“The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in your head.”— Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried)
Why write or read stories? Why, for that matter, dance? Why make banana bread? Nothing makes sense and everything does.
As I’ve been exploring fiction and fiction writing, questions about its purpose emerge. Some people don’t understand why deal with fiction at all? After all, isn’t nonfiction and instruction manuals all we need? No. We are built for stories. I once lived in Denmark, and I visited a recreated Viking village. Vikings lived in huts with their animals, and they spent their dark, cold winters huddled around a fire where they told and retold stories. That’s how the Viking sagas were passed down.
Go to the primitive cave walls in France. There you’ll see stories on the walls, cave paintings that told stories about their lives. Telling and listening to stories is in our DNA. We need stories to live. We only have this one life, so we love to watch the lives and mistakes of other people and learn from them.
Not too long ago, when we had Blockbuster stores as prevalent as wild dogs, one Friday evening my local Blockbuster had a line that stretched around the entire inside of the store. Joining the line, I asked people why they were there. “Entertainment,” said one person. “I like good movies,” said another. I said, “Me, too.” I realized, though, when we’re searching for the “best” movies—or books or plays or videogames or any narrative form—subconsciously we’re looking for the truth of life.
Last year, according to a Bowker’s study, 61% of all books sold were fiction and made up 51% of all book revenue. Marketing Charts says that 84% of all female readers read fiction each year, and 73% of male readers do. Stories help us.
Loving fiction led me, in part, to teaching college English and creative writing. I hated English classes in high school and most of college. It was only after one brilliant teacher encouraged my writing that I stumbled onto a passion and a career, and now I feel I'm returning the favor. My goal isn't to create a legion of fiction writers, screenwriters, or playwrights but simply to show people that, hey, reading can be incredible—and writing is something you can do.
What writing can do for those who read it
I don't try to cover any historical period of English literature. I only want people to discover that reading fiction can be an experience. What kind of experience? That was my single question on one of my final tests after we had spent the semester reading The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason, and “Soldier's Home” by Ernest Hemingway, among other pieces. The Vietnam War was our main subject, and the stories, all fiction, nonetheless reflected certain truths. What follows are some of the thoughts by the students.
“Many history books talk about history as if it were some kind of game with written rules; this is way wrong. History involves people, and you can't talk in just facts and numbers. History isn't an exact science,” wrote Gil. “With Vietnam, not a lot of us knew what it was like to be there, to wake up everyday into this terror, to walk around the woods with the feeling your next step may be your last. Stories bring us the cultures we never had a chance to be a part of, and they give us an opportunity to live the lives we never had. Stories are the least we can make for the next generations; stories are the most we can give the world.”
I like that. Gil is suggesting stories are both an obligation and a gift. He makes a good point, as does Jose: “After reading The Things They Carried, I asked myself, 'How would I handle being sent to a war I did not believe in or did not want to fight in?' How would I handle facing the prospect of my death? Am I ready? We are all going to die—me, you, the whole class—but if we begin to discuss it openly, many would probably feel uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable just thinking about it. These were young men full of romantic notions, carrying guns, fear, anger…and the possibility of death. In life, everything is temporary, even life.”
Yes. We are just temporary. Are we meant to buy X number of fruit baskets from Harry and David online, then call it a life? “I shop, therefore I am?” Who knows—maybe. Good fiction has us consider these things. You must realize, there is no one answer. Jose walked into class the first day worried he was not “a writer.” He was just trying to figure out how he was going to make it through the semester, and he left with rich thoughts. Writing and reading helps a person think.
“When you are able to write believably, your reader will fall gracefully into your story, awaiting the next twist,” wrote Lori on the final. “If you don't believe in your own story, don't expect anyone else to. This confidence can only come from experience.” Further in the paper, she added, “I can't express the shock I felt as O'Brien shared his inner struggle in [hisNew York Times article] 'The Vietnam in Me.' He expressed his suicidal thoughts so vividly that I found his instability alarming, much as people must have felt when Hemingway took his own life. Men with such talent and so much torment: truly eye-opening.”
Lori ended her paper with a poetic image of her own: “The journey through literature is a solo flight.”
Tim O'Brien in The Things They Carried speaks of story, too. He writes, “Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future.”
I encourage you all to read, if not write, stories. Make spirits in the head. Join the past to the future.
Christopher Meeks teaches at Santa Monica College and the Art Center College of Design. His latest novel Love at Absolute Zerotells, with humor, the truth of love in our lives and the absurd things we do for it.