Stories Will Save You

From Writer Unboxed:

Stories Will Save You. Early in the pandemic I wrote these words on a yellow sticky note and stuck it on the wall above my desk, where I see it often. At the time I wrote that note, I thought writing stories would save me during a difficult time in my life. Instead, stories written by other people saved me. I realized that a critical part of being a good writer is understanding that stories are an important teacher—for both author and reader. Stories can show us how to act (or not act), how to confront our own discomforts, how to better understand ourselves, other people, the world around us, and our place in it. As writers, I think most of us are aware of how the act of writing helps us figure things out, but it’s helpful to remember that the stories we tell do this for others. Storytelling is our superpower.

Why do stories have so much power to save us, and how does that work? Some of the stories that saved me over these past 18 months include The Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead; Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell; the BBC series ShetlandGrey’s Anatomy; and Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, among many others. Here’s what I learned:

There is a big, wide world out thereThe Great Circle took me on a journey from Antarctica to Montana, Alaska, Seattle, and London during WWII. Cooped up in my pandemic-imposed semi-quarantine, with my travel limited to trips to the grocery store, I relished reading about and imagining far-flung places, and adventures as varied as working as a battlefield illustrator or circumnavigating the globe in a small plane. That world is real, I thought, and I will be able to jump into it again one day.

Everyone has a story. It’s easy to spend too much time in our own heads, narrating our own lives. The best stories have a wide cast of characters, whose personalities and choices and successes and heartbreaks are as unique as they are. Some of the characters in the stories I devoured drove me crazy, some made me laugh, the best ones made me recognize pieces of myself or pieces of the people I’m closest to. And with that recognition comes some insight and understanding.

Everyone suffers. This is obvious. But if you’re suffering, it can be enormously helpful to remember other people are suffering, too. I started watching (okay, binge-watching) Grey’s Anatomy, a TV series I missed when it debuted in 2005 because I was working full-time and had young kids and don’t remember having time to watch anything. Sure, it’s a television medical drama, so there’s significantly more drama (hopefully) than in my life or yours. But the characters—all surgeons and physicians— have to deal daily with grief, loss, danger, fear, and things that can’t be fixed. This is real life, just more intense and condensed into a shorter time period. The novel Hamnet has one of the most searing and accurate depictions of grief I’ve ever encountered, as Shakespeare’s wife mourns the loss of their young son. We are not alone is a welcome feeling when life is a struggle.

We are small pieces in a great, big puzzle. One of my favorite quotes in literature is from My Antonia: “At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” Again, it’s a helpful reminder that the universe is vast and varied, that life holds infinite surprises, that today’s heartache may lead to tomorrow’s new beginning. The best stories transport us out of ourselves and into an awareness of all that.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed