How Story Saves Our Lives*

Once Upon a Time, I worked with a man who did not believe in fiction. He admitted its existence, he just didn’t get it. In every other particular, Justin was a lovely man: charming and funny, sharp as a tack, and very successful. He was visually handicapped but a huge consumer of the written word. But what he liked to read were how-to books, essays, commentaries on real estate law, history–things factual. “Fiction is a lie,” he said. “Why do you want to read things about people who don’t exist?” And I got the impression he felt there was something immature, stunted, about people over the age of ten who read fiction. That fiction readers were hiding out from the hard, real facts of life.

Now, I am as close to a fiction addict as you will find this side of a twelve-step meeting, and I didn’t relish being told my passion for story was babyish. This led to discussions, friendly but unresolved. In truth, it was as if we were beings from two different species trying to reach detente. I’m afraid I didn’t know enough then to explain, or defend what I found so necessary about story. Twenty-five years later, with a lot more experience, I’m still thinking about the question; only now I have more ammunition.

A year after I met Justin, I attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop–that bootcamp for science fiction and fantasy writers. One instructor, SF critic and writer Algis Budrys, brought the issue of story’s purpose up in class. His position was that all reading was a life-saving activity. That all reading, perhaps especially the fictional stuff, was instructional. That fiction gave us models for behavior in crucial situations, and allowed us to evaluate what works and doesn’t work, where a character’s behavior clashes with our own personalities or values. The example that he gave was: what does a thirteen year old get out of Romeo and Juliet? For one thing, he suggested, the play allows teenagers to experience an extreme variation on a very real situation they may face: first love, with someone their parents disapprove of. It’s a textbook case of how not to handle the situation and a homily on the effect of chance on even the best laid plans.

If you look at story this way you can see its utility everywhere, especially with kids. Boys–and these days, thank God, girls–read adventure stories to experience, and prepare themselves, for lives which will require physical and emotional courage. I could give you a laundry list of wonderful books which present these challenges, but right now I really only need to mention two words: Harry Potter. All over  the world kids faced physical challenges and explore honor, betrayal, fear, loss–and the glee of putting one over on the hall monitors–with Harry and his friends.

Here’s a thought experiment: think of a favorite book and ask yourself: Why That Book? What part of your emotional life did it echo or validate? In story we get to experience adventures–and trials–we will face in real life. Our choices may not be as terrible as Sophie’s, but some will be hard enough. Our worlds may not be as colorful as Garp’s, but they will be filled with sudden, horrendous loss and and anger and love, and experiencing that world gives us a chance to think about how to manage own own.

For years after attending Clarion, I thought about each book I read this way: how did reading this book save my life? In some cases, the fix was slight but real: after a long chaotic morning at work, lunch in the ordered universe of Lord Peter Wimsey might lower my blood pressure enough so I could face the chaos again. In others, the fix was lasting and profound: when I was a teenager, moved from New York City to an isolated rural area, with a parent whose alcoholism was rapidly revealed, I found my experience mirrored, and validated, and rendered bearable, in Red Sky at Morning, a wonderful book that is both howlingly funny and deeply perceptive. That book saved my life. It reminded me that I was not alone, and encouraged me to celebrate the absurd as a way of surviving.

Story also allows us–not to hide from pain, but to to approach and deal with it. I couldn’t have written my novel The Stone War if I hadn’t had children, that invaluable aid to a writers’ imagination. My favorite example: when she was three, my older daughter knocked out a tooth at the playground; Every night for several weeks afterward she wanted to hear the epic tale of how she lost her tooth; the repetition became a way of making a painful and frightening experience familiar, to make it a part of her story–a small, manageable part. Far from allowing us to escape harsh reality, story often lets us embrace it–manageably.

Five years after working with Justin, I was editing and writing for another resolutely non-fictional guy, a child psychiatrist who specialized in infant depression. One of Paul’s theories was of something he called previewing: the notion that parents prepare the way for their children’s development by showing them what the experience of that new stage is going to be like. When an infant begins to push on her feet, her father holds her up standing, giving the child the chance to experience the sense of weight on her feet, the change in her point of view when the world is seen from two feet off the ground instead of four inches. It’s as if the parent is saying “Hey, look what’s ahead of you. You keep going the way you’re going and this is what it will be like.”

That’s one of the functions of fiction, too. And particularly one of the functions of genre fiction. For most of the last century (and arguably for a chunk of the century before that) science fiction and fantasy have been ghetto literature, relegated either to the kids’ section or to adults who are perceived as being somehow stunted or immature. But science fiction, the good stuff, has also had the power to show us where we may be going and, in suggesting those directions, to triangulate back to show us where we really are now.

