Where Stories Come From—And Why They Matter
— Loose thoughts on creative writing and the human search for meaning —
The coming weeks will find me deep in the throes of composing a new novel—always a damn complicated process. While it’s my life’s passion, it’s not constantly enjoyable by any means. Working up a manuscript is as reliably dispiriting and uplifting an undertaking as anything I know. It’s what they call a labor of love.
I perform this labor because I believe in story. I want, in my own humble way, to be a steward of story.
But why? Why should anyone care to write stories? Or read them? What use are they? These are useful questions, and I tend to think their answers touch upon certain important truths about the human soul.
There’s a peculiar experience that the American writer Wendell Berry beautifully describes as: “the intimacy the mind makes with the place it awakens in.” My own intellectual and creative life began in Northern California, in the great shadow of Mount Diablo. For all my fondness toward the mountain and its surrounding country, I never suspected I’d set a book there. Still, Diablo exerted a mythic force in my imagination, and I ended up publishing a novel in which the mountain appears as a primary character.
I never intended to write about my own locale because, I guess, I thought that setting a novel at home was like aiming for nothing higher than to get one’s name printed in the high school paper. But then I discovered the works of John Steinbeck.
With his talent for evincing the mythic resonance of his native California — which he did most powerfully in his book East of Eden – Steinbeck helped me to see the potential for universality that lay in the land and history of my own Diablo Valley.
In a letter of 1933, well before he’d started East of Eden, Steinbeck said of his native Salinas:
I would like to write the story of this whole valley, of all the little towns and all the farms and ranches in the wilder hills. I can see how I would like to do it so that it would be the valley of the world.
Reading this, it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, my mountain stand for the mountain of the world. And so I wrote a strange little book about a boy growing up in a 19th-century coal-mining town in the foothills of Mount Diablo. And I strove to make it a story about something more than this boy, or his neighborhood coal mines, or his local mountain — a story about things that would prove much more relevant and familiar to readers anywhere.
To some, this sort of storytelling equates to “provincialism” or “regionalism.” I find both terms demeaning, for they insinuate “quaint” or “boring.” In fact, I suspect that Steinbeck himself often comes in for unreasonable bruising (his fiercest detractors argue that he did not deserve his Nobel honors) largely because he dared to set the greater number of his novels and stories in a provincial corner of the western United States. Worse, he had the impertinence to handle this provincial setting, the drama of its denizens, as if it were the whole universe, or at least a clear microcosm of some universal experience. The nerve!
Despite the crabbing of cynical critics, Steinbeck understood, as have many important writers, how stories rooted in the local go back to the earliest artistic proclivities of humankind — and he believed in the artistic value of tapping into those old narrative roots. He knew that this kind of storytelling is essentially an expression of mankind’s mythologizing tendencies. (Oftentimes, “regional” fiction, or stories of “place,” consciously follow mythological patterns. Thus, East of Eden restages the Book of Genesis in the Salinas Valley, seeking to elevate the setting, magnify its overtones, and make it resonate with people everywhere.)
Recently, the writer Barry Lopez remarked:
It is not necessary, in fact I think it is rare, that a story teller or a writer be a wise person. What is essential is that the writer be able to create a trustworthy pattern, a pattern in the modern idiom that serves the reader in her effort to remember who she is, and where she is going.
For ages, human beings have told one another stories, and these stories have sought to address the mysteries of existence — such mysteries as, for example: how we human beings happen to find ourselves plunked down on earth without warning, without previous consultation concerning whether we’d like such an experience, and certainly without any instruction booklet.
What is that experience all about, ask our most enduring stories? What’s the meaning of it all? What’s the significance of arriving here, living a while, and eventually going back to nonexistence?
For everybody, life can seem somewhat arbitrary at times (or on a daily basis for some). Science hints at explanations in terms of astronomy, geology, physics, etc. — but only in those terms, which are causal terms, and which remain fragmentary because they do not address the nagging human need, in all of us, to glimpse the Meaning Of It All.
Meanwhile, we have religion and stories, the modes by which human beings have addressed these mysteries for a very long time. And much contemporary fiction and autobiography is in fact an integral part of our age-old mythmaking process.
In an essay entitled “The Sense of Place,” another great California writer, Wallace Stegner, discussed the restlessness of modern America, and suggested that it causes us a spiritual danger, for it makes us “mythless,” i.e., storyless:
Always hopeful of something better, hooked on change, a lot of us have never stayed in one place long enough to learn it, or have learned it only to leave it. In our displaced condition we are not unlike the mythless man Carl Jung wrote about, who lives ‘like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet with contemporary human society.’
But in reading stories (the best, most lasting ones — and particularly those firmly grounded in place, be it our own or somebody else’s) we orient ourselves toward mythology again. Indeed, I believe there is a very ceremonial quality to a good story — in the way it can furnish us with a sense of spiritual expansion, ennoblement, humility, empathy, inspiration — or even provocation.
I would even say that stories are, in a sense, sacred – not least because they offer (as no other forum does — not institutionalized religion nor politicized scholarship) a chance to engage with, dwell upon, challenge, be challenged by, things not immediately universal: the Taboo, the Other, the Unorthodox, the Inscrutable, the Mysterious, the Hard-To-Swallow, sometimes the Hard-To-Sympathize-With.
Stories are sacred not because they propound theories, ideas, or morals — but because they invite reflection, evoke a long gaze, and thereby illuminate the common truths of certain human dilemmas, desires, or even failures.
Following the publication of my first novel, I was asked in an interview to comment on my literary influences and to offer an opinion about critic Harold Bloom’s notion that most writers struggle against an “anxiety of influence.”
While I usually wince to be reminded of my own answers to questions regarding my work, I find I’m surprisingly satisfied, years later, with what I said in this instance:
I have very little anxiety about being influenced… I guess I tend to view literature as a collective celebration of sorts, in which the strengths of one generation or school are freely hailed or reincarnated or played upon in another. I think that to fear influence is to let the electrical currents of art, cross-generational and cross-categorical, go astray, instead of harnessing them and letting them galvanize new work in powerful ways. I guess Bloom speaks partly to the fact that an important tension naturally exists between works that have come before and those now being created — I find that tension to be very creatively invigorating, rather than something to overcome.
I see now that I was talking about the long continuous ceremony of story. A ceremony conducted across generations, it can strengthen our involvement in the human adventure, bring us together and maybe help awaken us to the ground beneath our own feet — to our very own present moment, replete with mysteries and meaning.
(This post comes from the Soul Shelter archives)
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