We Need Stories

on September 15, 2011


Below is my speech to the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers last weekend at their Colorado Gold Conference. Well, this is the speech that I mostly gave. After all, those who know me know that I never give the speech I intend to. However, I stuck fairly close to this, going off on maybe 3 or 4 tangents over the course of my time. It was the closing keynote, so I wanted to be optimistic and uplifting, so everyone there would want to go home and write.


We Need Stories

You’re not normal.

I’m not revealing any deep, dark secret. I think we all know we’re not like other people.

We probably relish the fact that we’re different. That we have other people talking to us, people we call characters because we can’t see them. What’s the fun in being normal when we can be unique?

I realized how . . . . um, unique . . . I was when I went to dinner with my husband a couple years ago.

It was a private dinner, with his boss and bosses wife and a couple other people. Nine of us I think. Lori, the boss’s wife, is a fan of mine and we’ve chatted on line a couple times. She asked about my research, and I’d recently toured the morgue. So I told her about the autopsy I viewed, and then about the bodies lined up in the crypt—and about why maintaining good pedicures is so important because when you’re on the gurney dead in that cold room the only thing anyone can see is your feet—and all the feet there were ugly as sin. I know, that’s mean to say of the dead, but it’s true.

I think my husband kicked me under the table a couple times before I realized that maybe my trip to the morgue wasn’t appropriate dinner table conversation.

But she’d asked.

Every writer is unique. If I gave each person in this room the same premise, we’d have hundreds of different stories. Even if I limited the type of story to a mystery, for example, every story written would be unique. Not just because some of you would write a romantic mystery, or a police procedural, or set the story in the future or on another planet or have a shape-shifting vampire as your hero, but because each and every one of you has a different voice.

That voice sets you apart from everyone at your table, everyone in this room, everyone who calls themselves a writer. Only you can write with your voice.

I think that’s pretty amazing.

It’s amazing that our stories come alive for us. That inside our mind is a complete world we’re itching to share with other people. Some people become actors, or directors, or musicians, or artists, or poets, all with the deep desire—the need—to share their stories with others, no matter what the medium. Art in all its forms defines and completes us, giving us hope and meaning. For the writer, we need to see and feel and hear the story before we can share it with our readers.

Robert Frost said, 

”No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

Or, I prefer the bluntness of Stephen King:
”If a book is not alive in the writer’s mind, it is as dead as year-old horse-shit.”

I write commercial fiction. I don’t have any pretense of changing the world with my books. My goal is to entertain. To give readers a few hours to relax, to get involved in the lives of other people, even if they are fictional characters. But even in the goal of entertaining, there is a truth in commercial fiction. That the good guys can win. That there are heroes in the world. That justice will be served. That in the fight of good versus evil, good has the edge … even if evil has the cool guns.

Even in commercial fiction, we look into the human condition and see where we fit, where we belong, and I hope connect with others through the sharing or understanding of we together face each and every day.

We need stories.

From the beginning of time, there have been stories.

Cultures thousands of years older than our own told stories. We know this not because we speak their language, but because of the remnants of their stories carved into stone.

Who would we be without stories?

Senseless blobs wandering around without any connection to each other. Sad, lonely, depressed. Hopeless.

Stories bind us. They inspire us. They scare us. They teach us. Stories separate us from all other mammals. Stories make us human.

Margaret Atwood said, “Language is one of the most primary facts of our existence.  It’s something that you say, what is human?  Well many animals have methods of communicating with one another but none of them have our kind of extremely elaborate grammar.  So it is… it’s right dead, smack in the center of what it is to be human, the ability to tell a story.  “

People turn to fictional narrative as a way to make sense of our troubled world. We don’t live for the news. Facebook and Twitter can’t satisfy our longing for human connection. In fact, we live for stories. It’s the story we turn to at the end of the day when we’re unwinding. It’s the story we crave after a hard day at work.

There’s a reason why Jesus preached in parables. People learn from stories. Do you think an entire religion could have been so popular if the Bible were written as a list of do’s and don’ts like the Ten Commandments?

