What is your story putting into the world?
I mean that question literally. Every story takes up space in the world—and not just on a bookshelf. Every story you read or watch becomes a part of you. It changes you. Your brain physically changes to make space not just for the memories of this story, but for the thoughts, feelings, and viewpoints it has created or evolved.
I say it often: There is no such thing as “just” a story.
Every story changes every person who encounters it. Sometimes those changes are so monumental, we know our lives are forever changed. But even the changes we don’t consciously notice are still an irreversible weft in the growing tapestry of our lives.
Anybody who reads your story (including you) is going to be changed by it. Their brains will change to make space for it. Their lives will change, for the better or for the worse.
So let me ask you again, because I believe it is a question that creators need to be challenged with as often as possible: What is your story putting into the world?
Tapping Our True Responsibility as Authors: The Power of Hopeful Fiction
It seems to me this is an even more pertinent question than ever right now, as the world is challenged and stretched in ways it certainly has never been in our lifetimes. We need to be telling stories that inspire us, stories that make us glad we were the people born to live lives of meaning in such epic times as these, stories that urge us out of bed in the mornings, stories that reach down deep inside our collective unconscious and show us the archetypal and transformative truths of our existence.
This power cannot be conveyed unless authors are committed to understanding and practicing the foundational tenets and techniques of good fiction. (In short, good intentions don’t, of themselves, make good stories). More than that, this power cannot be tapped unless we as authors, artists, and creators are committed to finding transformation in our own lives.
How can we put hope into the world unless first we allow hope in our own hearts? How can we write stories of substance unless we are striving to live substantial lives? How can we write stories that keep faith with our fellow humans and with the larger Truth of our incredible existence unless we dare to leave the false shelter of our own cynicism? How can we try to offer even a spark of light to the world unless we first relinquish our own grip on the shadows?
Every day, I must ask these questions of myself as much as anyone else.
Without question, we do need stories that tell the Truth. Stories that gloss over the anxiety, fear, loneliness, despair, and uncertainty of our lives are stories that lie. But if we, as storytellers, never get past using our fiction for nothing more than the catharsis of our own difficult feelings, then these feelings are likely all we’re putting into the world.
It is not enough to diagnose humanity’s illnesses. We must find ways to rise above them. As Oscar Wilde said with infinite poignancy:
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
Let’s start by looking at the stars, and then, as storytellers, let us point to the sky so others may look too.
5 Types of Story the World Needs From You Right Now
If you were to take a minute right now I bet you could rattle off at least a dozen popular stories that aren’t putting too much good out there into the world. It’s a self-perpetuating trend. Popular stories get imitated, consciously and unconsciously, and the cycle continues. Just as life influences art, art influences life—and the cycle rolls on. (And who’s going to benefit from a cycle that keeps telling us life pretty much bites?)
Yes, absolutely shine a light on the sins that need purging. Teach us about injustices. Introduce to us to characters who tell us we’re not alone in our pain. Give us that emotional catharsis we all need. But do it in a way that ultimately makes us grateful to be alive and inspires us with the belief that we can wake up tomorrow and live a life of meaning.
If you want to put something good out there into the world, here are five types of stories you can write right now that have the potential to create positive change in a positive way.
1. Stories of Goodheartedness vs. Contempt
In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell tells the story of Irish folk hero Niall—the youngest brother who succeeded where his brutish older brothers failed by showing affection to the ugly crone who guarded a well. Campbell closes the story by recognizing the truth that:
…the hero should be endowed with what the troubadours and minnesingers termed the “gentle heart.”
We’re a people fluent in sarcasm, parody, and satire. Nothing inherently wrong with that—as long as the scales aren’t tipping so heavily into contempt that they’re toppling over. Nothing wrong with anti-heroes either. Most of us love Han more than Luke. But… could we have had a story that put so much good into the world without gentle, goodhearted Luke at its center?
In our entertainment-saturated era, we are all jacked on contempt. It’s the “in” language. And it’s contagious like crazy.
Who among us can’t use a little extra goodheartedness? We take courage from the inspiration of those heroes like Niall who triumph out the deep goodness of their hearts—who teach us kindness, generosity, cheerfulness, and even self-sacrifice. Them’s good vibes right there.
