Why We Tell Stories

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about storytelling and my constant need for it as a writer (go figure). I’m in the thick of it writing a new novel, and at times it becomes difficult for me to focus on the real world because my mind often wanders to my story. Being lost in my head makes for a more pleasant subway commute, but at times it must annoy my friends if I stop mid-conversation to scribble notes, not to mention trying to fall asleep at night when all my ideas seem to hit me at once.

I’m still thinking about Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (the marker of a truly great story–it sticks with you long after you close the book). After a conversation with her ex-lover Ronnie in which the protagonist Reno finally confronts him about their relationship, her relationship with her cheating lover Sandro, and Sandro and Ronnie’s friendship, Ronnie has an outburst and tells Reno about all the women Sandro had cheated with while dating Reno. When she tearfully asks why he would tell her that, Ronnie answers, “To show you the uselessness of the truth.” Reno knew all along that her lover was cheating on her, but she told herself stories (lies) to make for herself a better relationship. Incorporated throughout the novel are stories within stories. At bars and at dinner parties, Kushner employs storytelling as an important tool for advancing (and, at times, slowing down) the plot. When Ronnie talks about the uselessness of the truth, he is talking bigger than the situation of a cheating lover. As an artist, he makes the bold statement that what we create is much bigger than the small lives we lead. Ronnie tells stories all the time, many of which are obviously false, but his point is that it doesn’t matter. We need stories. We tell stories–a funny anecdote, a lie, a novel–because it is a compulsive act of ours, an instinct, but we do it also because we need to create better worlds. It’s about control.

Is it dangerous to experience something and then need to immediate filter it through the lens of storytelling? I often wonder this. It has gotten to the point where friends will invite me to do something with the first reason being, “This will give you material for your next story.” I’ve had multiple dates ask me if they were going to end up on my blog or appear as a character in a story. What is the danger in jumping past the experience and heading straight to the recounting of it? I’m still working through this, attempting to find the balance between living my life and creating alternate lives. In my new novel, I’m telling the story through the perspective of four protagonists. So I not only have to shift between my lived life and my written life, I have to experience plot through four characters. How Kushner does this, how Jennifer Egan did it in A Visit from the Goon Squad, and how Faulkner and all the other writers of multiple points of view have mastered this is a secret I can only hope to learn and manage.

Perhaps writers are just functioning schizophrenics. We’ve developed two sides, two personalities: the part of us that functions in reality–goes to work, buys groceries–and the part of us that burrows inside and makes our own stories.

  1. I think this is common in writers, especially ones in the midst of writing a novel like you are. But it’s pretty funny how your friends/dates are curious as to whether they’re next on your “hit list.” If the story is meant to be, it’s going to be written whether they cooperate or not. lol. Keep up the good work!

    1. I tell the people I know, if they don’t want to end up in my writing, they should stop being so interesting…

      1. lol. Good point. And even for those who are not that interesting, there’s still a story to be told. Have a good one!

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