how stories can save you

Yesterday, after 11 days home with a sick 4-year-old, I went to the school I went to for Kindergarten through 12th grade to give a chapel talk.  It’s book fair week at my old school, and this year, I am the featured author.  They asked me to address the question “Why read books?”  And I had 12 minutes to do it.

St. John's school

Here’s a version of what I said:

I wrote my first novel right here, at St. John’s, in sixth grade.

I was totally miserable in sixth grade.  (Though maybe if my history teacher had worn crazier pants, I might have been happier.)  For the record, I loved lower school.  And upper school. But sixth grade was bad, and seventh grade was worse.

But misery can be useful.  Somehow, my two best friends and I had a brilliant idea.  We started writing novels—with ourselves as the main characters.  We’d suffer through the school week in our real lives, writing to keep ourselves afloat, and then get together for sleepovers on the weekends and read our imaginary lives to each other.

In mine, Duran Duran just happened to be driving through my neighborhood in their stretch limo when they got a flat tire.  As luck would have it, the tire popped right in front of my house.  This was 1985, and so, with no cell phones, they had to find a phone to call a mechanic.  And—more good luck—they knocked on my front door, and I was there with my two best friends.  And we were busting our dance moves to their Hungry Like The Wolf video.

It really didn’t take long before all five band members from Duran Duran—despite my bowl haircut, braces, crippling awkwardness, and the fact that I was twelve—glimpsed my inner beauty and fell horribly, painfully, almost life-threateningly in love with me.

And then I had to spend the rest of the novel deciding which one to marry.

There was a lot of pressure on me as the main character.  Because the math didn’t lie. There was only one of me, and there were five of them.  At least four hearts were going to be broken.  At least four handsome rockers were going to be destroyed.

As you can imagine, it was the best novel ever written.

I still shudder when I think about my sixth grade year.  But I learned something from writing that novel that has stayed with me the rest of my life:  Stories can save you.

Stories are essential to the human experience.  We turn to them over and over.

We use them to pass down wisdom from generation to generation.  From the Greek myths to the Bible to fairy tales, we hold onto our past through stories.

We use them to comfort ourselves and each other.  When my son scrapes his knee, I don’t explain the scientific principles of blood coagulation.  I tell him about the time I scraped my knee.  And how my mom had to pull out the pebbles with tweezers.  And how it really, really hurt.  But it got better.  And now I have a cool scar in the shape of Texas.

We use stories to learn about ourselves and others.  There’s a reason we’re endlessly curious about other people’s lives.  It’s because it’s essential to our own survival to navigate the subtleties of human society.  We’re nothing without the group.  It’s vital to learn to read cues, understand motivations, and get the people around us.

And we use stories to create hope: to imagine a better future for ourselves.  This is easier when you’re a kid.  When I was in sixth grade, a very real part of me thought there was a good chance I’d wind up marrying Simon LeBon.  If the love was true enough, I figured, it could happen.

As you get older, of course, you know your limitations better.  Hope is trickier to come by.  You become harder to convince.  That’s why you have to get good at storytelling—for others, and for yourself.

And that’s why the stories you seek out—for comfort, for wisdom, for perspective—get more complicated and more subtle.  As you get older and wiser, you need stories that can match you.

These days, we find stories in two big places:  novels, and movies and TV.

Movies and TV have a certain advantage over novels.  They tell their stories with pictures and sound.  They use images, which are a primary kind of language.  We understand images long before we can speak or read.  We know our mother’s face, our father’s voice.  Images and sound speak right to the heart and reach inside us in a very direct and primal way.

Words—and especially words on a page—require translation.  We have to recognize the letters, add them up into words, add the words into sentences, and then create our own images and meaning from those sentences.  It takes a lot of practice to get good.  And it requires effort.

The upside is, you get to help make the story.  The story gives you the word “apple,” but you supply the image.   You meet the story halfway.

And another upside is that words are magical.  Images are the language of emotions, and memory, and dreams.  But words are the language of order and thought and wisdom.  Words connect our heads and our hearts.  Words can take the chaos of the world around us and distill meaning from it.

And we need meaning.  We don’t have much time.  You won’t believe this, and I didn’t believe it at your age either, but it’s true: One minute, you’re twelve years old and Simon LeBon has just proposed to you, and the next minute, it’s 25 years later.  Time whispers past.

One more thing that’s true:

Nothing is more important than to figure out what a good life is–and do your very best to live it.