The Terrible Power of Story

There is something we don’t normally think about as writers: the fact that we hold lightning bolts in our hands. This Heaven’s-fire can light up the sky, dazzle, electrify, and inspire; but it can also lay waste and devastate. Consider: since the dawn of time, we humans have hungered for stories. We crouched around the fires, intent upon the words of the old one, who evoked for us places and people and deeds . . . wonders and terrors that we had not touched or tasted ourselves, but of which we partook through the magic of language and imagination.

We escape into stories. They transport us from our workaday lives to places where everything is more focused, usually more intense. The hardships and the triumphs are greater than ours. The colors are brighter, the passions are stronger, the resolutions more satisfying and meaningful. In stories, life makes much better sense. The wicked are punished. Virtue and perseverance are generally rewarded. Dreams come true — or if they do not, there is dignity and nobility in their not-coming-true.

Listen to anyone who loves a great book: “I felt I was there,” s/he says. “I want to go there.” “I want to live there.” “I didn’t want it to end.” Why are series books so popular from age to age? — because we never want it to end. We don’t want to come back from those places we love. We don’t want to say goodbye to those people.

This offering of an escape, a refuge, is a great service to readers. Sometimes it’s greater than we could possibly imagine. I was absolutely floored when a person — now a close friend — told me the story of how my book Dragonfly saved her life. That sounds like a ridiculously grandiose claim for me to make, and it would be, but for two reasons: 1.) it’s true, and 2.) the credit doesn’t belong to me. Dragonfly is not an “inspirational” book. It doesn’t have any “message” of encouragement, and the part that encouraged my friend isn’t a particularly encouraging part — in fact, it’s the book’s most tragic moment. But this person read it at precisely the time in life that she needed to read it. All the events of her life worked together — and yes, I believe that certainly God worked — through the medium or filter of this book, this scene — and this person was inspired to keep on living. She took one path instead of the other at a very, very dire crossroads in the darkest stretch of life. And she got to a place that was much better. Again, I had nothing to do with it. But God, working through her life’s circumstances and through something I left lying around out there in the world (the book) . . . saved a life. That’s an extreme example, but the point is, we never know. When the stories leave us, they have a life of their own. They’re like children in that sense. They’re made from parts of us — they have our blood in them — but they pass beyond our reach and our knowledge. They encounter people we never will. Tennyson wrote in The Princess: “Our echoes roll from soul to soul, / And grow for ever and for ever.”

All good and fine, right? Who wouldn’t want to be a writer? On the first day of class, I usually tell my writing students, “If you want to change the world, you’re studying the right thing.” But there is a grim side to it all.

Writing transports us into other worlds . . . wonderful, enchanting worlds. But think of the old stories in which people make forays into the realm of Faery. “Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand-in-hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” Or in another poem, Goethe’s, the Elf-King comes and snatches away the child, and the child’s father is left holding a corpse. Faery is an alluring place, but humans who enter it do not come back — or if they do, so much time has passed in their own world that everyone they knew and loved is either very old or long dead.

There is a cost to visiting elfland. The song of the Sirens lures sailors to their deaths. And are not these wonderful and well-loved books Faery to us? Take note of this next sentence, because it’s the gist of this lengthy exposition — it’s the one-line summary of this posting:

I have been as tormented by stories as by anything “real” in life.

Perhaps . . . no, probably . . . no, definitely — moreso. The joy of a story that gets into our hearts is a savage joy. A cruel joy. It’s devastating, and we have no defense against it.

First example: Watership Down. In fifth grade, I remember crying and crying when I finished reading it. The world for me had changed, not entirely in a good way. I had loved the book so much, and now it was over, and I knew that I might re-read it later in life, but that I’d never again have the experience of reading it for the first time. And I knew that, although I’d carry the book around in my heart forever, I couldn’t live inside the book. I’d have to go to school, grow up, work, etc. — those perfect moments of traveling with Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, et al. were not where the bulk of my life would lie.

That’s the reality: beauty — true and perfect beauty — makes us miserable. We encounter it, but it’s like the food in those all-you-can eat buffet restaurants: we can’t take it with us. And we have to leave; we always have to leave.

