Why I Write Stories
It’s not for the money.
Like all art forms, stories impose order and pattern on life events. This makes them more emotionally satisfying than real life, and emotional satisfaction is something we all seek.
It's easier to envision the patterns in fiction if we first look at a familiar painting. Most people know Grant Wood's painting, American Gothic, but to refresh yourself, you can open it now from the PGS Sister Wendy website by clicking the title.
Notice the mood of the painting: upright and buttoned up. Notice that the canvas is vertical and filled with vertical, “upright” lines. The building in the background may be a church. Black and white are important colors, because these people are stolid and solid. In their world, there is little gray. The few curved lines, such as the curve of the woman’s bodice and the lenses of the man’s glasses add complexity and contrast, though they also frame the suspicious faces. Notice the image of the pitchfork repeated in the pocket of the farmer’s overalls. The pitchfork is his standard. Looking at the painting, we may laugh, but it is the humor of irony, not merriment. The artist is underscoring certain features of this world.
Good stories likewise repeat motifs that underline their themes. The reader, by noting these repetitions, knows what’s important in the story. For example, Elizabeth Strout’s novel Abide with Me is about the death of a young woman and her pastor husband’s grief. Strout repeatedly mentions the cold of the Maine winter. It underscores the chilly reception the pastor’s wife got from the parish, the coldness of her death, the cooling of the pastor’s internal flame as he grieves. But like the calendar year, the story doesn’t end there. The season for grieving passes into spring. Life goes forward. There is satisfying symmetry in the way the novel follows a seasonal cycle we have all internalized. Reading this novel, we feel we too can survive our losses, that summer will return to our lives.
Michael Dorris’ novel, A Yellow Raft on Blue Water, opens with a scene of a mother braiding her daughter’s hair. This act is then mirrored in the novel’s structure—three generations of women’s lives, woven around one another.
In Butterfly Soup the transformation of the characters follows the life cycle of the butterfly that sits on the daughter's bedside stand. Each begins in the worm-like state of Valley's green caterpillar. The cocoon of hibernation for each character is a ritual behavior--a means by which the characters calm themselves but don't really confront their problem. Rosie has her Catholicism. Everett numbs himself with the rituals of manhood: a dog, a woman, a gun. Valley finds the usual coming-of-age rituals, drinking and sex, exacerbate her fears and looks to a Shamanistic practice of an old Indian woman for comfort. Ultimately, however, it takes an act of sacrifice for each to transform. I am interested in that moment when magical thinking—imagining that a nun’s bed or dog or peace pipe can resolve a problem—turns to dust, and a real meaning emerges.
It’s this kind of emotional satisfaction I’m after, a completeness and harmony that makes peculiar sense of events that otherwise appear random and unjust.
I also write stories to show how people and places are individual, and, paradoxically, how universal. I delight in noticing the peculiar incongruities in our thinking, how we all protest too much, then do exactly as we please. My characters may or may not get what they want. Some get something better and don’t know it, which is fine, as long as the reader knows. I want readers to take the long view. Life events may look dire in the short run and quite different in the end. My own life has been filled with the premature deaths of brother, sister, father, and my mother’s more appropriate death at age 83. As difficult as the grief has been for me, I have a wonderful husband and two delightful sons. I get to do what I love: write stories. I want to encourage readers to persevere with their lives, to find what’s next to love.
Photo by Margaret Barnes