Saturday, October 04, 2008

How Fiction Does Its Work on Us

The Fantasy Fiction Tour had a great day at the Mennonite Educational Institute in Abbotsford, BC. We spent the afternoon speaking to classes and doing small-group writing workshops. We wrapped up with an hour-long program MC'ed by Christopher Hopper (he and his wife Jenn made it from New York thanks to heroic efforts and very little sleep) in which several of us spoke 10-15 minutes each on topics related to fiction and storytelling. I spoke on "How Fiction Does Its Work on Us." Here's a lightly edited version of what I had to say:

I’m taken by an image that originated with GK Chesterton. Actually, the image comes from Philip Yancey, who was himslf trying to summarize Chesterton. He said we’re all like amnesiac castaways who have survived a shipwreck and wake up on the beach—we don’t remember much about where we came from, but we’re surrounded by the broken pieces of our beautiful ship and its broken contents. Culture is the work of trying to put it back together.

For me, that’s what writing is like. All these broken pieces of truth and beauty lying about: how do you begin to put them together into something that is a little truer, a little more beautiful than what we see every day? Stories, when they are told the right way, give us something that is TRUER than everyday life.

Bringing Abstractions Down to Earth
Reading with my children has reminded me of a truth that years of adulthood had almost caused me to forget: that “story” is truer than “precept.” We adults tend to think that we arrive at the truth of a story by reducing it to two or three abstractions that the narrative embodies. The parable of the Prodigal Son is “about” grace and forgiveness. The Lord of the Rings is “about” courage and friendship. We listen with half an ear as the preacher reads the scripture lesson, because his sermon is going to boil it down to three basic truths anyway.

But our children know it’s the story that does the work on us, not the disembodied precept. If you don’t believe it, open up a book of Aesop’s Fables; skip the fables, and just read the morals at the end of the fables. You might just as well tell punch lines instead of telling jokes. The moral may summarize the story and bring it to a point, but the moral isn’t the point.

It’s not that abstract concepts or ideas are unimportant. Mercy, forgiveness, repentance, abundance—all the things that form the basis of Christian truth—are abstract concepts. But being mere mortals, we can’t really understand any of those things if they aren’t grounded in what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. You can talk about grace until you’re blue in the face, but you aren’t going to come up with a definition that improves on the parable of the Prodigal Son: a father, arms outstretched, welcoming a rebellious and wicked son back into his home. And the word “friendship” doesn’t mean much unless you’ve seen a friend in action—Sam Gamgee, for instance, nearly drowning himself rather than let Frodo journey to Mordor alone.

Reading as Experience
Experience is the best teacher. That’s one reason books are so important in a child’s life—because stories are a kind of experience too. In fact, stories offer a range of experience that not even the most adventurous soul could hope to get first-hand.

Books allow young readers to face the big questions they will someday face in real life. Which is to say, good stories give young readers a wisdom beyond their years. They give readers and listeners the opportunity to think through dilemmas, work through crises of conscience, test themselves against the most trying of circumstances, all in comparative safety.

Consider the wrenching dilemma that Travis faces when Old Yeller contracts rabies and it falls his lot to shoot his own dog. Your children probably won’t ever deal with a rabid dog. But someday they will face a moment when love and loyalty collide with the painful facts of a fallen world, and Old Yeller gives them some practice in dealing with that truth before it crashes in on them for real.

Books introduce readers to a vast array of personalities, both role models and negative examples, again in relative safety. Your children are bound to run into charmers who hide bad intentions behind a friendly face. How much better if they meet that person first in the form of Long John Silver? On the other hand, no matter how many good role models your children are blessed to have in their lives, their range of positive influence can’t help but be expanded by an acquaintance with Anne of Green Gables and Charlotte the spider and the subjects of a thousand biographies available at the library.

The Habit of Understanding
But even more important than the proliferation of positive and negative examples is the fact that a story allows a reader to join in the inner lives of its characters. Readers aren’t mere spectators or audience members. A well-written book allows them to experience what it’s like to be another person. And isn’t that the very basis of empathy and kindness? Isn’t it a key component of love?

