The Stories We Tell
Whenever I walk into Barnes & Noble and see all those thousands of books…
Whenever I hear statistics like 400,000 books published last year…
Whenever I look at the query section of my inbox (currently at 105 emails)…
Whenever I attend a writer’s conference and meet with writers passionate to see their words in print…
I find myself getting all philosophical. Why so many books? Why do so many of us want to write? What is this thing inside us that drives us to want to share our truth with the world?
And of course (me being me) I come up with answers. I think that before there was the Internet, before television and movies, before radio, before newspapers, and even before books… (I am talking about the whole entire history of humankind, not just our lifetimes)… people have always connected with other people by storytelling. For some, storytelling means making up fantastical fables that illustrate truth metaphorically. For others, storytelling means sharing their own personal experiences and letting others be enlightened through them, or sharing what they’ve learned about history. For still others, storytelling means teaching, taking the lessons they’ve learned and relaying them to others.
People have always shared their stories verbally, with those in their extended family, with their friends, with their tribe. Back before mass media or technology existed, the primary form of entertainment was talking to one another. Imagine Biblical times. Or a native American camp 500 years ago. Or even a Wisconsin farm family 200 years ago. The day is done, the chores are finished, the family is sitting around… and there’s no television. What do they do? They talk. They tell stories. Grandma and Grandpa tell about the family history. Ma and Pa spin tales of their children’s possible futures. The children chime in with thoughts of their own. This is how people have always connected with one another.
Men have been telling each other stories over campfires or in pubs or during the hunt… for thousands of years. Women have been telling each other stories while drawing water from wells or making quilts or birthing babies… for thousands of years.
As our society has become more fragmented and media-oriented, as extended families have ceased to be an important social construct, as individuals spend less time in face-to-face communication and more time in mediated communication, our need to both tell stories and hear stories hasn’t changed, but the way we fulfill that need has changed drastically.
The need that used to be fulfilled by personal relationship is now largely satiated by less personal relationships. We maintain our friendships through email and text messaging and cell phones. We have relationships with the characters on our TV shows; with the radio hosts we enjoy; with the blogs we read; with our favorite newspaper columnists; and of course, with our favorite book authors.
When it comes time to share our own stories, thoughts and ideas with others, we don’t have a daily audience of friends or family members sitting in our kitchen ready to hear us speak. Most of us simply don’t have enough “relationship time” in our lives. So we turn to the way people communicate these days: telling our stories to the world at large through books, articles, blogs and other less personal communication channels.
We have largely replaced personal communication with technological communication.
When I look at it in that context, it helps me understand why so many people want to write books. Of course we do. The last couple centuries of development in Western culture has deprived us of ways to fill that deep, God-given need to relate to our fellow humans. We don’t just want to write and publish books. We want to be heard. To be known and understood. And we want to know and understand others. This is the need for relationship—person to person relationship (known in Christian circles as horizontal, as opposed to vertical which is our relationship with God). This is a deep need that God gave us. It’s legitimate and real and humans will go to great lengths to fulfill it.
We are also creative beings, and of course our God is the ultimate Creator. He imbued us with this creativity, expressed uniquely in each of us, and we all search for ways to express that godly part of ourselves. In this, I don’t think things have changed over the centuries.
Some of my friends and blog-readers have expressed a doubt about the rightness of their desire to be published. They wonder if maybe they’re being prideful or self-focused by wanting their books to get out there and wanting people to read them. They wonder if they’re simply buying into our culture’s values, a system that says you’re not worth anything unless you’re “famous.” I suppose we all could suffer a little bit from that. But mostly, I don’t think so. I think all of us who want to write and publish are simply being human—wanting to share our truth, wanting to connect with others, in a world that doesn’t provide very many ways to do this.
I think the desire to write and publish books is simply an extension of our very humanness.
What do you think? Why do we write and seek publication? (Notice I didn’t say “Why do you write?” I’ve asked that question plenty of times. Why do WE write is bigger—it goes beyond the self.)