The Dangerous Power of Story

We are all exposed to stories. There’s few lives they haven’t touched, though the most troubling of them are to be shaken off as a mere collection of words. Words aren’t considered with the same weight as actions. Words against us should be shrugged away as unlike sticks or stones, it’s suggested they can’t hurt us.

They’re only words.

Yet it’s a notion that dismisses an important truth – words have power. Words are subtle stones. They’re common to the point that we forget they have power, and while there may be some words that inspire or provoke more than their neighbours on the page of a dictionary, in general we are dismissive of what they can do. We pretend that’s all they are. We say that talk, something that is comprised entirely of words, is cheap. To really push their individual value down as far as we’re able, we say that a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s not said that a single novel is worth an entire art gallery. They’re words. Merely words. Put together, even artistically, and the most they can be is a story. Just a story.

Words are not so trivial as they’re said to be. Try to express your values without words. Try to convey the actions that are held so dear, to another, without the use of words. Attempt to make sense of the world and those within it without your thoughts following the pathways laid out by words and sentence structure.

It’s one of the core aspects of Newspeak in 1984, and one of the statements made by the book – that altering language to the point where a statement cannot be expressed reduces the thinker’s ability to conceive of it. It isn’t merely fiction – words change our way of thinking. Communication is a fundamental part of society and human civilisation. The patterns we’re given change our way of thinking.

Even seemingly harmless frivolities like meme macros or Snappy Sentence Case Headlines You Simply Won’t Believe could introduce an easy, reliable pattern. In the more harmful basket, catchy political slogans or easily repeatable mantras can reduce complicated issues to sparring soundbites, and leave us satisfied that enough critical thought has been engaged in.

History, culture, religion, tradition, and art are all affected by word. Words govern how we understand the world and how we understand each other. When we put our beliefs into words, we’re not only able to tell another what we think, but we introduce our idea into their thoughts. It may not be one they agree with, but the idea is a part of their thoughts now.

When we engage with stories and storytelling, we introduce new ideas into a mind.

In Kathryn Heyman’s lecture On Craft: The Quest at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, she stated that Art is the most subversive thing we can do. It’s where we identify the truths that are a part of the human experience, and give us the means to deal with the ups and downs of life. It’s where we learn that bad things can happen to us or those around us, and that we can persist.

One of the questions raised at the Judging Women lecture was in relation to Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – Would the book still be considered historical fiction, if the twelve men on the council were women, or would it have been considered women’s fiction? A similar point was raised around Stella Prize winner Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, that some see it as women’s history rather than Australian history. At some point, the male perspective became the default state. We could try to fix this, but NO, THE SANCTITY OF ART!

Art can be for its own sake, but the concept of art as a fragile, breakable thing is in itself destructive.

Like language itself, art can change and remain whole. If it didn’t change, would anyone continue past the first draft? More importantly, art can change us. There is no immutable table of rules and standards that governs what art should be. As with language, art is not a fixed thing, but the ever-moving result of tiny changes over the course of human civilisation.

We’re in one moment of it now, coloured by the bias and perception of the day, yet where it will lie years from now is unknown. It isn’t where we are today. Sanctity of art, the degradation of language, the abuse of the word – they’re all neat little ideas designed to keep us thinking inside the boxen.

We don’t have to be challenged by all art, but that doesn’t mean we should never be challenged by it. If we are serious about tackling the inequalities of the system, it’s the cause that is most responsible.

Exposing young readers to a more balanced view, with stories that are richer in diversity and fairer in representation will transform how they think. If the characters of the books they read are women as often as they are men, girls as much as boys, then doesn’t that become their standard for what is normal?

Is it vital that every scientist, mechanic, politician, doctor, police officer, firefighter, lawyer, teacher, farmer, labourer, astronaut, pilot, programmer, spy, accountant, shopkeeper, and millionaire in story is male? No. When you walk through a street, past ten people, five of them men and five of them women, does it strike you as unrealistic? Do you stop and wonder if perhaps you’re dreaming, because as stories tend to proffer, at least three (if not four) of those women should have been men. Probably not. Yet this is what has been pushed forward to the young.

In the lecture On Craft: Storytelling and the Storyteller, Lian Hearn stated that no matter how pure we think we are, we are always writing in our time, within the established orthodoxy. If our standard or default is that men are more presented than women, then this is what we recognise as normal. More dangerously, it is the rote – it is the pattern we fall to without thought, the one we follow because it’s what we’ve been shown, and as a result, it’s what we know.

The essence of the story, the sanctity of the art, is in the message. What are the fundamental truths in the story that reflect the human experience? Is it how we deal with heartbreak, or whether we piss standing up?

One of the most apparent statements that formed out of my experience attending the Sydney Writers’ Festival, was that we’re all in this together. Art, especially Story, can change the world. Our art can be better, not merely in quality, but in purpose. It’s our words that changed whether a force is a hands-on benefactor, or a totalitarian despot. It’s also ours to keep real.

Life is hard. Life has issues, and sometimes life threatens to crush us. Bad things happen, we have terrible days, and there’s no reason to hide it. How can we overcome what holds us back until we face it? How do we deal with bad times if we’re never exposed to the possibility of them?

We don’t need the shrink-wrapped fairytales dosed up with sugar and sweetness. We don’t need the corporate success-to-success embellishments. We don’t need politics co-opting the term narrative or story as a way to get around the fact they’re using spin. We really don’t need the soundbites and headlines that suggest to the public that they don’t need to think about an issue, because others will take care of the heavy thinking. As catchy as it is, we don’t need to adopt Everything-is-Awesome as our manifesto. (Ed: how many watchlists did this just put me on?)

In terms of a writer, with their agent, editor and publisher, everyone is working together to make the best story possible. At events like the festival, in writing groups, in writing courses, and other wordfests, everyone is on the side of art.

Even the critics are on the side of art, wanting to see the best rise and become our standard. We are in competition, but we are not engaged in a zero-sum game. We can choose better, stronger words, and put the complicated thoughts back into people’s heads. We can continue to give them the tools to look critically at what is happening in their world, be it globally or in their homes. With our words, we can change how people think. We can introduce them to the idea that bad things can happen, but that adversity isn’t the endpoint. More important, we can show them that the world could be better too, even if the bad times never truly leave.

Writers helping each other does not lessen the pool of words and ideas, but strengthens it, making us all richer for it.

No, not richer.


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