When Story Is Medicine

From Writer Unboxed:

There are many different kinds of stories in this world.

Stories that stoke our curiosity with tantalizing clues and tricky plot reveals. Stories that touch our hearts with “aww, isn’t that sweet, the world isn’t a total flaming Dumpster fire” sorts of moments. Stories that linger with us for a few days, and then lift off and drift away.

There’s nothing wrong with those types of stories. But to my mind, the very best stories do more than that.

The very best stories act as medicine, delivering some emotional insight or understanding that changes who we are, on some level, and the way we operate in the world. And they stay with us much, much longer.

These types of stories often come to us at our hour of greatest need, and one came to me in 2015, when I was recovering from cancer: Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

On the surface, this novel offers a fine escape from reality: It’s a historical novel, set in the 1800s, and chronicles the life of a female botanist and her ill-fated marriage to a pious lithographer with an almost otherworldly sense of goodness about him.

For me, it was the perfect novel to read while on the mend from the surgery that, as it turned out, would save my life: immersive, transportive, funny, intellectually stimulating, and even a bit sexy at times. (It also clocks in at 500 pages, which is a great length for putting reality firmly on hold.)

But there’s a message at the heart of this novel (and my sharing this with you won’t spoil the story, because as with any story, it’s the journey, not the destination, that ultimately matters). This message is that being good, being pure of heart, being selfless and giving and kind—being all those things that women especially are taught to be—may get you into heaven but will not save you here on earth. Because here on earth, it is often the toughest that survive—the ones with the strongest will to live, the strongest love for life itself, in all its messy, earthly glory.

You can imagine how visceral this message was for me, at this time in my life. Elizabeth Gilbert gave me a great gift with that novel, and that gift was the emotional, bone-deep understanding that life is not, in fact, fair, but it is precious—and sometimes, if we want to hold onto it, we have to actually fight for it.

There’s an indigenous concept of story as medicine—the idea that the right story, at the right time, can actually heal you, in spirit and maybe even in body. For me, The Signature of All Things is such a story, and like all of the novels I’ve loved best in my life, I carry it with me, inside me, wherever I go.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed