Storytelling: The power of fiction

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A book is one-to one experience. A secret you share. And when you close the book it leaves an opening in you

Jeanette Winterson

When I was a teenager in English Class at school, I remember hearing a short story about a family at night: The kids have gone to bed, the mum is tidying round, the dad is drying the dishes. Mum then goes to check on the children. When she comes back, she says:

‘Are you sure they don’t know anything?’

Dad hangs up his tea towel, puts his arms around her and says:

‘Yes. I am sure.’

They turn off the lights and go to bed, knowing that the world will end that night.

At the end of the reading, the teacher said, ‘Now, it’s your turn, what would you do if the world was going to end tonight?’

A classroom full of teenagers’ responses, strangely enough, I don’t remember, but the story I do. So much so that 20 or so years on, often when I am in kitchen loading the dishwasher or putting dishes away, I think about that story. And I also remember that era, when the threat of nuclear war and the end of the world seemed to be a real possibility.

Recently, in a review in the TLS, Martha Naussbaum says the English novel was a social protest movement from its inception, written specifically to creating feeling amongst the wealthier classes. She cites Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, and the empathy-altruism hypothesis – the work of social psychologist C. Daniel Batson – which demonstrates that specific ways of storytelling can motivate people to help those in need in a way that facts and figures cannot.

There are so many examples of powerful storytelling. Sitting here, I think of Toni Morrison’s description of the tree-shaped scars on the back of Sethe, the runaway slave who murders her children rather than have them be enslaved and whipped (Beloved). I think of concentration camp inmate Victor Frankl’s non-fiction account of how he was told to rub his cheeks each morning so that he would look healthy enough to work and avoid being sent to the gas chambers that day (Man’s Search for Meaning). I read both books just once, yet the stories they contain will remain with me forever. They changed my perception of the world and my historical understanding of the times and places in which these stories were set.

Fictional journalism or creative non-fiction, is a field of writing which has developed from factual reporting to a more subjective slant precisely because it recognises the power of storytelling and the power to influence readers’ opinion. So much so, that according to Wikipedia, Joan Didion, the famous new fiction writer believes, that the media tells us how to live and that journalists must be closely observed because of the power they wield. In the same way, storytelling is often used in advertising to create an emotional reaction in potential customers, and we believe these stories: We will be sexier, happier, healthier if we buy that new car, or that big chocolate ice-cream. Stories can be incredibly influential and not always in a good way.

Fictional fact-presentation such as case studies or descriptions of individuals in medical journals can be powerful in a good way. Ones I have read about chronic renal failure, were presented alongside facts and figures, and in a sidebar described how someone born without working kidneys could grow through dialysis onto transplant and into ‘normal’ life.

The same goes for the breast cancer literature I have read. Individual stories of women and men from diagnosis through treatment were highlighted throughout the pamphlets and presented a pattern of how to manage and what to expect. They were like signposts indicating the way through a journey.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell said in life, often we are not searching for the meaning of life necessarily, but for the experience of being alive and how to understand it. As in the medical literature, stories can be our guide. They can explain things to us, things that we might know subconsciously, but which we only really appreciate once we have read them in stories or myths. Stories highlight patterns which we can follow like landmarks on the horizon and enable us to make our way to a more satisfactory life.

Other times, stories can inspire us to be truly great. Campbell encapsulates this theory in his best known quotation Follow your bliss. He says that we are capable of knowing and experiencing rapture and bliss but sometimes we just don’t know how. Stories, again can be our guiding star and they enable us to realise our potential, gain wisdom, or live fuller and better lives.

Sometimes stories tap deep into our psyche and give us the answers to questions we didn’t even know we were asking.

The key though, is to find the right story, the stories which resonate with us, the ones which change us, and the ones which make us want to change the world. Otherwise, as Campbell once joked, we might end up just following our blisters.