In the late 60s and early 70s, when I started reading science fiction, a lot of it was resolutely depressing. As a society in the 60s America had the leisure and the money to question the wisdom of all sorts of things: war, educational traditions, rampant consumerism, race- and gender- relations, economic inequality. And SF was the perfect literature for such discussions. In science fiction this was the era of the “if this goes on” story–if we keep threatening each other with nuclear weapons, if we keep ignoring the toll our lives take on the Earth we inhabit, if we keep treating each other inhumanely, if we don’t take into account the costs of what science offers us–something bad’s gonna happen…

Many of these stories were strident and one note–as a good deal of political rhetoric can be. But unlike political rhetoric, fiction, by making the discussion hypothetical–or maybe virtual is a better word–allows us to make a little laboratory, to set up conditions and see how they affect the humans in the story–and then to see how the results make us feel. Do we like the results? Do we admire or fear what has been wrought? Could we pay the price demanded? And if we can’t pay that price, does the story suggest new solutions or make us look for solutions ourselves? Does it send us away thinking “there has to be a different way?” That may be fiction’s most transformative gift.

That’s what story does. That’s how story saves our lives. After twenty-five years I finally have my rejoinder to Justin and the people who suggest I get my nose out of that book. Story is not for the weak. Far from insulating or infantilizing us, fiction is the training ground for all the battles–public and private–we face when we close the book and look up at the world.

* This is a lightly edited version of a talk I gave at the 4th Universalist Church in New York City in 2000.


  1. Very astute observations about fiction. As a small coda, I’ll mention something I heard a long while ago from a friend and later from other readers. I was told that they’d been in the middle of a deep depression and despondent about finding a way out. Then they started reading something I wrote. By the time they finished the story, they said, the depression had lifted and they were happy again.

    Having been depressed myself, and observed this phenomenon myself in reading other people’s books, I think it’s something of extreme value that storytellers offer society. The happy ending of a comedy or the catharsis of a tragedy are both great aids to mental health.

  2. I recall a conversation with a co-worker who couldn’t understand why I wrote fiction. I got the impression he thought writing nonfiction was Much More Important. He had written books for kids about baseball.

    Me, I’ve always thought writing fiction was the highest calling on earth.

    And reading it is essential. Or, as I said on the radio (I got to do my “This I Believe” essay on one of the NPR stations in DC a few years back): “I believe in fiction. I believe that when it comes to understanding what life is all about, imagination trumps fact.”

    You know, I think I’ll post that essay on the BVC blog, noting that I’m inspired by both of you to share my thoughts.

  3. As I told my daughters when they were small, History is just stories about people. The fact that it’s true is interesting; the fact that the story changes depending on who’s telling the tale is even more interesting.

  4. Madeleine, I’m sympathetic with your general aim here, but (and I apologize if this is a misreading of your message…) a part of me (probably the philosophy student) is put off by the thought that we need to justify fiction by arguing for it’s utility.

    I don’t think art is about utility. We can, of course, and make arguments of the sort you do here, that fiction prepares us to deal with the world. And there is, admittedly, some truth to such an argument.

    But to me, that truth is borderline irrelevant. I don’t *care* about preparing myself for the world. I don’t *care* about preparing anyone else for the world. That’s not why I write. It may be a consequence of my writing, an effect, but it’s not the reason I sit down and open a microsoft word document and write.

    Fiction exists, stories exist, as a response to our experience as human beings floating on a speck in this infinite cosmic sea. There are a myriad of different ways of responding this human condition of ours. Hanging out with friends, volunteering at synagogue, participating in book club, etc. Writing is simply one such response, and in the case of any great story, it is a response which grapples with, and tries to come to some sort of understanding about the world in which we live.

    If someone asks why do you write/read fiction, ask them why they play baseball. Why they enjoy cooking. Why they donate to the Christian Children’ Fund. etc. Ask them why they do anything other than what is absolutely necessary (eat, sleep, shit, fuck.) Then tell them they have their answer.

    Some might accuse fiction of not dealing with what is “true” and “real,” but they overlook the fact that there are different types of truth and different types of reality. Why are clinical truths about the objective world more important than truths about the imaginative and psychological worlds inside each and every one of our heads?

    Who is the judge of that and on what basis do they make such a judgment?

    On the basis of utility?

    Well, who says utility is the end all be all? I mean, should our every response to the world be concerned with utility? Should we decide who to love, who to be friends with, how to live our lives, all on the basis of what is most efficient and productive, because apparently productivity and efficiency have been arbitrarily designed as the ultimate ends?

    • Emil, I don’t think utility is the only basis on which to judge art. I’m offering one way (out of many) to look at writing (or playing baseball or donating to the Children’s Fund or what have you). I get a galaxy of pleasures out of writing and reading, almost too many to number: the pleasure of invention, the delight of flexing my writing muscles and improving my technical skills, losing myself in a place or among people I’ve created. I also work out questions and issues that are personal to, and very real to, me. Just because something is a delight in and of itself does not mean that it doesn’t serve other purposes.

      Me, I’m delighted there are flowers in the world. They are delightful in and of themselves. They also serve a specific reproductive purpose, and smell nice, and in the hands of a skilled artist can be arranged to create new visual delights. Nothing is just one thing: when it comes to art as much as anything else, it really is a dessert topping and a floorwax.

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