I once had an adult writing student who had devoted her adolescent years to a journal. She wrote tens of thousands of words. Not an unusual scenario, except for one thing. Her journal wasn’t a recording of her own life. Instead she journaled through a character she had made up!
Where does this compulsion come from, the desire to step outside of our own skins and inhabit another’s? For what purpose are we storytelling animals?
I have heard many declarations about what distinguishes humans from the “lower” animals: for example language, tool making, bonding that can’t be explained away as genetic self-preservation. Again and again, however, our presumed human superiority centered on that named skill is cast into doubt.
Wolves communicate with one another in remarkably complex and subtle ways. So do dolphins. And what about the honeybee’s dance? Ravens devise and use tools. Primates do, as well. And how many stories have we heard about deep bonding between two creatures not even related by species let alone genetics? My picture book A MAMA FOR OWEN, for instance, is the real-life story of an orphaned baby hippo adopted by an ancient male tortoise.
But storytelling? We seem to stand alone in our use of and devotion to that skill.
What then is the purpose of story in human lives?
Distraction? If we were to find our answer to that question solely in the stories appearing on our television screens, distraction would seem primary. And there is certainly an element of looking away from our own lives when we immerse ourselves in story. That’s as true about our fascination with gossip as it is in our longtime devotion to Shakespeare. But there is surely more.
Our Puritan forebears forbad all fiction, saying it presented lies, though they based their lives on the “true” stories in the Bible. And yet what they didn’t recognize—and what some evaluating children’s literature don’t understand even today—is that story, for all its artifice, is always based on truth. It’s based on its creator’s truth which may be different than the truth of the reader, but the intent of every story is to convey a vision of the world as true.
ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN has been banned frequently and for a wide variety of reasons. Once it was banned because Huck steals and lies, not a proper role model for the young. Now it is banned for its used of the N-word despite the deep challenges it offers our views on race. Perhaps more rightly it should have been banned for the last century and a quarter because it upends an entire belief system. Huck knows because it is what he has been taught that he will go to hell for going against law and custom to help Jim escape. And yet when he does this “sinful” thing, accepting what he assumes will be eternal punishment, we know he has done right. Can you imagine a more powerful indictment of a society’s rock-solid teachings?
So story teaches truth. At least it teaches a truth, and we are left, if we are thinking beings, to decide our own truth for ourselves. Our Puritan forebears knew what they were talking about. Fiction is a dangerous proposition.
But stories are not just a means of conveying ideas any more than they are merely distraction. They do something else even more powerfully. Stories, quite without our consent, create empathy.
They pull us in to live in another skin, another gender, another culture, even another time.
Separately and equally profoundly, they allow us to discover ourselves.
Now that function of story is truly subversive because it happens on so deep a level that it can’t be challenged. Stories change our feelings about ourselves, about the world.
And yet we are drawn again and again into story’s powerful vortex. We are drawn because empathy is something our very souls demand.
And that, I believe, is precisely why we are storytelling animals.