Once Upon a Time… the Power of Stories

Posted by on Nov 16, 2016



We need stories of hope to outshine stories of hatred and fear



Calling all Storytellers: 

Please consider both the power and the danger of stories.

Artists, readers, audiences, dreamers – that is, most everyone, wearing one hat or another – this is for you.

This past week, I have been flattened by existential despair; I have fought against a tsunami of fear for my family. I still believe, however, in the power of education and expertise. What I know, from training and practice, is Story. What I can tell you is this:

The stories a society shares are the web that gives the group structure, cohesiveness, a shared set of hopes and dreams, a common understanding of good and ill. They are not merely entertaining or decorative, though the best are both. They are fundamental to any society’s existence.

Right now, we desperately need stories of hope to outshine stories of hatred and fear.

We need heroes of creation rather than destruction. We need to offset too-easy assumptions that heroes are limited to warriors and winners who defend us by force from asteroids, zombies, undocumented hordes, the opposing team, or any other demonized thing or set of people. We need heroes who stand for tolerance, equality, thoughtfulness, kindness, and peace.

We need tales that prize wit, sophisticated language and spirited debate, that teach nuance by example. In its blockbusters, Hollywood has drifted toward the monosyllabic (easier to translate and sell globally), and social media has drifted towards simple pictures. But one of the glories of our species is surely our capacity for sophisticated language, capable of precise detail and delicate nuance. We need to pull those around us up, rather than talk down or pare back to the uncomplicated and the simple.

We need heroes of science against blinkered dogma, either religious or political (Galileo), we need heroes of the courtroom (Erin Brockovich and Atticus Finch) and of the courts (Brown vs. the Board of Education), we need heroes who pull the rest of us toward freedom and equality (Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony). To balance the many heroes who fight with swords and jets, we need heroes who prize education, intelligence, and expertise, whose weapons are pens, books, patient lab work, long study and perseverance (Malala Yousafzai and Hermione Granger) – and yes, we need both the terribly real and the delightfully fictional. We need heroes who walk (Martin Luther King), heroes who sit (Rosa Parks), and heroes who stand (the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square). We need everyday heroes of farms and ranches, of small towns and schoolrooms, as well as widely known leaders of elite universities, halls of power, boardrooms and battlefields. We need heroes who stand up for facts and details, who do not confuse mere repetition with truth. We need heroes who refuse, in the name of balance, to give lies and nonsense equal weight with fact; we need heroes who will call a lie what it is.

We need to stop confusing heroes and bullies.

Those, it might be said, have been the failings of journalists and historians, all those tasked with reporting truth. But those of us who spin flights of fancy, and those who sell them, have not carried our share of the burden of story, either.

Darkness does NOT = Art.

My least favorite adjective of critical praise these days is “gritty.” In powerful circles, a too-easy equation has taken root between dark, violent, foreboding blight and “serious art.” There is a place for bleakness in art, but it is not a fundamental characteristic of either art or seriousness. Tragedy is one of the highest art forms, but great Tragedy has the effect of release and enlightenment, not despair. And its nearly forgotten and equally great twin is Comedy. The United States is a nation that has come to share fear, but not laughter. We are increasingly split into factions that laugh at rather than with each other. That is a recipe for a soul-sick society.

Great belly-laughter, the laughter of delight, does not come at someone else’s expense: it is not the same beast as the sly, condescending smile of parody or the razored anger of satire. It is not blunt-force trauma masking as slapstick. Laughter of delight draws others in, rather than pushing away, much less punishing. It spreads joy and pleasure – a sense of light – rather than cruelty and blame.

As for beauty and joy: many of our entertainments have forgotten these altogether. Perhaps it is fear of falling short and achieving only sentimentality or cheap sweetness. Perhaps it is laziness: for beauty and joy are not the same as prettiness and happiness, and are often anything but easy. They are not the same thing as release and relief from darkness, the lifting of a storm. They are not the same thing as triumph, and do not necessarily come with trumpets, fanfare, explosions and special effects.

It is admittedly easier to aim at fear and easier to sell it. But fear brings out the worst in all of us. One aim of art may be to unmask ugly truths, to reveal our inner demons, but to stop and dance with them is a dangerous indulgence. It is also, for artists, a job left half done. Hatred and cruelty exist, and there is a place for them in our stories. But we wallow among them at our peril; worse, we lure others into the quagmire.

Toward the Light

Whatever else the endeavor of art may be, it is not to nurture our demons, but somehow to recognize them while showing the way into the light: to celebrate beauty, joy, knowledge, wisdom, tolerance, love, endurance, resilience, kindness, generosity and peace. It is surely the task of artists to create and share a vision of what is great and good.

Now, more than ever, we need to get to work, in corners great and small, wherever and however your talents call. Not sniping or shouting or blaming, not chattering in gloom or shouting in triumph among the like-minded, but gathering those who are like you and those who are not, lifting them up, and looking toward the light.




  1. Thank you for your intelligent novel, “Interred….” I just finished reading it in the city of Ashland, Or, home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. You have added to my store of knowledge as well as shaping a feisty heroine.May the light not be buried under a bushel of lies.
    I am another nasty woman and proud of it. Looking forward to reading another of your books.

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