Why Do We Need Stories?
Guest Post by Scott Driscoll: Scott Driscoll holds an MFA from the University of Washington and has been teaching creative writing for the University of Washington Extension for seventeen years. His short stories and narrative essays have been published extensively in literary journals and anthologies, including Poets and Writers Magazine, Image Magazine, The Seattle Review, Crosscurrents, Cimarron Review, The South Dakota Review, Gulfstream, American Fiction ’88 and others. His narrative essay about his daughter’s coming of age was cited in the Best American Essays, 1998, and while in the MFA program, he won the University of Washington’s Milliman Award for Fiction (1989).
Scott’s debut novel, Better You Go Home, is forthcoming from Coffeetown Press in September 2013.
Stories: Why Bother?
- Why read stories when I can catch the news?
- Someone actually said this to me. He admitted, “S’pose I should, but…”
- If stories delivered to us reduce the moral complexity to the narrow and possibly didactic view of that singular author, and if other sources of information, such as news, history books, or essays are just as capable of delivering us to complex moral situations, why do we need stories?
- In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez notes: “No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself.”
- The mark of a good story is not one that solves a dilemma but one that poses a question in an interesting way. This according to Chekhov.
- Vaclav Havel, celebrated leader of the Czech Velvet Revolution: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
- In the opening of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes about the February 1948 handover of the government of Czechoslovakia to the communists. Gottwald stands next to Clementis in the photo taken in Prague’s Old Town Square. It was cold. Clementis solicitously put his fur cap on Gottwald’s head. Hundreds of thousands of commemoration photos were sent. Four years later, Clementis was hanged. Subsequent distributions had Clementis airbrushed out of the photo.
- Okay, what if we were to think of story as a mirror held up to reality? Not an escape from reality, but a way of taking a second look?
- Observes Italo Calvino: “Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live,” And, “He carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.”
- Any artfully presented story is nothing more than a conjuror’s trick, or, worse, an abdication of our responsibility to learn how to live compassionately without a didactic author leading us by the nose.
- Calvino’s interpretation: “To cut off the Medusa’s head without being turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror…As for the severed head, Perseus does not abandon it but carries it concealed in a bag… It is a weapon he uses only in cases of dire necessity, and only against those who deserve the punishment of being turned into statues… Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live.”
- Calvino admits, “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space.”
- He is not suggesting an escape from the heaviness of history, so much as a flight above it to stories that achieve levity and reflect the Medusa of reality without the viewer being turned to “stone” by the horror.
- Reading stories enhances our ability to empathize.
- Reading novels reduces violence.
- Wright Morris: “We are accustomed to reflections on the death of the novel but I have seen little reported on the death of the reader.”
- Among the “melancholy facts of human culture,” there are readers who hate fiction just as there are listeners who consume music but are tone deaf. Both have the temerity to call themselves critics and avatars of taste.
- To have the wonderment of a child is to fly on the backs of stories.
- Stories lift us above repression. Artless reality represses.
- J.M. Coetzee opens Elizabeth Costello with: “There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which is, as yet, nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging problem… People solve such problems every day… Let us assume that, however it may have been done, it is done. Let us take it that the bridge is built and crossed, that we can put it out of our mind. We have left behind that territory in which we were. We are in the far territory, where we want to be.”
- Coetzee complains that the “heavy lifting” of storytelling is a burden.
- The protagonist, Anders, in Tobias Wolff’s story, “Bullet in the Brain,” is a book critic “known for the weary elegant savagery with which he dispatches almost everything he reviewed.” Unable to resist critiquing the unoriginal performance of a thief during a bank robbery in progress—“Capiche—oh, God, capiche,”—Anders is shot in the head. He will not be as fortunate as Perseus. He makes the mistake of confronting Medusa directly. For that mistake, Anders will die. But in the moment preceding death, he reflects on the loss of wonderment. He remembers a childhood friend playing sandlot baseball. Said friend has brought along his cousin from Mississippi. When asked what position he wants to play, this cousin replies, “Shortstop. Short’s the best position they is.” Anders is “strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.”
- News flash: Mouthy book critic shot dead in bank hold-up. What more do you need to know?