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.)

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Janna Moreland Redington on October 26, 2008 at 10:23 AM

    >Though I have wanted to write since I was a child. I have learned a very important lesson over the years. If you write simply to make money or become famous you will always feel like a failure no matter how much money or fame you acquire. On the other hand if you write because you love to and because you sincerely want to help others then you will always be a success regardless of how much money or fame you obtain. The secret to success in all areas of your life is to seek LOVE and allow God to direct your paths.

  2. Marla Taviano on June 23, 2008 at 11:25 PM

    >Okay, so this post was just brilliant.

  3. Timothy Fish on June 23, 2008 at 9:39 PM

    >We have more ways to tell stories than ever before. In the old days, people might have listened stories rather than watching them on television, but we still tell a lot of stories. I was in the airport this morning and I listened to another frequent traveler telling about an experience with damaged luggage. (Hey, I just told a story.) I got to work and I told some co-workers about the mess I found in my drive this weekend. My point is that we tell stories all the time. Technology just gives us more ways of telling those stories. While the high percentage of writers who are stay-at-home moms and retirees may indicate that they write because they have no other outlet for their stories, it could also be that they have more time than the rest of us for writing.

    I would like to suggest another possibility. We write and seek publication for validation. It is one thing to stand around the water cooler and tell stories. It is another to have an expert put his stamp of approval on the storyteller’s work. We all believe we have something worth saying, or we wouldn’t write, but we can’t help but realize that we aren’t as good as we think we are. Publication is a visible milestone helps validate the author’s self-worth.

  4. Deborah on June 23, 2008 at 5:14 PM

    >God is the ultimate storyteller.

    And I want to be just like him.

    My kids and I have been reading through “The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History” by Curtis, Lang & Petersen. It’s mind-boggling how many writers were used to impact the world.

    I would love to be one of them.

  5. ever-changing on June 23, 2008 at 2:21 PM

    >I think we write because one of our natural born instincts is to share; whether it is sharing the word, half of our sandwich, or a story, etc. As far as writers we fulfill our instinct to share via a pen or pencil.

  6. Elle on June 23, 2008 at 1:17 PM

    >I’ve been musing over this similar idea-why am I so fascinated with writing? There’s a percolating blog post in my head about it as well. We’ll see if it pours out finally.

    I’ve decided in one sense that writing is an enjoyable hobby like cooking. Being published would be like winning the Pillsbury Bake Off. I don’t have to achieve either to still be able to enjoy the hobby.

    Reading about writing and practicing writing is akin to reading cookbooks and experimenting with recipes. I hope there’s always room at the table of this blog for those of us not necessarily seeking publication but certainly interested in being better hobbyists.

  7. david fry on June 23, 2008 at 12:01 PM

    >WE write because we are created in the image of “The WORD”. It is our very nature.

    That portends then great responsibility

    But what better encouragement than Isaiah 55:11 which tells us:

    “So is my word that goes out from my mouth; It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

    God does not need us but he chooses to use us. What a splendid honor and privilege that is.

    So we, who are ‘little Christs’ compose ‘little’ words sealed with the mark of the Creator. Even as imperfect as we are, because of the one who has gifted us … they will not return void.

  8. Dwriter on June 23, 2008 at 10:57 AM

    >I wasn’t certain I had anything to add to all these excellent comments. They all resonated with me. I especially liked the John 1:1-5 reference, as that thought came to me, too.

    Then I realized that no one mentioned what happens to us when we can’t write or otherwise express ourselves. And that’s when I knew there was, in fact, something more to be said on this subject.

    Lately I’ve been contemplating creativity, passions and gifts. As someone who spent more than two decades denying two gifts, I see now that other creative endeavors sprang up, as though I had to be creative or die. I believe that to be the case, in fact.

    But those activities — and that’s all they were — couldn’t substitute for the gifts I was born with and the reasons for which I was born. Two decades + of denying my music and theatrical gifts coincide precisely with an identical era of clinical depression, in which I was so far gone that I couldn’t make the connection between the two. Even my writing talent seemed to have gone on hiatus.

    I thought something else was the reason for the depression, and having labeled it “The Cause,” didn’t look deeper. It has taken hindsight (always 20-20 vision) and what I can only describe as Divine Insight to make a life-altering “discovery” that was there all the time.

