The Moment I Realized How Powerful Storytelling Actually Is

Maybe this isn’t saying much. Maybe it is.

I wrote this post last night. I didn’t mean to.

I had the idea and planned on doing what I always do – open a new draft, write a title and leave it until the next morning.

I only meant to write a sentence or two. But the entire thing just poured out of me without warning.

I left it alone afterward, I figured maybe I would have a better idea tomorrow and let this live in my WordPress drafts for the rest of forever.

But it’s morning now, and after reading through it again, and again, I just know.

I can’t just leave it. It needs the chance to say what it wants to say.

So this is what was on my mind yesterday. Maybe it’s something you’ve heard a hundred times before. Maybe it’ll actually mean something to someone.

Who knows. I’m not you. I know very little about you. That’s the whole point of what I’m about to share.

There are many things I know. And many more I don’t.

This is, in essence, the first line of a book I started writing last November.

I didn’t know then how much it spoke to my actual life.

I am someone who has always found deep fascination in learning new things. It’s what got me through two science degrees, even though I’m bad at math.

It is, still, very difficult for me to admit when I am wrong, or when I do not know something – especially when I do not know something as well as someone else knows it.

I realize this makes me sound extremely unlikable. I wouldn’t be offended if you agreed.

As a writer, you’re expected to know a lot about a lot of things. I suppose I found a very easy, and lazy, way around this when I first decided to start blogging about writing – the thing I knew the most about, because it’s what I did every day.

Writing about yourself, and what you do every day as you twirl about in your own personal world, requires very little research. It allows you to remain extremely narrow-minded … which is the most dangerous thing a writer can be.

They’re not wrong, when they tell you to write what you know. But many of us take that to mean we should only write about what we are familiar with.

In some contexts, this is perfectly logical.

In many others, it is toxic.

Growing up, I wrote a lot of stories featuring characters I wished I could be. Super-smart, pretty, popular, successful. They were nice stories. But they were selfish. It took me ten years of writing novels to come to that realization.

Writing what you know – in its often misunderstood implications – is easy, and safe, and boring. I wanted to learn things. I wanted to understand things as they are, not portray them only as how I perceived them to be.

There are so many different kinds of people, with so many stories I have not heard – that the world has not heard. I want to tell stories we haven’t heard a thousand times. But I want to do it without preaching, without shoving anything in my readers’ faces, because, honestly – is that what they’re signing up for?

Is that what they want?

I’ll admit it: I’ve judged plenty of writers in the past, for “being inclusive” simply for the sake of being inclusive, or politically correct, or whatever. Is this really necessary? Why does every show now have to have a gay character? I mean, I have nothing against …

Stop. Just stop.

As you grow as a writer, and as a person, your viewpoints change, as have mine.

For the record, I don’t really have that much of a right to talk about diversity at all – read: I have a lot of privilege, and that’s not a fact I can change.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t use storytelling not only in an attempt to understand multiple sides of an issue that does not apply to me, but maybe, give someone out there a character to relate to, to understand them … to help give them the confidence to stand up for themselves and people like them.

I understand now that maybe that’s what these writers I used to so wrongfully judge have been doing all along. Trying to understand complex things in the best way they know how: by writing about them from someone else’s point of view.

Because when you’re writing what you know, but don’t know a darn thing about the elements of a story you want to tell, you know what you have to do. Research. Study. Learn. Talk to people who get it. Who live it. So that you can look through the correct lens as you craft a story that has more truth in it than fiction.

That is hard. Because it teaches you that, as smart and “aware” as you think you are about how the world is, in the grand scheme of things, you’re completely clueless. You don’t get it. It’s humbling … and embarrassing to admit.

Maybe all we’re trying to do – we, writers, storytellers – is get it. So other people can get it. Even if they never live through it themselves.

I first experimented with this theory last year (perhaps the word “experimented” is about to be more ironic than I originally intended) when I was trying to write a series of novellas. My 20,000-word story, about stress, or sleep, or something of that nature, featured two couples: a (traditional?) guy-girl couple, and two women.

This is not a big deal – I didn’t do it to make a statement. You know full well that you don’t choose characters willingly: they come to you of their own will. That’s how it happened. Two female characters walked casually into my brain’s creative space and said, “Here’s the story, and by the way, we’re together.”

But it will forever stick in my memory as a turning point in my fiction writing – not because I took any risks as far as the publishing industry is concerned (far from it at this point), but because I did something I had never really done before: I wrote about something I had never experienced, something I knew virtually nothing about.

Why it took me so long to do, I don’t know.

I realize that what I wrote was nothing special, to anyone who might pick it up. But it mattered to me.

It mattered to me because it helped me come to terms with a reality I had never bothered to consider before. In a world where words are so commonly used to abuse people and assumptions are so quickly made about populations as a whole, writers have an advantage, an opportunity, others don’t.

