Yesterday I cried in Barnes and Noble. Right next to a preteen boy meeting his math tutor and a disgruntled older gentleman trying to locate a book on ornithology—both scenarios more deserving of tears than my own. I sat, trying not to drip on the book in my hands, and read the words of Colum McCann in his newest work, Letters to a Young Writer.
Please, roll your eyes—I’m aware of my nerdy and dramatic tendencies, especially when literature is involved. But this time my response felt warranted because I held a collection of words kindred to my soul. They pinpointed exactly why I want to be a writer. I felt cut open and liberated, supported and asked to fight on. I read the entirety of the little book in one sitting. I wish I could give you a copy to read, whether or not you are an aspiring writer, because McCann’s philosophical advice transcends writing. He calls his readers to tell stories because stories are a means of making sense of the world—and oh how we need help making sense of this mysterious, unforgiving place. Storytelling is an indispensable human role, but it is in dire need of rescuing.
This is what I mean: “story” has become a buzzword. From the local startup to the missionary to the craft coffee shop, everyone wants to tell a story. This is a good and human thing. Narratives entice us through their relevance to our own lives and their potential to evoke empathy. Even Instagram has capitalized on this desire; we can add photos and videos to our daily “story”. But in a world made small by social media and never-ending access to narrative we need to be careful. We risk twisting the intention of story by turning inward, and thus diminishing its power.
I want to be a writer. For so long I have feared immortalizing those words in ink because I fear being seen as self-indulgent and self-centered—what makes my stories worth reading? But this question misses the mark because the work of a storyteller—a writer, director, artist, conversationalist, or human—is not to share tales from one short life for individual recognition. Rather, a storyteller illuminates truth beyond his or herself. While I may write stories about my failures or triumphs, these words should never be only about me. They should resuscitate and redeem the beauty and wholeness I am created to reflect.
We do this by writing toward topics we don’t understand so that our stories can raise important questions and seek answers. We also do this by sharing stories on behalf of others. The greatest responsibility of a storyteller is to be an exceptional listener and observer so that we are prepared to present necessary stories at the right time.
In the Gospel of Matthew the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks to people in parables. Jesus says,
“That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast repeated all over again:
‘Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing.’”
(Matthew 13:13-14, The Message)
If we are to follow the teachings of Jesus, we should use our abilities as storytellers in all mediums to shed light on the Gospel. This is not to say that all stories must hold a deep, introspective meaning. Sometimes laughter and a relatable awkward account are precisely what we need to carry on in this inexplicable life.
Let me return to my weeping bookstore tale. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of McCann’s book:
“Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write toward that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. …Restore what has been ridiculed by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Sing. Make vision from the dark.”
I wish that “story” were a verb. If this were the case I would replace the verb “write” in this excerpt with the verb “story”. I would urge you, “Go, story!” the same way a mama bird would nudge her chicks out of the nest with, “Go, fly!”
In storytelling we can arrest time. We can rip open the universe and dissect the elements of love and hope and pain and death that comprise it. We can empathize. We can learn truth. We can revel in the mystery of a God that created it all. Together we can be in awe at the multitude of things we will never understand.
We must be careful to protect and not whitewash this tool.”
We need people to tell stories not for the purpose of being seen, but for the purpose of seeing others. Maybe then we’ll draw a little closer to our role as conduits for love as we tumble forward.
By Megan Sexton