The Why of Stories

In all the hubbub and hurry of writing stories, I sometimes lose sight of why I write stories in the first place (I lose sight of a great many things in the hurry of life, but that’s another topic). The question as to why one writes stories is not something I hear a lot of authors speak much about these days.

There are a lot of answers to this question, some bad, some decent, and a few good. If one writes stories to make money, that’s a rather bad answer in my estimation. It’s equivalent to someone working a job as a plumber or a stockbroker or a mountain climber saying he works his job simply to make money. It still is an answer, of course, and a valid one, but it’s a sad answer. If we work or do something or create this and that simply for money or to get by in life, then it’s a dreary life we’re drudging through, and it’s a dreary thing we’re doing (regardless of how potentially wonderful it might be or well done) to pay for that life.

If one writes stories for the fame it brings, well, good luck with that. For one thing, it won’t bring you fame, unless you’re Stephen King, and you’re not Stephen King. For a second thing, fame isn’t worth much (ask the next famous person you meet). If one writes stories to be able to tell people you’re a writer, I’m afraid that will get old fast (faster than you’re getting older).

But what about those better answers? I think there are two. The first is an answer that only makes sense if you believe in a god who created the universe, so this one might not make much logic to many people. Writing stories, along with building houses or carving statues or writing operas or cooking fantastic meals, is a form of creation and, therefore, is a mini-reflection of the creation of the universe. It echoes the divine echo. However, if you don’t believe in that sort of thing, then…you don’t.

The second of those two better answers is that stories can reflect the things that are right and reassuring about life. Stories can underscore human attributes that give one a little hope about life in general, amidst the insanity and squalor of that same life. Hope or warning. A story might point out that someone might be willing to die for someone else (A Tale of Two Cities), which is a very reassuring thought to consider. Another might examine the stability and value of family (Anna Karenina) and the danger of adultery (Anna Karenina again). A story might pour over the value of courage (Sam, in the Lord of the Rings) and what effect that has on those around that person. A story might showcase what happens when a person stands for what’s right, despite prevailing sentiment blowing in the opposite direction (To Kill a Mockingbird). The hollowness of revenge (Count of Monte Cristo). Forgiveness (Les Miserables).

The curious thing about stories written for such a reason is that they invariably reflect transcendent truths–ie., truths that are universally and generally acknowledge to be valid: that certain things possess great value, such as courage, honor, forgiveness, the willingness to sacrifice for others, etc.

But what about stories that do not reflect these monumental truths? If not for money or fame or the fleeting glow that creation brings, why are such stories written? This is something I puzzle over. Granted, we human creatures are complex and odd and reasonably individualist (most of the time), so it’s difficult to chop and cut and divide into neat little boxes. Life is messy. However, I wonder if the last reason is self-validation? Not self-validation in terms of proving that one can do something (write a book, bake a cake, build an engine, etc), but self-validation in terms of reflecting one’s understanding of life. Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, validates a particular view of love and romance and relationship that is a mixture of nihilism and narcissism; it’s view of love has nothing to do with the traditional, older view of love (preferring one another, sacrifice, honor, etc).

At any rate, I suppose I dealt with the topic in a rambling sort of way, but I find it crucial to stop and think, every now and then, why I do this or that. In this case, write stories.

6 thoughts on “The Why of Stories”

  1. Couple of points:

    a) to work as a stockbroker, plumber, farmer or writer in order to make money – there’s nothing wrong with that. Especially for the plumber. Or the farmer. You grow vegetables because people need food. You make money because people (i.e. you & your family) need food, and food costs money. There’s nothing sad about that kind of reasoning, nor necessarily dreary. People do all kinds of work for no more noble and inspiring reason than that the work needs to be done to live. Now, granted, it’s much better to be able to do inspired work because you love it, but for many, many people, that’s just not possible. I have to go cook supper for my family pretty soon, not because I love it, but because they’re hungry and because I love *them*… And there’s no reason that writing can’t be a form of work like that. As Dorothy L. Sayers has Harriet Vane saying: “I should scrub floors rather badly, and write books rather well, so that is the work I choose to do.”

