A story is an odd thing. It changes as the teller changes. It mutates with a reader’s perceptions. Even when pinned meekly to a page of paper or a computer screen, it is never quite the same. With each reading a new facet shines through, a new idea is emphasized. The ever-changing reader and the never-ending story; without one, the other is lost. They define each other, and change each other. They create each other- person is inspired by story, person makes new story, new person hears new story, new person is inspired…..
When you read another’s story, you read their dream. Whether the wobbly scrawl of a child’s first daydream or the sweaty, clammy scribblings of an erotic fantasy, a story’s purpose is the same- to hold the dream, to capture some part of it. Such is the nature of the beast that even caught, it still changes. Read a book when young, reread it again now. See any differences? Watch a favored childhood movie- catch anything you missed in the hazy eye of youth? Read a poem from another country, both translated and not. Feel the difference on your tongue. Know that no matter how detailed the explanation of symbolism and meaning, you will never know the poem as a native speaker would. Know that the way it affects you (or not) is not inferior. Just different.
We live on story, even now. Modern stories are thin, unfulfilling- gossip rags and star-sightings cannot fulfill a race raised on full-bodied sagas, on long nights filled with sweet recitation, on drowsy afternoons spent sipping well-seasoned paperbacks in soft sunshine. We are losing the desire for story. Losing our ability to drop into our own heads and explore with NeverNever Land with Winnie the Pooh, to slay Pennywise the Dancing Clown with a bit of string and a silver bullet cast from a coin left by hungry Tooth Faeries, paid for in blood and pain.We’re losing words, losing descriptions- “I am sickened by a longstanding bout of ptomaine poisoning. Prithee, fetch the looking glass, so I may see my face. It is chartreuse or peridot or some eldritch shade of green, seen only in pond scum and certain vulgar sitting rooms?” vs. “I’m sick.” Losing the desire for explanation in our lust for simplified, for quick, for nownownowNOW. Imagine my shock when people ask me how I read a book over a hundred pages long. Can’t I just read the back? What’s it about, anyway? As if I could condense an entire plot and the interrelations of its characters into a simple sentence (that they don’t even care about anyway.) “The Lord of the Rings is about this short dude who has to throw a ring into volcano because its possessed. Some other dudes help him and he gets kinda possessed, and he loses a finger to a creepy short dude with a speech impediment. I think Elijah Wood plays one of the short dudes.” See? even that took 3 sentences. (And a small portion of my soul. ~shudder~)
Books no longer teach how to survive, how to think (I swore when I was young to always take a copy of the Swiss Family Robinson with me when I traveled, in case I was shipwrecked and needed to identify palm trees and edible grass and learn how to pearl-dive for my dinner). They teach that everything will be all right if you just believe in your man (who is outwardly perfect, so you know you can trust him), that those who walk between one side and another can be easily redeemed, if they choose to assimilate (why stay yourself and unique when you can be everyone and the same?), that all little girls should want to be fainting princesses (why rescue yourself and risk chipping a nail?), and all little boys shouldn’t bother with such foolishness, or at least want to be something “realistic” (a five year old boy who wants to be a ninja is “cute”. A twenty-eight year old man with a collection of throwing stars and kunai that can take down a deer by himself is a deviant, no matter how good he is at his day-job.) Books are graded on suitability, on subject matter. I was rather shocked when I saw It by Stephen King marked for 6th graders in my middle school. (I had already read it by then, but still, surprise surprise Pennywise.) Why did pedophilia, incest, childhood sex, Pennywise, and adult sex get by censors when simple books explaining why Uncle George and and his friend Albert want to get married are so “scarring and immoral”? (Granted, I learned about homosexuality from Mercedes Lackey’s Vanyel books. Good way to go about it, if you’re looking for some helping books. Oathbound is excellent for reclaiming power after rape. I read that one by the fifth grade.)
Movies (and television shows) are stories, but they are losing their vitality, same as anything else. Its all remakes and sequels and secondary characters milking out a few more millions for the franchise. The plot- the vital story– is weak. There are a few that buck the trend, but they are often considered too “much” by the hungry masses, to rich for starving minds to digest. No money is made so other stories like them are refused in favor of tinsel stars and flashy gimmicks (Bite Sized For Your Convenience!), to fill minds shrunken and grey. Characters overwhelm plot- we care more for knowing every last dirty, ill-kempt detail of the Desperate Housewives than we care about the fact that nothing changes. We care more for the CSI team(s) than the fact that they rarely get anything wrong, that the cast changes only when absolutely necessary, and that, often, the evidence that leads then to suspect the wrong person is conveniently forgotten once it is found out that they are innocent. Junk calories for the mind; it teaches us nothing, we come away with nothing. We are unchanged by the experience. Relatively harmless in small doses, but when most shows are the same? We sit, unchanged through every flicker of the channels. We sit, unchanged by every angle of the camera in the movie theater. When plot overwhelms the characters, and when we applaud it doing so, we are changed by it. We can’t help it; it is the vital difference between an rabid dog being shot and Old Yeller. It builds you up and breaks you apart, so you can heal in a different way.
I was raised on books, on my father’s stories. I can sit all by myself and spin my own world of fancy. I can read an essay prompt on themes from The Great Gatsby and write a high level paper on it in half an hour. I can play “I Went to the Moon, And I Brought Back….” 43 miles in a row. I live on story. I am never alone, because I carry the world in my head. Every scrap I ever read, every shitty fanfic and elegant Shakespearean sonnet and Harlequin romance novel and Great and Wondrous Other expands that world, knits it tighter and spins it smoother. Angels and monsters life there. My dreams and my nightmares (“Those who cannot curse cannot cure.”) live there. You want to save the world? Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising. Scared of your own mortality? Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book. Need a reason to grow up? Jim Henson, The Labryinth. How ’bout a reason to take better care of the Earth? Nausiica and the Valley of the Wind, both the movie by Hayao Miyazaki and the original graphic novels. Best magical theory ever? Terry Prachett’s Discworld series (Keep an eye out for Granny Weatherwax, the only witch to ever summon and coerce a demon with an old scrub brush and some very elderly washing powder.) Want to be afraid? Stephen King (every scrap you can lay fingers on.)
Teach your children to love story. Feed it to them. Let their dreams grow. Encourage them to read, to write, to watch. If they bring home stories dark and strange, don’t say no. They will read them anyway. If you read it before, explain why. If not, read it first and then pronounce your judgement. By sanitizing the stories they consume, they develop no immunities. A story can be put down, walked away from. A story can tell them why you shouldn’t talk to strangers. It gives an emotional investment in the why before there is a physical price. Before the wolf takes Little Red away. Before the troll eats the billy goats. Before Snow White eats the apple. Before a child grows up cold and grey in a world without story.