Second example: The Thorn Birds. Colleen McCullough published the book in 1977. In 1983 it was made into the TV miniseries, which made history for being second only to Roots in popularity. I first experienced it as the miniseries, which captivated me so much that I read the book. I was in high school. The story sent me into the wildest delight and worst agony I’d ever known. I was head-over-heels in love with Meggie Cleary. Not Rachel Ward who played her, but the character, Meggie. I wanted to live on Drogheda in the Australian Outback. I wanted to raise sheep. The story, along with the Mel Gibson / Sissy Spacek film The River, affected the way I thought — I saw rural, agricultural life as sacred, pure, and to be desired above all else. These stories affected the way I dressed. I had some hand-me-down clothes from my uncle, who was a farmer. I insisted on wearing these gray and khaki-colored, oversized shirts, pants, and floppy fedora hats even when I went away to college in the Chicago area. Stories — fiction — had given me an ideal. Or perhaps they had helped me to realize my innate ideals; I was a country boy, so country life was my birthright.

I bring this up now because recently I’ve been revisiting the film version of The Thorn Birds on DVD, and it’s amazing how it’s all come back to me in its grandeur, wonder, and searing pain. I’m in high school again. It’s astonishing how these scenes are etched into my mind and heart — it’s like I’ve never been away, and yet all these years have gone by in the interim. I’m still in love with Meggie Cleary. I still want to put on a fedora and go herd sheep. My friend S.F. will remember me saying back in college that I wanted the theme music of The Thorn Birds to be played at my wedding and my funeral. I still want that.

Oh, the power of these stories! And they do, as I said earlier, have their own life. I read an interview with Colleen McCullough, and she said she didn’t like the film version of The Thorn Birds at all — she said she didn’t like anything about it. Rachel Ward has said that she didn’t enjoy filming it at all, even though she met her husband during the making of it. So the woman who created the story and the woman who gave Meggie a face both disliked this film version that enchanted me. The story cut through — it has its life. It is what it is, and it’s bigger than the sum of everyone who brought it to us, including the author herself.

Incidentally, Rachel Ward is about 50 now. She’s an attractive 50-year-old, but that face that was Meggie in 1983 exists now only in pixels and perhaps on celluloid somewhere. But it does still exist there, and it’s as powerful today as it was then. I challenge any man to look at that face, to hear that soft voice with its accent, and not be thoroughly miserable.

And the book goes on — and all the great books go on, changing the world in each new generation, making a difference in the life of every unsuspecting reader who stumbles upon them. “What’s this about?” I asked my dad, picking up a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. “Oh, it’s a long, involved story about a ring,” he said. “Everyone wants the ring.” “Hmm,” I said — and the rest is history.

So get out there, writer, and fulfill your sacred task. Save lives, but know that you will also break hearts. But . . . I guess we readers want that, don’t we? It’s like that legend that gives The Thorn Birds its title: the bird that, all its life, seeks a long, sharp thorn; and finding it, the bird impales itself on the thorn and dies. But dying, it sings a song of unimaginable beauty . . . “and all the world stills to listen. And God in His Heaven smiles.”


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15 Responses to “The Terrible Power of Story”

  1. Baron Thredkil Says:

    Personally I no longer much like “series” precisely because they almost always represent an attempt at “extending the high” of the original story. I am a huge fan of dark, non-hollywood endings. I dislike it when the characters end up happy and content with all the loose ends tied up in a neat bow. A series usually means recycling the characters into some new spin on the original adventure.

    For me I get the same feeling you talked about in regards to The Thorn Birds but rather with songs. Three-to-five minute time-machines that allow me to be Billy Pilgrim once again, unstuck in time.

    I would be a very bad artist for fear that while I would desperately want my art to “touch” other people, I’d be too scared to actually have that power. Sadly my goal would be to touch people in that same dark way I like in the art I love, but I couldn’t handle if that turned out badly.

    Oh and one last thing….”The Thorn Birds”???? REALLY??? Yeeeesh! I just get this sticky Richard Chamberlain vibe everytime I think of that. Eeewwww! Of course I shouldn’t complain, I studiously avoided watching it all the way through in the 1980’s.

  2. Preacher Says:

    How right you are! I have reread those books that carried me away, trying desperately to get back to those worlds and those feelings that the books evoked in me. But alas–though the worlds are still there, they’re no longer new to me. They don’t bring the same surprise and wonder.

    The pain you speak of is real–I have even avoided reading for a season or two simply because I know that I will have to go through the pain of parting when the journey is done.

    Pain, wonder, surprise and so much more–all through the power of story. Lighting bolts indeed!

  3. Eunice Says:

    When I worked on my master’s degree, I became enamored of Northrup Frye, and his theory that all works of literature fit into four categories: romance, tragedy, comedy, or irony. While I think it’s not always quite that neat, still, it’s a fascinating way to look at literature. In an irony, things don’t come to a neat end, and the point is the meaninglessness of life. There’s lots of irony out there today, but knowing you as I do, I can’t imagine you ever writing any! Irony can be powerful in a way you didn’t talk about. Without having thought much about it before this minute, I would say you tend to write romances, but be drawn to tragedies.