They can explain, through the vessel of a story, how things should be. How people of one lifestyle or religion or ethnicity or race should treat those of another. How differences among individuals should shape our world. And what could happen if more people embraced the way the world constantly changes.

Storytelling has many purposes. Possibly one of the most important, now more than ever, is its ability to help everyone envision a better way of handling situations and people they do not understand.

It’s not your fault for not being able to look at the world through a less-narrow lens, given to you by the circumstances in which you were raised. It’s your fault for not doing whatever it might take to switch out that lens for something better.

Not everyone grew up in a church-going white Christian middle-class suburban family in the United States like I did. I’m fully aware of that. I have written dozens of stories told from the perspectives of people just like me. Which is OK. But I think I could do better.

I’m not saying it’s every writer’s responsibility to make diversity of any kind a priority in their work. I’m not saying I look down on anyone who doesn’t.

But if you do have a unique perspective on any issue – by all means, tell your stories. Help people understand. Give voice to others who have experienced the same things you have, but don’t have the same outlets you do for honestly and accurately portraying how things are.

And if you’re like me, and your privilege is real and it is something you can never remove from your life, then do what I did, what I will continue doing: change your lens. Tell a story from the perspective of someone whose life, whose fears, whose disadvantages you will never fully understand.

And not just once, but as often as you can. Reaching as many people as you can.

This is not about writing your way out of your comfort zone. That happens by default – but it’s not about you.

This is about empathy, and learning not to judge anyone – ever. Not even writers you have never met, who aren’t just trying to sell titles with inclusive subjects and characters, but maybe, just maybe, are trying to understand the world better … by using their words to do some good in this world.

There are many things you know. And many more you don’t.

What are you going to do about it?

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

7 thoughts on “The Moment I Realized How Powerful Storytelling Actually Is

  1. Hey, that whole “selfish” thing? I think you’ve got something there…it’s a good way to look at it, when you’re trying to use writing to make your alter ego, or make yourself feel better it tends to permeate the story and (at its worst) looks like some crazy mixed-up fantasy about sparky vampires (gag–hee hee).

    It is tough to tell a good story and work beyond yourself, but we have to try or we run out of things to say. I think we have to remember that, though it seems obvious. I’d have to look hard to find some characters that were way outside my comfort zone or my experience–but honestly, when I do, they stand out and I want to work with them more because they’ll tell e what to do.

    Glad you didn’t leave it as a draft–it’s some much needed words here!

    1. I’m so glad you were able to relate to this post. :) Creating characters outside your ‘zone of comfort’ is kind of like making friends with people you have nothing in common with – you learn so much and it changes your writing in the best way!

  2. Terrific post. I agree with you on every point. If your writing doesn’t reveal what you don’t know, then you’re probably doing something wrong. :-) I too am fascinated by the way we approach our narratives or rather how our narratives that begin with an idea, but slowly bend themselves in other ways–ways that are not always in sync with our own lifestyles. It’s part of the mystery of imagination.

    You ask what do we do about things we don’t know. Well like many I read of course, but I’ve also discovered a new world of accessible knowledge through a company: The Great Courses. they offer courses on DVDs. Everything from cooking to Coding to understanding ancient cultures. I love these things. The professors who lecture are usually…not always…extremely good. For instance, with my current novel, my protagonist is a biology teacher. Well, I got the DVD on Botany and I’ve got my own crash course in plant life. It’s tough, but I stuck with it and I definitely understand photosynthesis much better! As well as trees…info which has come to great use in my novel.

    So, I’m glad to have found you. I look forward to your posts.

  3. Terrific post. I agree with every point you make. It’s fascinating how after constructing a detailed outline and working up character descriptions, our narrative will still take on a life of its own and bend itself in such a manner that has no resemblance to our intentions! Characters do things unexpectedly and when you try to write out that behavior you discover quite often that you were wrong and your character is right! The mystery of imagination is wonderful.

    You ask what we do about things we don’t know. Like most writers, of course, I read a good bit, but I’ve also found another source of knowledge that doesn’t require my having to “go” somewhere. There a company called The Great Courses. They sell DVDs on topics that range from cooking to the mysteries of ancient Egypt to the art of the Italian Renaissance. I love these things. They find an expert, usually a professor in the given field and the prof delivers thirty minute lectures. The longest is 48 lectures…they tend to be the most expensive as well. Usually the profs are very good. For instance, I’m currently working on a novel and my protagonist is a biology teacher. So, I purchased a course on Botany. It’s tough, but I stuck with it and now I know a great deal more about photosynthesis and trees than I did before. And my biology teacher protagonist is that much more believable. :-)

    I so glad I’ve found your blog. I definitely look forward to your posts.

Compose your words of wisdom

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s