Trust your heart, and trust your story.
-Neil Gaiman, “Instructions”
I am fascinated by storytelling and the idea that we all have an implicit right to tell stories. Not only do we have the right, but in some cases, I believe we have an obligation to tell stories. I don’t throw these words around lightly. Rights are inalienable and cannot be taken away from you. They cannot be (or, should not be) voted upon and they cannot be taken away from you. Obligations are inherent to our roles in society and community, both on the microcosm scale of family and the greatest macrocosm scale of the world.
It is your right to tell stories. Stories come from the happiest places and the darkest places and everywhere in between. We see stories coming out of the saddest, darkest places on earth–from gulags, and prison camps, from girls held for decades as sex slaves, from genocide survivors, from victims of domestic abuse, from disaster survivors.
It is your obligation to tell stories if you carry a story within you that has the power to change the path of another person’s life. If your experience could save, or help, or change someone else’s experience, I believe that you have to share that experience (storytelling) in some form or another. The key here is that you don’t have to write a giant book, go on Oprah, and do a speaking tour. But do something: make a piece of art, write a song, tell a family member, write a book and hide your experience within a character’s experience, or submit a postcard to Postsecret. If only one person reads or sees or hears or experiences your story, you have fulfilled your obligation.
“I used to think that mental illness had clear answers, that you could take it apart like an IKEA desk and spread the pieces out neatly on the floor. Now, I’m not so sure. What I do know is that stories are powerful, and the right one can make the difference between coming back from the underworld and getting consumed by it. The right story can act like a torn map or a candlestub: imperfect, but maybe just enough to light the way.”
-Hilary T. Smith, author of WILD AWAKE, in a blog post on writing mental illness.
Moreover, the stories we experience in our daily lives are ours. Whatever you experience, you own. You can use it however we want because, as it’s often said, ‘perception is reality’. A hundred people can experience the same thing and everyone comes away with a slightly different story and that’s the beauty of the human experience. That’s why there will never be too many stories about love and death and survival and beating the odds. It’s why those stories are our favorites.
We’re often told as writers, “Write what you know” which is both true and untrue at the same time. If we only wrote what we knew and could prove, then science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction wouldn’t exist. The best books I’ve read in the last fifteen years wouldn’t be imaginable. Harry Potter wouldn’t have changed children’s literature. Ender’s Game wouldn’t be a work of art (we’re ignoring the author and his insane worldview for the time being). Wrinkle in Time wouldn’t have changed my life.
In Divergent by Veronica Roth, Tris goes through a fear simulation in which she is attacked by crows. When Four, her teacher, walks her back to the dorms and calms her down, he tells her that her fears aren’t exactly what they appear to be in the simulation and says, “Well, are you really scared of crows?” She isn’t. What she’s afraid of is losing control under the duress of the attack.
Similarly, when we’re told “write what you know”, we’re not literally writing what we know. We hide our stories, the truth of our stories, in other stories. We’re all storytellers, no matter what art medium we use, and we use fairytales and fables and symbolism and metaphor to tell the central kernel of truth. So write what you know, but write it however you want it.
You’re a storyteller. It’s your right, your obligation, your craft, your world. Do with it what you will.
Links on Storytelling and Craft:
Everything on On Being with Krista Trippett tagged for Storytelling (I love EVERYTHING she does)
There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.
—Ursula K. LeGuin
That’s your random post of the day!