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.