2. Stories of Faith vs. Cynicism
Oy, the cynicism right now. A certain show with the certain unofficial theme of “no good deed goes unpunished” seems an appropriate poster child for the zeitgeist of the decade. Again, however entertaining or even seemingly realistic this idea may be, how can this be a good concept to put out into the world?
We need to believe our struggles and sacrifices to be and do good will be rewarded, if not directly in our own lives, then at least by creating positive impacts in the lives of others. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I have faith that we each have the ability to make positive impacts, in ways large and small. I especially have faith that authors have the ability to put into the world such stories of power and hope that people’s lives will be changed. Perhaps the changes are as small as a lift in the spirits on a hard day. Even if it’s no bigger, isn’t that a gift of incredible power?
People don’t need help being cynical. They do need help keeping faith—in themselves, in each other, and in something bigger. As a writer, you truly have the opportunity to give them—you, me, us—that gift.
3. Stories of Substance vs. Shallowness
What makes a story “substantial”? I think we hear words like that and immediately think of those really important books that we feel like we probably should read someday but don’t really want to. We think of books written by geniuses, not little ol’ us. But substance is found in all kinds of surprising places—in fluffy romances, in sit-coms, in action flicks, in children’s stories. In fact, Madeleine L’Engle’s famous quote about the complexity of children’s books might as well apply to the surprising power that can be imbued into even the most “fun” kind of entertainment:
You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.
There are many things that grant substance to a story and raise it out of pointlessness or meaninglessness. To me, the most important factors are ones we’ve already mentioned: transformation and truth. In order for your story to check the boxes beside both of those, it isn’t necessary for it to be one of those really important books (although it certainly can be).
Don’t write just for entertainment—yours or anyone else’s. Write honestly, from the depths of your heart and your experiences, in search of transformative truth. It’s all around us every single day, just waiting to be found in ways large and small.
4. Stories of Brightness vs. Darkness
Speaking of L’Engle, I find myself returning to her wisdom a lot these days. Here’s another gem:
A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.
I like dark fiction. I’m talking fiction that takes me all the way down to the bottom of the pit of despair. But it’s gotta throw me a rope too. It’s gotta tell me, as Samwise Gamgee does, that:
There’s some good in this world… and it’s worth fighting for.
Grimdark is so “in” and so pervasive, especially in the fantasy genre, that it’s difficult not to be influenced by it as a writer. But I was reminded in recent weeks of the power—nay, the necessity—of stories that seek the light. I’ve fallen in love with the YouTube channel Like Stories of Old, which offers philosophic essays on popular movies. The entire channel is a phenomenal example of putting good into the world, but this two-parter on Tolkien is perhaps my favorite.
5. Stories of Hope vs. Despair
One the reasons for the pervasiveness of “darkly realistic” stories is that writers feel a need to “tell things like they are.” People need to know the truth about the world—about the politicians’ dark deeds and the underbelly of human suffering. Otherwise, we’ll drift off in a soporific daze and end up in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
But I can’t help but think that we’ve reached a point where we’re perhaps more in danger of forgetting the good things than we are the bad.
We don’t need any reminders to despair. But we do need to be reminded—the more often, the better—to hope. Paulo Coelho wrote:
When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.
Hope is not some namby-pamby good feeling. Hope is difficult. Hope is ferocious. It is a phoenix clawing its way up from the ashes. It is powerful for the very reason that it requires tremendous courage.
We don’t often think of writers as being particularly courageous people. Unless we’re hard-hitting journalists or risking our lives to speak out against oppression, we’re mostly just quiet, ordinary people sitting alone at our desks day in and day out, spinning little tales that amuse us or let us express our feelings. But let us not underestimate what we do and who we are. To write stories that put something good into the world—to write stories of passionate and unrelenting hope—to show up at our desks every day in a facedown with the subtle and slinking forces of despair—this is courage.
Many of you will have extra time on your hands in the weeks and months to come. May I encourage you, as Maxine Hong Kingston encourages me:
In a time of destruction, create something.
Take care of yourselves, so you may take care of your readers. Bring something wonderful into your life today, so you will have something wonderful to pass on into someone else’s life. Choose courage and hope and love, so that every word you write today will help someone else also find the courage to create, the hope that changes lives, and the love that makes it all worthwhile.
Stay safe and healthy, friends.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you want your story to put into the world? Tell me in the comments!
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