    I realized that I was created to express myself through singing, acting and writing for the Body of Christ. Those gifts are listed in order of how quickly they might decline. *grin*

    When singing in public is no longer a “good thing” because the voice quavers too much, I will still be able to act. And when my memory no longer allows me to recall my lines with certainty, I will still be able to write. And when I can no longer put two words together, sing or act, it will be time to let go of this mortal life and move on to the next.

    Now that my depression is a thing of the past because I am not only acting and singing, but also writing again, I agree with with Susan. I write because I MUST.

    And I am grateful that this all-compelling urge is back with me. There is a “rightness” to it that sustains me between musical theatre productions, as does directing a church choir, leading congregational singing each Sunday and providing special music occasionally.

    Telling stories — whether on stage, face-to-face or in words to be read — creating characters and settings and scenarios that resonate with others, these are things I can’t NOT do.

    I would never trample a gift in front of a giver. Neither can I ever again deny the gifts given me by the only True Giver, He who gives life to our mortal bodies, who gave us His Son, who gave us the Spirit, who gives us God’s divine, eternal life that makes us one with Him and with one another.

    The best way I can show my gratitude to The Giver is to use His gifts to me and use them well.

  9. Rosslyn Elliott on June 23, 2008 at 10:03 AM

    >xdpaul – Your thoughts are lovely. John is my favorite gospel for that reason.

    I’ve noticed in my study of great authors through history that writers are often “broken” in some way, and usually during childhood. I don’t mean that brokenness as a negative–most of us know that brokenness is a route to holiness, if we let it work in our lives properly. Many writers suffered childhood illness that left them unable to play for long periods of time. A huge number of writers lost parents at a young age, or had abusive or mentally-ill parents. Writers often came from families that were socially unacceptable, and the young children in those families were rejected as a result of their parents’ social status. Sometimes, writers were just misfits: children who were either so eccentric or so intelligent–or both–that they had difficult finding friends with common interests.

    For me, as for many other writers, books were a comfort and a source of friendship and wonder when I was little. As I grew into my teens, books became a lifeline: voices of people from the past who had something to say that I needed to hear, something the people near me couldn’t or wouldn’t say. Books could also be dangerous. I acquired some ideas from books that led me to act in self-injurious ways. Books had tremendous power to heal or to hurt.

    I think many writers write because books had great influence on their own lives. They believe in the saving power of the word, whether they are Christians or not. It’s an inborn reverence for the God-breathed logos that xdpaul mentions.

  10. Camille Cannon (Eide) on June 23, 2008 at 9:59 AM

    >LOL. I am not a natural storyteller, but I am an avid student of that skill. I am a teacher first (not necessarily by trade but always in spirit), and a wordsmith by a close second. I love to craft words on a page. I marvel at those who can roll a story off their tongue with perfect timing. (I’m working on tearing down the barrier in my brain that separates where written and verbalized words are formed. If anyone knows a trick, let me know.)

    My desire to write a story stems from a desire to communicate something deeper than the story itself. I know we teachers have to be careful not to preach with our fiction; I remind myself constantly that we write to entertain first, and give something people will want to tell others about and read again. But my passion to write will always come from a desire to communicate something of significance. (without patronizing.) It’s a God-given desire, I think, and should be carefully developed and controlled, like any other gift.

  11. XDPaul on June 23, 2008 at 9:37 AM

    >In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

    In the beginning was the Word.

    Why did John choose “logos” to start his account of the Gospel?

    We write because it is written on us to write. In the beginning was the Word, and though we, as individuals, haven’t got what it takes to carry the Word forward (as if the Word needs us to do so, when, after all, He has stones who will cry out) as a church of storytellers, we are just enough.

  12. Katy McKenna on June 23, 2008 at 9:11 AM

    >I think most of us writers—and humans—feel a need to contribute to the cohesiveness of society, or to some particular aspect of the culture.

  13. Rachelle on June 23, 2008 at 9:07 AM

    >Marcie and Anonymous,
    I agree. I think that is the reason people have always shared their stories. Many of the stories we share are about our family history or about what we’ve learned in this life. We all want to leave something behind.

  14. Marcie Gribbin on June 23, 2008 at 9:00 AM

    >I write, as ANON 7:46 suggested, because I feel the need to contribute and leave something behind and to share something with others that I feel is valuable. I also write because I love a good story – especially one that moves me or changes me or teaches me. I write because I want to be able to give that gift to others.

  15. Anonymous on June 23, 2008 at 8:46 AM

    >Don’t we write because we feel the need to contribute and to leave something behind? To share something with others that we feel is valuable?

