1 February 2020
Can stories really make the world a better place? Maybe. Just maybe.
Most writers dream of telling stories as compellingly as Scheherazade in 1001 Nights. Author and global bestseller Philip Pullman prefaces his His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000) with the words, ‘Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories we wouldn’t be human beings at all.’ By which he means we are unique among the universe’s bio-matter in our capacity and drive for communicating stories. Psychotherapist and narratologist (someone who studies stories) Hugh Crago, suggests this drive springs from the power of stories to entrance us, to absorb the reader completely. But why should it be that we so desire this entrancement that we return again and again to reading and indeed writing stories? Because, Crago further suggest, the experience of being entranced by story often results in a sense that we know more than we did before. We discover stories so that they can help us discover ourselves.
Stories jerk us out of complacency, waken empathy where there’s disinterest, provide a blanket on a cold night. They can send us out with fire in our belly or love in our heart. Stories also have a habit of giving birth to multitudes of other stories. It is said that there are no more than seven stories and that may well be true but through the ages these reappear in many forms. They are adapted, reimagined, de-familiarised and retold again and again for new generations, reflecting new interests and values, via fan fiction and fan art multimodal adaptation such as when the story of a novel is adapted to film, or radio or when a film or TV series is made into a book.
The way stories travel today is unprecedented. They overarch our online profiles, represent us in our professions, scope out the viability of our love life, and burrow their way into our downtime. Touching every part of our waking and sleeping lives. The internet itself is a vast archive of constantly shifting narrative sands, from individuals to global corporations, everyone eager to persuade you of the truth of their own narratives, and artfully deploying traditional storytelling skills to do so. Power today, we are told, lays in the hand of the influencer but it is in their skill for presenting particular narratives where the real power lies. To influence is to engage and convince. At least for time enough for us to suspend our disbelief and go along with the ride (or part with some money). And as we accept how fact is increasingly blurred with fiction at the level of so many important discourses, political, environmental, global, gender, race it’s sometimes hard to know how to respond or upon what solid ground to put your foot down next.
The American journalist Joan Didion, known for her stylised cadence and fragmented mosaic style of storytelling, famously said, ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’ (The White Album, 1979). But stories in fact not only enable us to endure the lives we have but move toward ones we’d like to live. They possess a kind of magic that we need to believe in to transform what is into what could be. Gifting us the ability to shape our destinies and act with hope for a better future. If we want, like Scheherazade, to transform a murderer into a lover, which I think most of us probably do, we need to write those kind of stories and keep writing. Then there’s a chance we might all be saved, or at least look optimistically towards a better future.
By Sarah Gibson Yates, Creative Writing Doctorate Researcher, Senior Lecturer and Course Leader for BA (Hons) Film Studies and Media Studies
Sarah’s PhD novel, written for young adults, explores the tragic consequences of one girl’s attempt to rewrite her life using the narrative spaces of online platforms.