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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Starting my summer of story

Story is for a human as water is for a fish — all-encompassing and not quite palpable.

This is from The Storytelling Animal, a relatively new (2012) book by Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor at Washington and Jefferson College, that is thought-sparking on a variety of story-related topics — why and how we dream, how children live so naturally in storyland, and why in the world we are storytelling animals. The survival value of fiction isn’t obvious, after all, but it must exist: humans have been immersed in story at all times, all over the world and in all cultures. And still today.

Gottschall’s book is a bubbling stew. Midway through the first chapter, I wrote in the margin, in my red pencil: summer of story. That, I thought right then, is what I want to do: give some or much of this summer — now that my year of visiting schools to talk about my books has just ended — to story.
    I especially want to think and read — and write in this space — about story, and stories, for readers who are younger than the middle schoolers for whom I’ve usually mostly written, until now (my newest book, Treasure Town, is my first for primary schoolers). Even maybe share a story or two. The summer of story.
     So, to start, here are some bits from The Storytelling Animal, with brief thoughts added:

Writers are merely drawing, not painting. ... Our minds supply most of the information in the scene — most of the color, shading, and texture.
    ... So it is with any story. A writer lays down words, but they are inert. They need a catalyst to come to life. The catalyst is the reader’s imagination.

In talking with young readers, I’m often trying to get just this across. You are the movie screen, I’ll say. The words on the page are just a set of clues, of cues to your imagination. When you read a story, you bring your life to it; the magic, if it happens at all, can only happen in you. The story can only come to life when your imagination, emotions, thoughts and experiences meet and combine with those words on the page.
    When I say this, most kids just look at me. I’m not sure they get it — but, I’ll say, this is what makes reading a story special, as opposed to watching one. If you walk out on a movie, the movie doesn’t care; but if you close a book, the story dies. It can only come to life inside you.

Humans are creatures of story, so story touches nearly every aspect of our lives. ... Business executives are increasingly told that they must be creative storytellers: they have to spin compelling narratives about their products and brands ... Political commentators see a presidential election not only as a contest between charismatic politicians and their ideas but also as a competition between conflicting stories about the nation’s past and future.
It’s true, story is everywhere. When we don’t find it, we tend to create it. Can Bernie Sanders be David to Hillary’s Goliath? In the marketing world just now, “authentic storytelling” is a buzz word, as is “content marketing” — and both mean finding and sharing stories, about your product or service or initiative (or candidate), through today’s multiplicity of media.

Why are the stories of Homo sapiens fixated on trouble? The answer to that question, I think, provides an important clue to the riddle of fiction.
    ... There is a yawning canyon between what is desirable in life ... and what is desirable in fiction. ... There is a paradox in fiction that was first noticed by Aristotle in the Poetics. We are drawn to fiction because fiction gives us pleasure. But most of what is actually in fiction is deeply unpleasant: threat, death, despair, anxiety, Sturm und Drang.

Just lately this has been fascinating me: thinking how trouble always seem to roil, or bubble or lurk, at the heart of any good story. We think of fairy tales as if they were affirming and kind — but most fairy tales had guts of danger, violence or cruelty, if not all three.
    Teachers often teach that stories have to have conflict. I like to talk instead about tension. For example, a love story. Say I’m in love with you but you’re already in a relationship, and we’re just good friends, which is how you want it, but not me. There may be no conflict in our story at all; but there will definitely be tension, and that’s what will engage the reader.
    So why do we yearn in stories for the trouble, conflict and danger that we (most of us, at least) avoid in life? I don’t think there’s an answer. It’s just how we are.
    And, of course, there are some great stories about that.

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