  16. Anne L.B. on June 23, 2008 at 8:38 AM

    >”I write because I can’t NOT write.” (Susan, above.) For the Christian, is this not the Spirit of our Lord compelling us to give testimony to God?

    Where I have failed at times is to become so enamoured with the wonderful story God has given me that I failed to include Him in it, so that He might be seen, magnified, glorified.

    As I would define it, this is the difference between storytelling and testimony. My drive to be published is not to have my story heard, but to have His story heard.

  17. david fry on June 23, 2008 at 8:20 AM

    >Rachelle: Oh so timely. I grappled over the weekend with this very thing. I’ve had family & friends tell me I make them laugh in the telling of stories (verbally). I left it at that because in many instances, the humor comes from the immediate context (i.e. the established relationships). That was the key.

    Of late, I’ve had comments to the effect of prodding me to write in the same vein. This intrigued me. Why? Well, as I reflect on day-to-day living, I realize that with 5 kids, I’m up to my armpits in fodder. There is relationship to be had in the sharing (whether laughing or crying). For some reason I got it into my head that to write humor was not “right”. Bogus! I’m a deep reflective soul but there are times when I’m primed like many to bust a gut with the “write” turn of a phrase.

    As a technologist for nearly a quarter of a century, I’ve watched the devolution of relationship via technology. My classrooms are full of students who cannot turn away from Facebook when seated in front of a computer. They are glued. That is telling.

    So indeed, to simply be human is a wonderful gift … like salvation. Why wouldn’t we unwrap it?

    Thank you for prodding us to unwrap.

    Now then, I must come up with a translation booklet that allows friends who would look after my 4 year old daughter to properly interpret “Guck” as strawberry milk.

  18. David A. Todd on June 23, 2008 at 7:52 AM

    >Excellent post, Rachelle. I’m going to ponder it for a while.


  19. Nedra on June 23, 2008 at 7:52 AM

    >I believe you’re right about our writing to connect. I also believe that in this age where independence may be valued over the often necessary dependence on others, allows us to realize that we’re really not alone. Sometimes faster communication via technology doesn’t mean better communication.

    Sometimes good old fashioned communication by talking and touching is exactly what we need to feel grounded and to reconnect with God.

  20. Kat Harris on June 23, 2008 at 7:47 AM

    >Rachelle said: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.

    I think you’re right in saying storytelling fulfills a deep need many writers have to share with others.

    I don’t think there’s anything prideful about wanting to share a story. Just because a book is published doesn’t mean someone will become “famous.” With 399,999 other books on the shelf (that’s a staggering figure btw), chances of becoming “famous” in publishing are still slim to none.

    Those who believe wanting to be published is a prideful thing should think of it like this: God gives some people the talent to deal with money, others He gave the talent to work the land to provide food for others and others He gave the knack for working with people.

    Writers have their place in this world, too. The ability to tell a story to entertain or inform people is a God-given talent, and publishing is just a broad way to share that talent.

    As long we don’t place that desire to share above our reverence for God, I think we’re okay.

  21. Katy McKenna on June 23, 2008 at 6:49 AM

    >In old Ireland, the Seanchai (storyteller) was known by one and all. He travelled from village to village and was welcomed into each home, where he joined the family by the peat fire at the end of the day and kept the oral tradition alive.

    My mother is in the hospital. (Smooth transition, eh?) On Thursday, in the ER, she paid me an extremely rare compliment. Of course, I’d been trying to get her mind off her troubles by dramatizing my little stories, like the one about how the pharmacist wouldn’t persist in calling my doctor to get the prescription refilled. I tell you, I can make that one fascinating! And funny, too! 😉

    Anyway, Mom looked at me and said, “You have talent. You could be on the stage.” That was her way of saying that I’m a Seanchai. I will treasure those words forever—but most of all, the fact that I’d managed to entertain her.

  22. Susan Helene Gottfried on June 23, 2008 at 6:48 AM

    >I write because I can’t NOT write. It’s really that simple.

  23. Karen on June 23, 2008 at 6:08 AM

    >I agree with you entirely and would take it one step further to say that the genres and niches we have today are because the stories shared fit into different situations, circles of friends and family, etc. When we seek publication we are seeking to bring to others the enjoyment we have received from sharing story, from being creative with the way we tell another a story. It’s okay to want to inform and entertain others with books and even receive recognition. After all don’t we want to hear from our Father, “Well, done thou good and faithful servant!”?