Monday, April 06, 2009

Why people need stories

Engaging with narrative is part of the human condition. Wherever you go in the world, however different the cultures you meet, the people you meet will tell stories.

While I was making the documentary, YARN, I asked hundreds of keen novel readers why they liked to engage with narrative. Their answers fell into three categories.

Escapism was the first answer, the one that came quickest to people’s minds. I read to get away from my hum-drum life. I read to disappear.

But after a few moments of thought, many people offered a second layer of reasoning. I read to learn about other people, other places, other times. To feel what it is like to be someone else.

The third set of answers was closer to the heart of the issue. It usually came after people had been thinking about the question for a few minutes. It was as if they felt something was still missing from the explanation already given. This layer of answers was about psychological well-being. I read to find words to express things I have felt. I read to deal with issues I have been confronted with. I read to heal myself.

The paradox is, we do read to escape. But the place we escape to is inside our own selves.

A psychoanalyst told me that when we read a story, the characters become identified with different aspects of who we are. Through their interaction in the story, the different parts of our own character are being given a chance to resolve issues that may have been unresolved before.

Why do people need stories? For all the above reasons and more. Narrative is the way we make sense of a world too big and complex for our minds to hold in other ways. It is part of being human.

I used to worry that spending such a lot of my life writing stories was an unproductive indulgence in a world with so many pressing needs. But making the YARN documentary changed my view. The world does need storytellers.

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