I’m sure everyone here knows Margie Lawson, right? I’ve taken probably every one of her classes, and while I refuse in invest in highlighters, what I love is that she teaches through story. She shares snippets of stories to illustrate her point. And then I get that “aha!” moment and no longer feel guilty that I didn’t dissect my scene. (As an aside, I once dissected my opening chapter. Margie might have dared me to do it, I don’t remember. It didn’t kill me. ‘Nuff said.)

Stories are used to teach, to inspire, to share. But stories also seek questions as much as they seek answers.

Author Barbara Keiler said, ““What if?” is the portal through which readers enter a work of fiction.  It is the key that unlocks our imagination.”

By exploring that question, the “what if,” we can discover important truths our own lives, our values and our connection to the world. Only though asking questions can we find the answers.

Stories are like the force. To re-write a great line, “”The Story is what gives a Person his power. It’s an energy field created by all storytellers. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the world together.

(Yes, I added that line after Lawdon’s simile awards last night. I couldn’t help it.)

Either we need fiction to keep us human, or because our lives are truly boring. J Maybe a little of both.

Stephen King said, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.””

Why do we watch the same movie over and over again? Think about your feel-good movie. The movie you never tire of watching. The movie you stick in the DVD player when you’re feeling disconnected or just not yourself. The one that always gets you back to who you are.

For me, there are several movies that make me feel good or that I enjoy. I have seen Star Wars a hundred times. French Kiss is my favorite romantic comedy. And I’m a sucker for Pixar movies like Toy Story which are, in essence, about friendship. But the one movie that really hits me each and every time is It’s a Wonderful Life. Because it reminds me, usually when I need it the most, that we are all connected. That we don’t know how many lives we touch on a daily basis, who we help, those small things we do that we don’t think about. The choice to open the door for an elderly woman that may have given her faith in chivalry when she had lost hope. The smile we give to a co-worker who, unbeknownst to us, just found out her mother is ill. The note we write one day for our child and stick in their lunchbox—something we haven’t done since the first day of kindergarten—that gets them through a fight with their best friend.

It’s the story of It’s a Wonderful Life that touches me, reminds me that it is the small things that are greater than the whole, and I think it’s something I need to hear often. If someone tells me that small things matter, it doesn’t connect. But in the context of a story that draws me in through both thought and emotion, I know this.

Stories touch people.

Think about the books you have re-read the most. The books on your keeper shelf. The titles that, just by looking at them, remind you of the story within and you remember something you need to remember to help you get through the day. Think of the power of the story when all you need is the memory of how you felt when you read it to inspire you. Wow.

Psychiatrist Lewis Madrona, at the end of a long article about how the brain processes stories so we avoid insanity and dysfunction, explained why human beings need stories.

“Many equally valid stories exist to explain “how things are” and “how things work”. None are privileged. The criterion for acceptance should be, “does it work now, here in this place, for what we need?” Stories that continue to work remain. Stories that stop working disappear. We need stories because we are nothing but story. Story is the sum total of all that we are and all that we make and all of our interactions. We are dramas unfolding. We are tragedies and comedies. We are explanations from many perspectives.”

But writing is more than explanations. If stories are both thought and feeling, the reader is as important in the story as the writer. Leo Tolstoy said, “Art is not a handicraft.  It is the transmission of a feeling which the artist has experienced.”

The reader needs to be receptive to the workings of the story. The reader is as responsible as the writer. And that’s why stories that touch upon common, human themes are those that truly resonate.

A wonderful historical romance writer, the #1 NYT bestselling Stephanie Laurens, once said that the reader is just as important as the author. The reader brings her emotions and baggage and thoughts to the story when she sits down to read. And sometimes, the reader doesn’t connect with the book. Stephanie says they’re having a bad reading day. J

You are a storyteller, but sometimes even the best storytellers struggle in their pursuit of publication. Every published author has been rejected. I have. Dozens—hundreds—of times. Even after publication, you can be rejected. Your proposal for the next book might not be what they want. Or the reviewers slam you. Or your critique group, or spouse, or parents. There is always someone who takes the joy out of what you love to do.

Mark Twain said, “Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe that you too can become great.”

But even more than that, you need to realize that your strength doesn’t come from others, it comes from within.

