It can be easy in these days of doubtful facts, deliberate deceit, and dubious truth, to worry about the value of storytelling. Our politicians threaten narrative; our fractured world can do the same. Even when it comes to the writing of creative nonfiction—that genre that deals in facts—we may be tempted to question the value of a story well-told. The lyric impulse has invited forms that rely on fragmentation, association, contemplation, juxtaposition, wordplay. Practitioners explode narrative. Many find story to be suspect, oft times even tyrannical, because it forces a logic and a causality that our contemporary world often lacks. David Shields, in his manifesto, Reality Hunger, says, “Story seems to say that everything happens for a reason, and I want to say, No, it doesn’t.” I once told one of my MFA students who loved working with the lyric essay that I was going to get her a tee-shirt with the word, “Narrative” on it. Without missing a beat, she said, “I’d take scissors and cut holes in it.”
To me, narrative has always been a method of thinking and a means of exploration. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, I’ve always embraced story as a useful strategy for discovering what I think and feel and for learning what I’ve come to the page to say. In this age where so much threatens the efficacy of narrative, we have to hold faith in the art of storytelling. We have to see that the threat isn’t merely to the story itself, but to we, the tellers. We have to be aware of those who would wish to take from us our individual, particular stories, and to put into place a more controlled account that tries to eliminate our right to think and feel for ourselves.“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion says. Indeed, stories are our way of protecting the fact that individual lives matter.
I find this quote from the German philosopher, literary critic, and essayist, Walter Benjamin, applicable to our current political situation: “Every morning brings us news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event comes to us without being already shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information.” Bearing witness as he did to Hitler’s rise in Nazi Germany, Benjamin knew that those who controlled the facts ultimately controlled the story, which presumably led him to say, “The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic slice of truth, wisdom, is dying out.”
I hope the art of storytelling isn’t reaching its end because I believe in the necessity of narrative to a life well-lived and a world well-considered. I believe that story invites us to interrogate, to think, to feel, to shape, to acknowledge our common imperfections and our mutual desires and fears. Story reminds us of our shared humanity. “Stories have to be told,” novelist Sue Monk Kidd, says, “or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” I dare say there are those today who would want us to forget the self and an individual’s right to assert a place in the world. We desperately need storytellers these days because, as film director, Jean-Luc Godard, says, “Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” Our reality these days is more complex than perhaps ever before in our history, and the future of independent thought ultimately depends upon our retaining our right to shape the chaos of that reality. We have to keep telling our stories. That telling may be the only thing that can save us. I choose to hold to the claim of Margaret Atwood: “You’re never going to kill storytelling because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.”