Importance of Story

If you’re a writer, the end-of-the-year holiday season can be a kind of wakeup call – stories coming at you from every direction. Stories so ingrained in our culture, we take them for granted: the birth of the Christ child, Santa Claus, A Christmas Carol, and on and on. Some of the stories are religious, some folklore, some movies, some in song. During the year, it’s easy to forget how important stories are to every human culture that has ever existed.

We know each other through story. To say a man is 6 foot 2 inches, 200 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes is to describe a million men. When you add a limp from an accident with a bear trap when he was thirteen and a broken nose from a bar-fight in Sidney, Australia, you begin to construct a story. If you have any imagination at all, you can’t help yourself. When your eight year-old daughter comes home from school and you ask her how her day was, you’re asking for the story of her life for that short period. Television news media understand the importance of story implicitly. The news anchor reads the headline: SEVEN PEOPLE DIE IN FREEWAY ACCIDENT. Then, they switch to a reporter at the scene, interviewing an onlooker or a passenger in one of the cars, for the personal story that makes it all too real.

In the first line of her essay, the White Album, Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The “we” she references is the societal “we,” the cultural collective. We are long past the stories of the caveman, the wall drawings known only to a singular group; or the stories of a tribe, passed from generation to generation through oral narrative. The stories we tell and hear now come from every nook and cranny of the earth we live on. They cross every boundary, even the ones we, as writers, sometimes seek to impose upon ourselves. A number of years ago I had a conversation with a classical violinist who lamented the decreasing number of new classical compositions. Then, I heard recordings of the London Philharmonic with Pink Floyd, and the Siegal-Schwall Blues Band with Seiji Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony. The composers were still out there. They had simply switch mediums. Likewise, many of our storytellers have moved into graphic novels and video games. It’s no accident that the best porn movies have story lines to go along with the sex.

As writers we can see the consolidation of the publishing industry, the demise of our independent small bookstores. Yet, the world still craves stories. Maybe they won’t come in the ways we have done them in the past. Maybe it’s a YouTube skit you write and get a friend with a video camera to record; or a one-act play for your child’s third grade class.
As writers, we have the same advantage as the one-eyed man in a world of blind people. We know stories. We just need to tell them in any way we can.

Copyright 2009 by Toby Heaton

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