    b) I’m not sure that I can say I write for either of the reasons you cite as “good reasons”, or if I do, they play a fairly small role. I write (and read) because I live in Story (capital S). Storytelling is, I believe, a fundamental human need, one of the things that separates us from the animal kingdom (well, okay, maybe cats tell each other stories too. But they’re not sharing, so I’ll assume they don’t.). Stories help us make sense of the world, they’re our statements of “this is how the world works”. Even 50 Shades (which I haven’t read, just seen summaries of) falls under that heading: a woman’s love transforms a man from an emotionally crippled monster into a caring husband. It’s Beauty and the Beast, except rather more beastly than Perrault’s version and a lot worse written (from what I hear). We tell the stories we want to believe. Every time we write or read a happy-ending story, we affirm our belief that winning is possible, that the hero will triumph in the end, that love wins the day. Even if the stories don’t end happily, we’re affirming our beliefs about how the world works. I believe humans need Story, all of us, that’s why we keep telling them.

    1. Angelika, your posts force me to think. How painful.

      Working as a stockbroker, etc merely for the money is not wrong in any way. I merely think it can be sad if the person isn’t able to blur the line between avocation and vocation. I think Luther and Calvin both wrote quite a bit on that topic. Boils down to the false divide between sacred and secular. All work is sacred, therefore it should be approached in like attitude and reverence and joy (famous last works, as I certainly don’t approach my work like that most days). However, I bet most people don’t live like that… I probably didn’t write my post all that well.

      Point B? I agree with you completely. I thought that’s what I was trying to say…but maybe I obscured myself.

      1. Apologies for inflicting pain on you.

        On point a), what I’m trying to say is that there’s also a difference between vocation, avocation, and just plain work. Between “a profession” and “a job”. By the sweat of your brow, and all that. It gets really obvious in your line of work (or your day job, as it were). You’re a farmer by way of a job – you could also be a stockbroker or plumber or whatever. It’s somewhat of a vocation/profession. But our ancestors, they *had* to farm, because that’s how they got their food. It was just *work*. Much like mothers can’t choose their work – babies need to have their bottoms diapered and be fed. It’s work for survival; whether it’s done joyfully or not doesn’t really come into the equation.
        To be honest, I’m losing the thread of my argument here too. I do think we agree for the most part.

        As for part b), I guess where I’m differing slightly (probably not in opinion, just in expression) is that I think Story helps us see not just what is “right and reassuring” about life, not just noble truths, but also what is dark and awful. Pretty much what IS – or what we think is, anyway. How the world works. A bit more existential (ontological?) and less specific than what you’re saying.
        But, yeah, we’re pretty much in agreement.

  2. The Why of stories? There might be a wealth of answers, and I certainly only know one or two of them. At present, for me, a reader (from Germany), there is one most convincing answer, and it is close to one of yours: “that stories can reflect the things that are right and reassuring about life. Stories can underscore human attributes that give one a little hope about life in general, amidst the insanity and squalor of that same life.”
    Your trilogy is helping me through a very difficult phase in my life, full of illness, pain, anxiety, and sleepless nights. It might not be the most artistic reason for writing, but I always found (having studied literature and all the more sophisticated reasons for writing academics like to give, often unconvincingly) that helping people to distance themselves from their own little lives – or even only distracting them for a while – is not a petty one, not at all (and, to be honest, in such times I have been more grateful to some lighter works of fantasy than to some award-winning works of certain contemporary novelists which leave me feeling bleak and dispirited).
    If someone, however, writes with such artistry, esprit and beautiful imagination like you, it is certainly much more than divertissement. For me, it’s a reminder of what beauty means, what can threaten beauty, and what should make us want to protect it. And much more (agreeing also with Angelika), but all in all I just wanted to say: Thank you. A great novel!

    1. I think our reasons for the Why are in agreement. Hope, genuine hope, is a precious thing. Sadly, it seems to be more and more of a rare commodity these days. When I set out to write about Tormay, I knew I wanted to add a little bit to the light in the world, as opposed to enlarging the darkness.
      I’m honored that the trilogy is helping you through such a time. I wrote the last half of it through a similar time of my own–dying, actually, and in and out of hospitals, wondering about mortality and meaning and life. It was not an easy couple of years, to say the least, and writing the trilogy was much more beneficial than most of the advice of my doctors.
      Thank you very much for taking the time to stop by! It is appreciated…

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