My bucket list goal of writing a novel has led me to a study of story and a new understanding and appreciation of its place in our lives. I am now convinced that it is as important as our DNA and the blood that flows through our veins, to our survival as individuals, nations, cultures and even our own species.
For me, it has been a recognition of sorts – an “I knew that but never thought about it” moment, which deserves a reminder for those who might think, “So what? I’m never going to write a novel and I know a good story when I read it or hear it.”
It is true that most of us know a good story when we read it (and we put the book down if it’s not good). Story is even more fundamental than that when we examine how we learn and live our lives – story is one way our brains function, as explained by Lisa Cron in her book, Wired for Story. She tells us that recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our pleasure in a good story leads us to pay attention – it’s nature’s way of making sure we learn about our world.
Our Brain Prepares Us for Story
My father told me that I was a good baby. I could be placed on a quilt on the floor and be told to stay there and I would. I’m not sure that I was that “good”, but I heard also that I was observant. I was happy to watch what was going on around me, whether I was on the floor or watching the curtains flutter above my crib. Since I was also obedient, my curiosity didn’t take me beyond my boundaries. Perhaps my brain was preparing me for the next phase of its development.
Parents are often driven to distraction by one question they hear from their small children – “Why?” I believe that this is one avenue to our brain’s function of constructing and receiving story. When a child asks “why?”, he is learning to interpret information so that his world makes sense.
Some children are fortunate enough to have parents who tell and/or read stories to them, so that they begin to feel and understand the pleasure that a successful story brings – another function of the brain.
Story Prepares Us for Reading
I remember Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot. They held my interest through the first grade, as I learned to decipher the meaning of the words beneath the illustrations. I stayed with them as they spoke to each other in their stilted phrases: “See Dick throw the ball. See Spot run.” It didn’t take me long to figure out that nothing much was happening; there really wasn’t a story. I’m sure that Miss Carroll was as happy as I was when we could move on to stories. I knew instinctively that a story required conflict and change. If Dick threw the ball to Jane and accidently broke her nose, that would have been the basis for a story.
Story Enables Us to Retain What We Learn
What do you remember from your history classes? I suppose that I figured out what I was expected to remember and retained just enough to make a passing grade. There was no curiosity to my learning, which was likely because I didn’t recognize the context. Context is necessary for story and if it’s absent, we just have a lot of facts or dates that don’t teach us very much.
Today, as an adult, I have become accustomed to following up on historical events by reading about them as presented in context – in other words, in story form. I have found that I better understand the meaning of what happened, what other events were going on at the same time and how it all affected those who lived through it. For example, John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History taught me about the Spanish Flu, and I also learned about its effect on World War I, possibly contributing to the circumstances that led to World War II.
Story Helps Us to Learn About Ourselves
Fiction can also help us to understand context and lead us to better awareness and understanding of ourselves and those around us. We develop empathy when we read of the lives of those in the story and can transfer it to those we meet in the real world. It can also let us see that we are, in a sense, writing our own story and as humans, must deal with internal and external conflict.
We have learned most of what we know about ourselves collectively through story. Christians celebrate and share The Greatest Story Ever Told, and other religious traditions also use story as Jesus did, to instruct and inspire.
Nations also depend upon story to construct a testament for shared beliefs and values. If “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, then it is important for citizens to understand the context for their laws. Open societies like our own provide a continuous flow of conflict beyond the basic “good and evil” to those of two values like freedom versus security and diversity versus similarity, making our story more complex and dynamic.
Story Helps Us Connect with Others
This leads me to a one commitment I made when I retired – to encourage others to reach out to others through their own memories and stories. We are in a period of history with access to more ways than ever to “write our story”, but many of us are choosing the easiest and most temporary way to connect. It’s as if we want to be remembered by a selfie and what can be written in a tweet. Our stories are precious and fragile and we shouldn’t be satisfied with what will be written (by others) in an obituary or left on a grave marker.
I am working on another website and blog devoted to ways we can write our own stories so that our children and grandchildren can know more about our lives than what our genealogy and DNA can report. I hope that you will join me there, and return here also, as we explore the magic and power of story.