That’s what we humans are, storytelling animals. A skill we use to distinguish ourselves from the rest of creation. We tell stories. Our dogs and our cats, our cattle and our canaries may communicate, but tell stories? Not possible.
Until we learn more—and I won’t be surprised if someday we do learn more—we might as well go with that. It’s our stories that set us apart from the rest of creation.
But why? To what end?
If we want only to teach one another, to pass on the wisdom of one generation to the next, surely we have more straightforward ways. Two plus two equals four. A butterfly emerges from a chrysalis. Mix two primary hues to create a secondary color.
And of course, we do communicate with facts and ideas, yet we keep returning to stories.
My father was a chemist, enormously intelligent, but a concrete thinker. He could not understand how I could get a college degree in literature. He asked, What is there to study?
Someone accused me once of immersing myself in fictional worlds as a substitute for living my life. The accusation hit close enough to home for me never to have forgotten it.
I remember the time on a year’s sabbatical in England that some neighbors stopped by to ask if we would go caroling with them. I hesitated. I was writing, you see. In fact, curiously enough, I was writing a story set in the Minnesota I had left behind. Fortunately, sanity prevailed and I shut down the computer and joined the caroling party.
What I remember most about that evening wasn’t offering ancient carols through the streets of an equally ancient village, though that was all quaint enough to be remembered. It was encountering a tiny, curled-up ball of an English hedgehog as we crossed a grassy field. But if I hadn’t left the story I was building behind I never would have met that hedgehog.
I’ve been in the business of making stories for enough years to have asked the question many times. Why? Apart from the not-incidental fact that stories have come to be my primary source of income, what makes them so important?
And again and again, I come up with the same answer. The stories I tell make meaning. My meaning. They take the substance of what has happened to me, the substance of fact combined with the substance of feeling, and give it significance, importance, consequence, value, worth.
I have had, as has everyone else in this world, both wonderful and terrible things happen in my life. I have had the deepest secrets of my heart warmly received. I have struggled with isolation. I have learned a skill and used it to benefit others. I have loved and been loved in return. I have watched my son die. I have seen my daughter and now my grandchildren sail into the world with confidence and strength.
And I suppose each one of these happenings could have been enough in itself, but it never seems enough to me. I am compelled to take the randomness of rewards and the certainty of loss and create significance out of them. I must take the feelings that came with dreams fulfilled and dreams shattered and make them mean something, too.
Life never comes with meaning intact, at least not in my view. Meaning doesn’t exist until we create it.
Over the years, over many, many years, I have learned that when something I have experienced plays out again in a story moment I create or when it is echoed in a story someone else has offered me, my experience takes on a more certain shape. The feelings attached to it do, too. My life is no longer random, no longer simply pleasant or unpleasant, uplifting or devastating. My life, with all its random events, all its unpredictable feelings, becomes story.
And story is meaning.