject that's been on my mind a lot lately. Stories are entertaining and a nice way to pass the time, but they're so much more. Since I'm more a writer than a public speaker, I put some of my thoughts in essay form, so I'd have a "cheat sheet" handy in case of mental meltdown. I only glanced at it a couple of times, so my talk was a bit different from the essay, but I think I covered the main points. I followed it by reading four chapters of The Mirror Door, book three in my Hall of Doors chapter book series, and then we had a Q&A session. I should also mention that they served me a delicious dinner before my talk, so much good food that I had to bring part of it home and ate it for breakfast this morning. Nummy! For those who couldn't be there for one reason or another, here's the essay:

The Power of Story and the writing of The Mountains of the Moon
            Stories come in a myriad of forms, both written and spoken: short stories, novels, plays,  the comic strip in today’s paper, your uncle recalling the events of 60 years ago, your seven-year-old telling you about his dream. Man is a story-telling animal. It’s how we communicate, how we connect with others.
            Stories can entertain, letting us visit another place or time, or a place and time that never existed. They can help us find the humor in the bleakest situations. They let us explore new ideas from a safe distance; if you don’t like where the story’s going, you can always close the book—or throw it across the room, if that’s your preference. Stories can teach us facts, values, coping skills and problem solving. They can be used for religious or moral instruction, or just to pass on culture in general. They can be cautionary, like so many of our “fairy tales,” showing us how not to behave or what happens if we break the rules. They can help us understand ourselves, by holding us up to a mirror, or showing us characters we don’t want to emulate. Stories can encourage, inspire, and even offer healing on many levels.
            All of us are story-tellers, tale-spinners, almost from the time we discover language. Most of us learn early how to self-edit, to present our stories in such a way that our intended audience will listen. Listen to that seven-year-old telling his dream adventure, which may be greatly embroidered from the original experience. He’s learned from experience that if he just rambles on and on, his audience will soon drift away. So he throws in vivid descriptions and tries to arrange his material to build up tension, to keep you wondering what happens next. Bingo. The kid has already invented the page-turner novel.            
            The child’s only motive may be to hold an audience, to experience the sense of empowerment and self-worth that accompanies someone being willing to listen to him.  But stories are more than sharing experiences or making a connection with a chosen audience.  They’re the way we pass on our culture, our values, our view of how the world works. They may be designed for a specific purpose, such as Aesop’s Fables with their built-in morals. Much of our religious instruction is done through stories; pastors delight in “sermon illustrations.” Folk tales and fairy tales often carry lessons or illustrate how the world works—at least in the story-teller’s viewpoint. Whether or not the stories are literally true, they embody “truth” in the form of shared wisdom.
            Even if the author’s intent is primarily to entertain, without thought of an instructive purpose, his story is going to going to partake of his thoughts, his values, his world view. And that’s not even considering the part the reader or listener brings to the story. Story-telling is interactive. Humans look for patterns and meanings in everything. We look at the stars and see mythical monsters and heroes. We find pictures in the clouds, or shapes and faces in vegetables, rocks, you name it. A story becomes a collaborative effort between the story-teller and the reader or listener.  I’ve put up stories for critique on the Critters internet writing workshop, and received as many as 40 responses, all different. It’s as if there were 40 different stories, and in a sense, that’s true, because each reader injected his or her own views into the story I thought I was telling.
            We shape our non-fiction accounts into story form, one thing leading to another, perhaps suggesting meaning in events that otherwise could be viewed as “just a bunch of stuff that happened” to quote Homer Simpson. We hunger for meaning, and we’ll find it, whether the author meant to put it there or not. Just look at all the shared quotations on Facebook or in those viral emails. Someone read those words and said “Aha! This has a deeper, more profound meaning.  It expresses how I feel. It must be a Universal Truth. I’ll share it with the world.”       Writing fiction, and particularly speculative fiction or fantasy, may free the author from dealing with troublesome facts, but these stories, like their non-fiction counterparts, can also embody “truth” in the larger sense. If my story resonates with the reader, if she can connect with the character or situation and see the correlation with her own life, perhaps find a solution to a problem or at least another way of looking at it, then my story is “true” for that reader. Whatever the author’s intent, a story can inform, inspire, encourage a change of behavior, comfort or heal.
            Mostly I write stories just for fun, or because I want to experiment with an idea or characters and see what happens. I often find that the characters I’ve created tend to take over the story, heading off in directions I hadn’t anticipated. It’s like a role-playing game or a group of children playing “let’s pretend” with each of them offering script prompts as they go. If my readers choose to assign a deeper meaning to that, that’s their choice.
            I’ve written my share of instructive or illustrative stories, for Sunday School use or the sort of inspirational books you find in Christian bookstores, but I’ve mostly kept that separate from my fantasy or science fiction “just for fun” writing. The first story in what became the “Hall of Doors” series was a little different, in that I wrote it for a specific purpose.
            I followed a pattern for some years, of bringing my Portland granddaughter a new story on her birthday. She had just turned seven when I asked what sort of story she wanted for next year.  I expected her to mention fairies or unicorns or something of that sort. Instead she said “Write about a little girl like me, whose parents split up and her cat died.”  That hit me like a punch in the stomach.  I realized that was the situation she was dealing with at the moment, and she was looking to me for answers, for some way to make sense of it all. That was a tall order, and I thought about it for months. What did she need to hear from me? What could I tell her that would help?
            I eventually came to the conclusion that when children lose someone, whether from death or abandonment, they naturally fear more losses. They’re afraid of being deserted, of having no one to take care of them. They also, being pretty self-centered at that stage, feel guilty, thinking the loss is somehow their fault. So I needed to work into the story that she wasn’t going to be left alone, that there were lots of people who would continue to love her and take care of her, and that none of the situation was her fault.   I couldn’t do too much about the absent parent—I love my stepson, but, like his father, he has a bit of a Peter Pan complex and can’t be counted on to take responsibility. As for the cat, since I had the freedom of a made-up story, I applied the magical question, “What if...” What if the cat in my story didn’t die, but went off to some magical place to have adventures?
            The granddaughter usually spent a week at my house during the summer, but that year she had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t make it. I had already arranged for time off from work, so I had no excuse for further delay in writing her story. I did it as a mini-book and emailed her a chapter a day. I had no idea what was going to happen each day until I wrote it. It began with a little girl hunting for her missing cat, who had a habit of disappearing when the moon was full. My characters took it from there. When the mother repeated her mother’s possibly joking comment, that the cat must have “climbed up a moonbeam to go walking on the mountains of the moon,”  I knew the cat had to actually climb a moonbeam—or at least a magic pathway masquerading as a moonbeam.  Of course the little girl had to follow the cat; how else would she know about the other world? And so it became a simplified “hero’s journey” in which the hero travels to the other world to gain wisdom, which has been the pattern for the subsequent books in the series.
            The granddaughter, who is now a college student, says the story helped. Stories can inform, comfort, and heal—and still be fun to read. The power of story.