    Another idea of Northrup Frye is that even a work of non-fiction: history, biography, or whatever, fits into these categories. What the author chooses to tell and what to leave out, and how he chooses to tell it, give a clue as to the author’s view of reality. I’ve often wondered: if you or I or anyone else were to write an autobiography, would the story of our own lives be a tragedy, a comedy, a romance, or an irony? And what would that tell us about our view of reality, our view of our own life, and our understanding of God or the lack of God or any overarching meaning or purpose?

    In my opinion, our own life is a story, and it is told by us as it comes under the shadow of THE Story, or the lack of any Story. Other stories nurture us along the way for reasons that may be obscure to anyone else. (I don’t quite understand your obsession with the Thorn Birds, either! But if you knew some of the stories that have nurtured me . . . well, I might not even tell you for fear you’d laugh!)

  4. fsdthreshold Says:

    Thanks very much to all three of you who’ve left comments so far–all very good and thought-provoking!
    That’s fascinating about Northrup Frye’s ideas. I agree all the way with your last paragraph, Eunice. And yes, since stories take on lives of their own, it doesn’t matter so much what the writer thinks s/he put into it: each reader perceives the story differently and takes something different away from it. I can never help applying a given story to my own life.
    Up until about ten years ago, I would definitely have answered that my life was a romance, and that’s the way I’d have written it as an autobiography. As a kid immersed in stories and surrounded by wise, kind adults and the beauty of nature, I grew up believing my life was a fairy tale, and that I was the main character. I had no doubt whatsoever that I’d outwit the witch or the ogre, slay the dragon, and marry the beautiful princess and live happily ever after. I firmly believed all these things would happen in their proper order, that it was all just a matter of time.
    I’ve been learning over the past decade that life doesn’t work that way. I’d say that the autobiography I’d write is getting closer and closer to tragedy. But I still hold hope for the “eucatastrophe” Tolkien wrote about. The core of Christian faith is a belief in eucatastrophe [the concept, given a name by J.R.R. Tolkien, that happy endings can and do come unlooked-for in the face of impossible odds]–rooted in the belief in a loving God stronger than the impossible odds.
    I agree: I tend to write romance (in the old sense, as in “_The Lord of the Rings_ is a romance”–we’re not talking about Harlequin romances here), but I’m often most deeply affected (and attracted?) by tragic elements. Sad and tragic elements are becoming more prominent in the stories I’m writing recently. But you’re right–I don’t see myself ever getting to irony. Life isn’t meaningless. It hurts too much to be meaningless!

  5. I still miss Hooper Says:

    Do you mean that switch to fedora’s wasn’t about Dr. Jones?!? I cannot believe you were so enthralled with the Thorn Birds … you must have kept it a secret, because I KNOW we never had a conversation about it at the time. The romance angle caught you at a vulnerable moment, as, if I am not mistaken, a certain Vietnamese sweetheart was in the picture at the time!
    I balled my eyes out (as an 8h grader) when I finished LOTR and knew it would never be fresh again, but that hasn’t stopped me from a yearly re-read of the trilogy and Quenta Silmarillion (which I treasure).
    Like Fred, when I put Watership Down on my nightstand for the last time (I still have the Book Center paperback given me for Christmas 1979 from Fred) I went into a 3-day funk. To this day it is still my favorite novel of all time.
    The pain of never again discovering for the first time about Middle-Earth or Efrafa or Harvest Moon or any number of other realms is always bittersweet, but we know that going in, don’t we?
    I remember picking up “Traveller” from Richard Adams and thinking “Well, this is it, I will never be here at the virginal beginning of this book like I am right now.” I then proceeded to devour it in huge gulps (the story, not the book itself!)
    While the writing I make my living upon is not literature, I remain conscious that several thousand people will see my words the next day. Some of those will be featured players in the piece, and the knowledge that what I write will become forever a part of someone’s scrapbook is never far from my mind as I write.
    Mighty indeed is the pen (and/or keyboard).

