writing life

the value of story

Confession: I’ve been dealing with some artistic jealousy lately.

I started watching the Netflix series Chef’s Table, which provides documentary-like looks into the lives and philosophies of the world’s most successful chefs. The culinary arts are fascinating to me. They’re also always in high demand. Because, well, we all have to eat.

Between jobs, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the kind of life I want to inhabit. The chefs I’ve been watching have each chosen very specific lives for themselves that support  and challenge their creativity. The heart of New York City. Modena, Italy. The ultra-remote Andes Mountains. Most can afford to do so because of the success and popularity of their art.

I think in words, not flavors. Unfortunately, creative writing isn’t very lucrative. But if I spend energy on a career in which I can support myself, in which I can be considered financially “safe,” pay rent, and eat, I find my life isn’t worth much to me. If I stop writing, I stop living.

So, if you’ll let me, I’ll just climb up here on this soapbox, for myself and for all the other artists out there who need their art to live but can’t live on their art.

Our society should value story just as much as it values food. 

Image from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Most of are probably familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Here’s a description from “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” by Saul McLeod (2016).

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

Maslow stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs and that some needs take precedence over others. Our most basic need is for physical survival, and this will be the first thing that motivates our behaviour. Once that level is fulfilled the next level up is what motivates us, and so on.

The world you belong to, you reading these words online from an easily accessible electronic device, has a fairly stable base. You’ve achieved the first levels of Maslow’s needs: physiological (food [though maybe not the level of cuisine on Chef’s Table], water, shelter, rest) and safety. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have achieved a sense of social belonging. If you’re REALLY lucky, esteem.

But I doubt any of us have dominated the pinnacle of the pyramid: self-actualization, realizing, becoming, and achieving the best version of yourself.

In this part of our journeys, story is crucial. It can help us navigate toward self-actualization, or keep us from it.

Here’s an example.

All my life, I read (and watched) stories full of characters who inspired me. People like Robin Hood, King Arthur, heroes, who fought for what was right, stood up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves, faced and defeated evil. In my most formative stories, none of the female characters were appealing. They had boring or minimal roles, were defined by their sexual activity (Maid Marian), or did things I couldn’t get behind, like cheat on King Arthur. Who does that?

As I grew from a girl to a teen to a woman, I devoured story after story and never found a definitive female character I could fully identify with. I didn’t realize how much this had hurt me until I saw the new Wonder Woman movie.

Diana is educated. She is wise. She doesn’t allow herself to be sexualized, ignored, or talked over. She is physically, mentally, emotionally, and morally strong. Secure in her abilities and identity. Not only does she fearlessly go to war against evil, she leads others into the fray. Her strength begets strength. Her power is shared, and doesn’t diminish anyone.

During that foxhole sequence, I experienced what I can only compare to a psychological breakthrough, what one might go through in a productive therapy session. Something deep inside me recognized her. FINALLY, my heart screamed. HERE she is. THIS is who I want to be. Word for word, move for move. This is everything I needed, need, will need. I cried a lot. Every woman I’ve talked to who has seen this movie also cried. Every single woman.

That’s the value of story. We find belonging. Choose what kind of person we want to be. We travel to places we’ve never seen, meet characters we’d never otherwise encounter. The ones we sympathize with and the ones we despise give us a sense of where we belong, who we are, and who we want to be.

When story isn’t valued, when the payday is more important than the art, we get used-up, washed-out books, plays, musicals, and movies that give us the same four or five options. We get brainwashed, almost, into believing this is all life is. This is all we could aspire to. The blushing bride. The lonely old maid. The wicked witch. The stressed mother. Throw a couple of stock characters together, make a few billion dollars. It’s irresponsible at best, reprehensible at worst.

Story is also the means by which we share our experiences. It helps us understand our existence, our identities, and our choices. It is so important. Maybe the most important.

I read a biography of Oscar Wilde once called Built of Books. I believe I can claim that I, too, have grown as a result of the stories I have read, been told, watched. Whether I like it or not. I’m still wrestling to understand the part story has played in my life, and how I want it to function in the rest of it. Why, when someone dismisses my recap of a novel with, “Oh, that’s just a story. It didn’t really happen,” that all of me wants to scream back, “It still matters!”

Writer Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) has thought a lot more about this than I have. I’ll leave you with a few quotes from him.

Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth.

Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

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