“You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like.”
Phyllis A. Whitney

Athletes are a lot like writers. In fact, with five kids in sports, I know a lot of athletes. There are those who play for fun, and those who play because they couldn’t do anything else.

Take our star athlete who graduated last year—and was drafted by the Blue Jays to pitch. My oldest daughter Katie danced with him for a choir performance–this is a kid who is the biggest jokester in the school, but when he has to learn something focuses so completely on it and takes it so seriously, that failure is not an option. Katie said after he made her stay late to practice, “I know why Brady is the so good in sports. He hates to screw up.”


That focus and passion for success is what drives athletes. Competition is part of it, they want to win, but winning is the outward goal. Just like publication is the outward goal for writers.

Now, everyone thinks they can write. It’s so easy, anyone can put a book up on Amazon and sell a hundred copies. But we’re not only writers. Nearly anyone can learn to write. We are storytellers, and there is a big difference.

Who in this room HASN’T had someone tell them, “If I only had the time, I too could write a book.”

I swear, I want to shoot the next person who tells me that. I’ll bet it’ll happen by the end of the week. I hear it all the time, and I’m tired of being gracious and saying something like, “I’m sure you could,” or even something a little snide like, “Well, you have to make the time.” Because honestly? They can’t write a book. If they could they would have already done it. Because that’s what writers do—we write. We can’t not write. We are sharing stories, not just putting words on paper. In many ways, the words are secondary to the story. The words tell the story, but it’s the story that matters.

That makes us different in the eyes of the world, those who think they can, but really can’t.

As Morpheus said to Neo, “Don’t think you are, know you are.”

Don’t think you can write, know you can write.

Isn’t it sad for all those normal people who don’t understand the fun of the “What if” game? Or people who ask us where we get our ideas? If they have to ask, they have no idea the difference between writing and storytelling.

There really are people who look at a man with a briefcase and see a man with a briefcase, instead of what we see.

A terrorist with a bomb. An undercover cop with a wire waiting to pay a ransom. A lawyer with divorce papers in the briefcase on his way to get his client’s wife to sign, only to realize when he gets there that he was the other man who caused the break-up in the first place. An unemployed salesman on his way to a job interview, desperate because his sister is dying and he has agreed to provide for her three children, but he was just fired . . .

So when people tell me they, too could write a book, if only they had the time, I just give a half-smile and nod and mentally think, what a dumbass.

Your writing voice is truly unique, and when you discover it, you should celebrate it and protect it with everything you have. Your voice is what makes you amazing. It gives your stories passion that draws your readers in and satisfies them at the end.

Henry Miller called writers people with antennas who are tuned into the cosmos and draw out ideas. Natalie Goldberg said our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experiences and make stories from the decomposition of food. Claude Bristol said undoubtedly, we become what we envisage.

Does that make Henry a space alien or Natalie a pile of decomposing trash? What are you?

It’s not easy. Who said it would be? Honestly, anything worth having isn’t easily achieved. You need to work for it, want it, sacrifice for it.

Athletes sacrifice. Their bodies. Their time. And very often, their ego. They need to get those hundred free throws in a row or start over at zero. And they hate it and love it at the same time.

Stephen King once said, “No, it’s not a very good story. Its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside.”

We need stories to know we’re not alone. Stories tell us what we do and how we live and, sometimes, why. Stories complete us.

You are a vital part of the human experience. I would even go so far as to say that without storytellers, humanity would be far worse off today. Without people like you sharing your creativity, your unique truth, your vision, your experience, your take on life and nature and the human condition, society would cease to exist. It doesn’t matter whether you write literary fiction or commercial fiction or some hybrid, what matters is that you connect with other people who use their own thoughts and emotions to make sense of life through your story.

Stories are not an escape from reality. I’d argue that stories are a confirmation of reality, or our truths, and of hope. Stories strive to make sense of the world around us, preferably in an entertaining way.

You don’t need to write the Big Book that seeks to solve all questions in human existence. In fact, it’s the smaller questions and answers that truly inspire. That we are not alone. That we small acts of kindness make a big difference. That justice exists, that everyday heroes are out there, that people care.

Without stories, there would be no human society.

Anne Lamott said, “We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longer which is one reason why they write so little.”

Don’t be sheep lice.

Go write a good story.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.