The Use of Stories


Image courtesy of, Light Bulb by Mr. Lightman

Image courtesy of, Light Bulb by Mr. Lightman

What’s the use of stories? What do they do for the world?

I often think about this question and the many ways it’s been asked over time. A few weeks ago, when I wrote about the human urge to create, the question came to me again. Some innovations are so clearly practical. The make life simpler, safer, or more comfortable. Think of the light bulb, the polio vaccine, or the automobile. But stories don’t speed your commute or cure the common cold. So what do they do?

While it’s true that human beings have the urge to be creative, to think of new things and make them, there are certain societies, and certain time periods, that see more innovation than others. When new technologies – the printing press, the internet – become available, a burst of creativity follows. Circumstances can do the same. In 2011, Scott Turow, Paul Aiken and James Shapiro, all representing the Author’s Guild, wrote a fascinating op-ed about the innovation that fueled the golden age of drama in Elizabethan England. They argued that by allowing theaters to build walls and restrict plays to paying customers, they triggered an explosion of creativity, because suddenly playwrights could set aside the time and energy needed to write, knowing they’d be paid for it. (Would the Bard have survived the Web?)

Physical space can also spark innovation. A 2012 New Yorker piece by Jonah Lehrer described how building design that forces people from different specialties to interact produces more innovation than traditional spaces. (Groupthink)

Stories do the same thing. In fact, I’d argue that stories directly produce the environments that stimulate creative growth. Why? Because before we can invent a cure, build a building, or do any of the other things that make change happen, we have to believe it’s possible, and desirable, to do so.

Stories shape those perceptions. Lots of ancient stories were told to keep people in line and preserve the status quo. Stories like the king is god. You, on the other hand, were born to be a serf and sail too far and you’ll  fall off the edge of the earth kept people from rebelling and exploring. Other stories opened up new vistas. The Declaration of Independence, with its narrative of equality and the unalienable right to pursue happiness, gave people permission to innovate, and in the first century of its existence, that idea sparked a wave of pioneering and industrial innovation that changed the world.

So one use of stories is clearly to open doors, and set the stage for other kinds of creativity. But I’d argue further that stories are an end in themselves because while human beings enjoy a better light bulb and a faster car, we also crave understanding, and to reach beyond our own experience. Stories do that too. At their best, stories let you leave the confining package of your body and explore other places, other minds, other realities. If along the way someone gets inspired to find a cure for the common cold, well, that’s good too.


The Book Princess and the Book Proposal

Yesterday the Book Princess, who has often appeared on this blog, received a very interesting book proposal from her Knight in Shining Armor. It’s not the kind with outlines and explanations about where your book fits into the market. It was a more interesting one:

IMG_20131020_151729_043ring in a book (2)

Because he’s the Knight in Shining Armor, he did the whole thing with style. He called the library, found out which books were scheduled for disposal, and used one of those. He knew he’d never get a good response if he’d randomly defaced a book, no matter the reason. That he happened to find just the right title among those scheduled-to-go books, well, they do say truth is stranger than fiction.

Could there be a more appropriate way to propose to a Book Princess?


It takes a lot to impress the Book Princess, but her Knight in Shining Armor had it covered. Here’s wishing them, in my sister-in-law’s apt phrase, a wonderful happily ever after.

Congratulations Book Princess!

Creativity Abounds

"Coffee Cup On Wood Shelf" by nuttakit, photo courtesty of

“Coffee Cup On Wood Shelf” by nuttakit. Photo courtesy of

My good friend Giliah, a talented artist (, once told me that art is everywhere. You can see it in product design from clocks on the wall to benches in the park. After she pointed that out, I started to look at the world with a new eye, and discovered that modern society really does teem with innovation. It’s not just in art, either. A few months ago, I got a good laugh reading product reviews on Amazon. (See some of the best ones here and here.) People take every opportunity to exercise their creativity, even in the most unexpected places.

Living just outside Washington, D.C. (otherwise known these past couple weeks as The Land That Time Forgot), I sometimes get discouraged about humanity, thinking of all those who seem interested only in pulling the world backward, in fighting the future. But then I think about art, and innovation, and the way human creativity seems to burst out all over the place, and it cheers me up. I know that creativity in government isn’t the same as it is in design, and that human beings have notoriously used their creativity for evil, as well as good. And yet, still, the human drive to create makes me happy. Maybe it’s because I think that ultimately, slowly, and yes, with setbacks, we do move forward. That may be a strange lesson to take from ballpoint pen reviews and the bright dinnerware sets on the shelves at Target, but what I mean is that people tend to want to make things, and often, that means make them better. Here’s hoping the desire to innovate will be at least as powerful a motivator on Capitol Hill as it is in your local variety store.

Writing in the rain


Photo courtesy of “Bad Weather” by Vlado.

It’s Monday again, and my window is filled with gray light and the too-soothing sounds of rainfall. This is the kind of day that is the enemy of productive thinking, and I’m sitting at my desk struggling to focus on pushing forward to reach the daily goal I set for myself of 1000 words (whether they be good, bad, or ugly.) The word-goal, which I took on after reading something one of my favorite authors, Patrick Ness, wrote about his schedule, has been a help to me since I started writing full time, and shows me see that even on days that are all white noise and white sky, I can still get something done.

It’s hard, though.

So in honor of that fact, and the rainfall, and the general, dreary Monday-ness of this day, I pulled out an old blog post from when I was blogging about business writing years ago. Apparently, I was in a cheerier frame of mind that day, or at least a more energetic one, and was capable of giving energetic advice. So here it is, and I’m just going to hope it helps me jump-start my week:

When the writing gets tough, the tough do laundry. Or wash the dishes. Or search for chocolate. Or talk on the phone. Or just get up and leave, and pretend there are errands to do. Okay, maybe all this is just me, but everyone has a technique for writing avoidance. So – with all those wonderful avenues for getting out of writing, how do you get into it when that blank page just looms?

A few ideas:

  • Write a letter. Letters often free you from the worry that you’ve got to say things in a specific way. Pretend you’re writing to a friend. Think about that bottom line – the overall point of what you wanted to say – and then just start a chatty letter. Eventually, you’ll get there. When you do, you can pull out the good parts, polish them to a high sheen, and have the beginning of a real document.

  • If you’re in the middle of a project, and it’s stalling, go and read from the beginning – out loud. Sometimes, hearing your own words out there in the air will trigger the next thought.

  • Make notes. Don’t worry about language or how the words sound. Think about the ideas. Sometimes one idea leads to the next, and those lead to the words.

  • Think geometry. A well-constructed piece of writing has a shape. It has a beginning, usually followed by a section that provides background, then a bloated middle section that provides the bulk of your information, then a shorter climax section, where you offer your reader that crucial piece of information that makes it all fall into place. Then you’ve got your ending. Imagine those pieces in a visual way, and try to fit your notes into the right chunk. Sometimes visual thinking triggers word-thought.

  • Do more research. Sometimes you can’t think what to say because you don’t have the information you need to say it. If you keep drawing a blank, go looking for something to fill it.

That was my long-ago advice. Hope it helps you as much as it did me. Now I’m going to make some notes, despite the rain.