Tuesday, December 14, 2010

We Tell Stories

Some years ago, a writer I greatly admire commented that writing fiction right after the 911 attacks was hard to do. Like television sit-coms and sports, it seemed frivolous in the wake of such tragedy.

I think maybe creating fiction at such a time can actually seem worse than frivolous. Disrespectful, tasteless. Fiction, after all, is merely made-up stories. The stories might be light-hearted, and who can laugh now? Or tragic, which might be worse—to invent sadness at such a time.

I remember watching the news footage of the attacks and their aftermath—those long days, then weeks of searching the rubble—from my couch. I had just quit teaching and was preparing to begin work on my MFA. My husband and I were also trying to get a family started, but that day—September 11, 2001—while our entire country watched the details of the tragedy unfold, I was facing a personal tragedy. There I sat, alone in the house, watching everything on TV, and, at the same time, bleeding through my first miscarriage.

Writing has been good and useful for me over the years for a number of reasons. When I was young, it was fun. It was an intellectual exercise—through writing, my brain learned logic and syntax. Order and creativity. As I grew older, it became cathartic and then psychologically essential. If I didn’t express myself, I would go crazy. Fiction-writing has also been my escape, a means of forgetting my real-life’s troubles.

It still does all this for me. But there’s more: writing is life-affirming.

Joan Didion says, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She was speaking primarily about nonfiction-story-telling, about how we assign the confusing losses and utter mayhem of this life narratives to cope. (You should read this essay, btw. It’s the title essay of her collection, The White Album.)

She’s right, of course, she’s brilliant, but I might say this about writing, specifically about fiction-writing: We make up stories because we are alive. I believe it is absolutely essential to our humanness. This is one of the--if not the--most fundamental human traditions.

Of course, when I lost the pregnancy, I cried. I crawled into various hiding places. I buried a bloodclot in the backyard. I watched too much of the news coverage.

But then, eventually, I sat down at my desk and re-entered the story-telling tradition.

No matter the country’s or the world’s or your own personal situation in this moment, I think we really must understand how important this writing-thing is. And I don’t mean only for personal fulfillment or to try to inspire another person. These are certainly important, but there's something else, something a bit closer to the marrow. I think we have to write—we have to make up stories—because it is a symptom of our being alive. We humans do these things: we build buildings and empires, we love and we hate, we plant things, cook things, clean things, destroy things, we have babies and we die—and we tell stories.