…and how reading them saves my life every single day.
If this sounds like hyperbole, it’s not, or only slightly. At the moment I pretty much live on the Coping Precipice and story is one of the things that stops me from tumbling right over. I want to take a moment to define what I mean when I say ‘story’ and for my purposes here Lani Diane Rich of Chipperish Media puts it best when she says “story is a series of events with meaning”. You can fit pretty much anything into that description – which is kind of the point.
Stories save my life by bringing me joy. There’s nothing like a really good book to delight and entertain me. I’m an enthusiastic re-reader and having read something before rarely diminishes the experience of reading it for a second, third or twentieth time. Even the most voracious consumer of literature can’t read for twelve hours a day, though, and I also find joy in watching TV and films (again, re-watching is no barrier to enjoyment!), reading my friends’ social media updates, listening to the radio and podcasts and learning via free MOOCs.
As far as I’m concerned, everything I just listed is a story. Someone creating a free online course about, say, Hadrian’s Wall has had to think about which parts of the wall’s history they want to tell and how they want to do that. A podcast about an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t just two people spewing out all their thoughts on it. They’ve had to note their thoughts, decide which ones to talk about, put them into order – they’ve had to decide, in other words, what story they want to tell. You listen to three different podcasts about the same episode and they’ll all be telling a different story. Even someone venting on social media has, consciously or otherwise, decided what story they want to tell about this particular event or feeling.
Joy (for me at this moment in my life) bleeds into escapism and distraction. I’ve been pretty honest here and elsewhere: I’m not happy with my life, I don’t like it and I don’t enjoy it very often. And so I consume stories to escape, to find myself somewhere more fun, more interesting, more fair. I don’t go as far into stories as some people do when they read (or watch, or listen), but I go far enough that the fatigue and pain and fear and problems recede a little.
As well as this, I find it terribly easy to spiral into negative and destructive thought patterns and it can happen within minutes. That’s why I listen to audiobooks when I’m going to sleep and when I’m resting. I need to learn how to cope with these thought patterns but I simply haven’t got the spoons at the moment so I distract myself instead – and there’s nothing like a great story to distract me from my thoughts.
On a slightly different note, I love story because it helps me learn. I first realised a couple of years out of formal education and more and more since then that learning is incredibly important to me. I read very little non-fiction now because one of the symptoms of ME/CFS is brain fog, which makes concentration and comprehension difficult. But that doesn’t mean I can’t keep on learning. There are the online courses I do, of course, and they really scratch that learning itch.
But more than that, we learn from all kinds of stories. That’s what they’re for, to give events meaning. Fiction tells us what the author thinks about people and the world. It can reinforce our world view or challenge it. The stories we choose to consume often demonstrate which we prefer, and while it’s easy to just go for what we’re used to it can be very rewarding to select something a bit different. There are wonderful disabled, queer, fat and Black, Asian, Indigenous and other minority ethnicity authors who write books that everybody can enjoy and it’s worth seeking them out. Consuming stories helps me to process things and to understand how people and the world work.
The other side of the story coin, of course, is creating my own. I think this is something I’ve done ever since I realised stories existed. I started writing my first book at age 10-11 (it was about the antics of my little sister and I was convinced it would be a bestseller!). Here are the five times that telling stories really has saved my life.
That time I told the same story over and over in my head every spare minute I had every day for nine and a half years. While eating, sleeping, showering, queuing, going to sleep, in quiet moments at work, even in gaps in conversations. I recently learned about a condition called Maladaptive Daydreaming and while I don’t quite fit the pattern, the vivid intensity and obsessive nature of it rings very true. Unlike many MDers I was telling a single story, a story inspired by a film I saw at a traumatic time which somehow caught my imagination and sparked off the development of this story that I hungered for. There were times when I wondered whether this was really healthy, and perhaps it wasn’t. But neither was I and I realise now that I needed it. Eventually, after nearly a decade, something changed and when I no longer needed the daydreams they simply stopped. It seems slightly surreal, looking back, to think that for some reason telling myself the same story thousands of times was healing, but it absolutely was.
That time I started writing fanfiction and everybody said they liked it. Some writers look down on fanfiction, but there’s really nothing like it for boosting the ego and giving you the confidence to keep on writing and thinking and being you. I was part of a small and tightly-knit fandom (one where I met many of my current friends, including one of the dearest I have) and even my first wobbly steps into fanfic were received with nothing but positivity and encouragement (I don’t think those earliest stories even exist any more. I sincerely hope not!). It isn’t just small communities that receive fanfic this way; everybody I know who has written it has reported positive experiences. Writing fanfiction was the first time anyone besides my family had read anything I’d written and it made me feel like maybe I could be good at it. More than that though, it made me feel accepted, wanted… part of a community. It’s hard to state what a positive impact that community has had on my life.
That time I started blogging and never looked back. First I blogged about working at the Post Office (that blog doesn’t exist any more). Then I blogged about books – that one does still exist and in theory isn’t abandoned, although keeping up with this one takes so much of my energy that I haven’t been able to write on it for a very long time. And now I blog about living life as me, specifically about having a chronic illness and mental illness and being queer. I have loved all my blogs. Judge me all you like but I don’t see the point in writing something that nobody will ever see. For a long time I assumed this was a flaw in myself, especially because so many authors talk about how keeping a diary was their first step towards being a published writer. But no, it’s just the way writing works for me. So I blog and it helps in so many ways. It helps me to work out what I really think about things and to express my thoughts. It often creates discussions about the subjects I’m writing on, and when I research the things I write about it helps me to learn. It helps me to keep in story-telling practice – even in this blog post about story it’s taken a long time to work out what story I want to tell.
That time I spent twelve years processing my feelings about my father by visualising scenarios in which I said all the things I wanted to say to him and then punched him in the face. And yes, my life has only been 35 years long so this not only overlapped with the previously mentioned story-daydream but started at about the same time and extended a couple of years longer. Apparently this is one of the ways I process! Again, the time came when I no longer needed these daydreams either, and again they simply stopped. It’s hard to express how these daydreams helped me. The way I told it, I had the power and the control. I could say what I wanted and do what I wanted. Interestingly, when I first began telling myself these stories, there would always be someone else there to support me, but over the years I stopped needing the other person. I could do what I needed to do by myself. Again, not a coping mechanism I hear very much about but one that was intensely powerful and healing for me.
And finally, all the times I tell myself stories that help me to reshape and reframe the world to make it a little easier to live in. Some are smaller, some are larger. There’s the story about how cataloguing and moving one book is a task completed from beginning to end, which replaced the story about how I wanted to move all the books by one author at a time. Or a recent story about a small but powerful entity that resides at the bottom of the back of my skull which I call the Poisonous Tadpole and which gets awakened by things that feel wrong and sends jets of poison through my brain – not perhaps something that makes me any happier with these problems, but does at least help me to distinguish different types of discomfort and the best ways of dealing with each. Some years ago, I began to question the traditional story of forgiveness I had been raised with and was able to retell it in a way that helped me live more peacefully. I’m still working on retelling the old story of how I am no longer of worth to myself, the people in my life or society at large because I can’t work or contribute in any other way.
Story is integral to my life but I sometimes wonder how other people relate to it. I know lots of my friends love to read, of course, but do you feel similarly to me about story in general? It’s one of those things that it’s hard to find specific information about. When you google story, or even “impact of story” or similar phrases, you just get instructions on how to tell stories, or why books are good for children. I want to know your personal story stories!