That’s a vital point. The moral benefit of a story goes far beyond the “moral of the story.” Almost by definition, an avid reader is in the habit of understanding what it’s like to be somebody else. Whatever the moral of the story, reading sharpens the skills of empathy, which is not only a moral virtue, but a huge advantage in any pursuit. Habit Five of Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” boils it down: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Readers, you might say, are habitual understanders.

Our natural tendency is to close in on ourselves, to be so concerned with our own interests, our own preoccupations that we find it hard to understand another person’s perspective. More than that, we find it very hard to understand our own selves.

Consider the case of David and Bathsheba. Because I tell stories for a living, one of my heroes is the prophet Nathan. He’s the one who had the unfortunate job of confronting David about his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah.

One has to be careful when exposing a king who has already demonstrated a willingness to murder in order to keep his guilt hidden. So Nathan made up a story. He told about a rich man with many flocks and herds and a poor man who had only one little lamb that he loved like a family member. When the rich man needed a lamb to feed a visitor, he took the poor man’s pet lamb rather than slaughter one of his own.

David was enraged. He vowed that the rich man would die for this injustice. That’s when Nathan brought the truth down like a thunderstroke: “You are the man.”

It was one of the great moments in the history of fiction. Cut to the heart, David repented of his sin. And Nathan the prophet lived to tell more stories.

Nathan’s story did what all great fiction does: it took David out of himself, and it gave him an emotional attachment to what it is good and right. Nathan didn’t tell the king anything he didn’t know already. David knew it was wrong to kill a man and take his wife. But he had built for himself a little world of self-justification and self-protection and self-indulgence that made it possible for him to ignore the moral facts of the matter. Nathan’s story took him out of that world and let him see what it looked like from the outside.

I love the Narnia books. I think what I love most about them is the fact that they give us a chance to renew the way we feel about things we’ve known all our lives. If you’ve been paying attention in Sunday School, you already know all the theology in the Narnia books. They don’t give you new facts to chew on. They help align your feelings and desires with regard to the facts you already know.

Loving the Right
As the prophet Nathan knew, it’s not enough to know what’s right. People have to desire what’s right before they’ll do it consistently. Books have a unique ability to shape a person’s sympathies—to change what they desire.

A virtuous life is a life of adventure—of facing challenges, standing firm, rescuing the powerless, righting wrongs. A good children’s book dramatizes that adventure and makes it seem like the sort of life that nobody would want to miss out on. It doesn’t just tell the reader what’s right; it helps the reader to want what’s right.

In Books that Build Character, William Kirkpatrick and Gregory and Suzanne M. Wolfe give the Scottish novelist George MacDonald the highest praise you could give a children’s author: “In a MacDonald story, selfish behavior appears to be boorish and dull, whereas selflessness is full of risk and excitement.”

You can’t ask for much more than that in a book, can you? A merely moralistic story contains a “good message.” A truly moral story has a good message too, but more importantly it excites and engages—not only for entertainment, but also as an invitation to join in the adventure of a life well lived.

I believe Paul meant something like this when he wrote to the Philippians about “approving the things that are excellent.”

Real life doesn’t always feel like a great adventure. Sometimes doing the right thing is rather dull. Great stories remind us and our children that in the end, the choices we make every day are the stuff of greatness. The world is changed by people who choose to tell the truth, to show kindness, to be courageous.

Our natural tendency is to burrow into our own little lives and so lose perspective on what really matters and what’s really true. Our good deeds start to seem irrelevant, and our bad deeds start to seem like they’re no big deal. We all need to step outside ourselves now and then—perhaps to try out another, better self, or perhaps, as David did, to see our own situation from another viewpoint.

That’s why stories are so important in a child’s life, and in anyone else’s. Teaching a child what’s true and right requires the telling of stories—Bible stories, histories, family stories, fiction. It’s fine to tell our children that virtue is good. It’s better to tell them a story that shows them that virtue is beautiful and desirable. It’s better still to tell them a story that lets them enter into a life of virtue—that lets them try on virtue for size.


Siobhan said...

I am so glad that the Fantasy Fiction tour came to Abbotsford this year. It was so great to get to meet so many gifted and inspired writers.

I especially loved hearing you talk about fiction. And I have your book now! I'm going to start reading it soon, and then I'll tell you what I think.

samuel said...

I was just rereading this recently. Fantastic stuff. Thank you.