“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” - Phillip Pullman
“And what do you do?” asks the polite professional lawyer in the group of polite professional people at my polite professional neighbour’s Christmas party.
“Me? Oh, I'm a writer,” I answer, equally politely.
“Oh, really?” A wave of heads turn in my direction, polite smiles become suddenly more interested. “What kind of writing? Journalism? Novels?”
“Well, I write stories for children and young adults,” I begin confidently, but oops, I'm losing them already. Smiles have taken on a glazed quality and I'm starting to be relegated to the category in their minds that houses lolloping bunnies, plucky hobbits and talking lions. I follow up quickly with a couple of my adult plays and novels but I can see in their eyes that my status has already been set. Children’s stories! – how quaint.
“But we all tell stories, don’t we,” I begin jovially, in what my husband would term my instructively-speaking-to-a-three-year-old tone. “Our reality, our economy, our social structures are all governed by stories, aren’t they?”
Deep nods and a strained kind of silence greet this; though a couple of people look a little as if they’re trying to work out if I'm insulting them in some covert fashion.
“And whether you subscribe to the idea that there’s only seven stories in the world or not, it’s amazing how these stories get replayed over and over in media and advertising isn't it? The small company who fights back from the edge of extinction. The underdog who wins through on the X Factor.”
Oh dear, the mention of X Factor – the professional version of Godwin’s Law after which any proponent can lose her credibility. And I haven’t even watched it in years!
A chorus of agreement, though with no discernible words, follows this, and mercifully our hostess comes to our rescue with a tray of mince pies. People break up into twos and turn to each other with noticeable relief. “Have you heard about X?”
I take refuge in a mince pie, and think. Why should we be afraid of confronting our stories? We adults absorb stories as voraciously as if we were children. The middle-aged lawyer creates a story to the judge and jury about why they should believe his client’s version of events. The saleswoman on my left creates stories that we will look better, feel happier and be more successful if we buy her product. And don’t even get me started on the advertising director opposite.
Stories are all around us, shaping our world and our outlook – and let’s face it, stories are not all capitalist cynicism. Good stories are centuries old, and they’re around for a reason. We NEED the story that we can succeed in whatever we do against insurmountable odds. We NEED the story that the bad guys will get punished and the good guys triumph.
Stories are acutely important for learning. They are the models by which children see the world and learn from it. Telling my son a story to deliver a message is ten times more effective that merely telling him the message. When I see him playing, I can see that games are stories in action. He’s already channelling the “rescuing hero” story, the “quest” story and the “overcoming the monster” stories all by himself.
Where does the power of story come from? As psychologists Melanie C Green and Timothy C. Brock note in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the mechanism of “transport” – using detail and emotional affect to involve the reader – is essential for a narrative. Highly transported readers find fewer false notes in a story than less transported readers, they evaluate protagonists favourably and show many other similar story-consistent beliefs. Interestingly, corresponding beliefs tend to be generally unaffected whether the reader knows a story is fact or fiction. I can know that a cream will not make me look younger, but I’ll buy it anyway.
And we’re at a Christmas party after all. Christmas is a great story. Though I'm an avowed atheist, I love Christmas! The human story of birth in humble adversity; the strong baddie that searches to kill the saviour of mankind, the call to adventure, the exiled and returning hero, the love that lays itself down for another; the elements are all there. And beyond the advent of Christianity, I feel the pagan solstice of Yule as instinctively as one born in the Northern Hemisphere can; the affirmation of life in the midst of snow, the fire lit against the cold and darkness, the shadows on the wall of the cave that mystics interpret, making sense of the sun and the stars, winter and summer, life and death.
Along with other wonderful stories passed down from times immemorial –The Flood, the Apocalypse, the Exodus – the story means something to us because in a sense (whether you are a believer or not) stories ARE real. Stories hold a deep psychological purpose, about our relationship to the universe and to Time. Stories give us hope, they give us meaning. In my book, the greatest story ever told is that of life; that we exist, and we do.
Around me the conversation has moved on, and now they’re talking about the recovery. (Belief in the market’s one of the best stories around at the moment!) I don’t have much to add to this so I gather my things together and start to slide unobtrusively towards the exit, when I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s the polite lawyer.
“I thought it was interesting,” he says breathlessly, “what you said about stories back there. It really made me think.”
My heart warms to him. “Why thank you,” I say.
“I've got to get my niece a Christmas present, and your book sounds ideal. Would I be able to get a signed copy?”