  6. fsdthreshold Says:

    You said it, “I Still Miss Hooper”!–great comment!
    That’s right–as a journalist, you have a built-in or guaranteed audience that fiction writers don’t have! 🙂 Of course, you also have to put out, day in and day out, whether you feel like it or not, and you don’t have the luxury of editing your work through draft after draft…and I’d guess you take a lot of criticism, which comes with being squarely in the public eye with your writing.
    I really need to read _Traveller_. “We never made it to The War….”
    Yes! We know about the pain going in. It’s a choice we make.
    The fedoras–yes, they had something to do with Dr. Jones, too. The bullwhip didn’t come from _The Thorn Birds_!
    With _The Thorn Birds_, it wasn’t so much the Ralph/Meggie romance as it was Meggie and the whole Drogheda thing. I wanted a girl like that in a place like that!

  7. Tandemcat Says:

    Eunice wrote:

    “In my opinion, our own life is a story, and it is told by us as it comes under the shadow of THE Story, or the lack of any Story. Other stories nurture us along the way for reasons that may be obscure to anyone else.”

    Very true. I’ve had to think about this a lot since my retirement from the Lutheran teaching ministry. What will the story of the rest of my life be like? The first year certainly hasn’t been boring!

    Yes–THE Story. And what story does The Storyteller want me to tell with my life? Big question.

    For me, the nurturing stories are at their best in the _Chronicles of Narnia_. There are others, too–too many to list–but _The House of the Scorpion_, by Nancy Farmer, stands out as I write. I’m always looking. And music, too! There is a contest going on right now, at the poetry site where I’m a member, to write a poem about how music saves lives. That’s a pretty big order–I don’t quite have the inspiration yet!

    Romance/tragedy/comedy/irony? Very useful concept! Was just commenting to Fred about the similarity/difference with him and me. In my own life, the romance angle, as defined in this discussion, has been strong. Tragedy is a temptation, but to me, as a Christian, that just doesn’t work. I recall one presenter at a conference who said that comedy didn’t even become possible until after Christ came to this earth. It sticks in my mind what Robert Schuller said: “For the Christian, there is only life.”

    And my oft-time closing:

    Kyrie Eleison–Lord, have mercy–for the wrongs we still can’t fix,


    Soli Deo Gloria–to God alone be the glory–for whatever good is in our life or whatever blessings God has given us.

  8. Tandemcat Says:

    After I clicked ‘submit,’ I had another thought. Since 1997, bicycle rides, and in particular, tandem bicycle rides, have become increasingly important to me. Since I just got back from riding from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC for the fifth time (first time in ’97), it’s fresh in my mind. When you go on a long ride, you are living a story–a sort of fantasy story in a way, since it is so far removed from the kind of life we normally live. I’m still decompressing from this year’s experience–got back two days ago. Anyone interested in sampling what I’m talking about, here’s this year’s link, and below it the URL to the main site, which has it “all.”

    The site only scratches the surface, of course. You have to experience it for yourself if you really want to know.

  9. I still miss Hooper Says:

    Tandemcat: I enjoyed your post and your comments on comedy being possible only with the coming of the messiah. I also like Dr. Shuller’s quote, and maybe I am taking it out of context, but I disagree.
    If a person is Christian, then yes, by the very definition, it is all about life. But tragedy is also very much a part of The Story.
    Examples of tragedy abound: many disciples leave when they misinterpret the Lord’s clear Eucharistic teaching in John 6; the rich man who woul d not put all aside to follow Christ and the Passion itself (yes, we are delivered through it, but the fact that it had to happen because of Original Sin).
    I see the logic that says the Grace of God saves the believer, therefore, no tragedy. But what of those who fail in their faith, have none, or refuse it? That is tragedy. And if tragedy is suffering, then the suffering we see all around us is there for us to end, in Christ’s name, thereby glorifying His name.
    But the tragedy must be there first. The Fall is a tragedy. Misunderstanding the need for tragedy, the necessity of suffering, lessens the deliverance (in my humble opinion). If there was no tragedy to solve, prevent or repair there would be no need for a Savior.

    Agnus Dei, qui tolis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem

  10. Tandemcat Says:

    If I understand correctly (and that is never guaranteed!), a key to the definition of tragedy is that the story has an unhappy _ending_. There can be unhappy, dreadful events in comedy, I would say, but the ending is happy. Granted that many of us, perhaps most of us, think of comedy as something that is lighthearted and funny all the way through. The coming of Christianity, and the living of redeemed lives by Christians, do not eliminate tragedy from the world. In the end, according to Scripture, there will be many tragedies–the lives of all those who refused the mercy of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Even now, I am constantly faced with the abundant, and often needless, tragedy in our present world, and continue to experience much personal pain. So I must constantly remind myself of the promises of God in Scripture. The ending will be happy for us, because God said so. Psalm 126:5,6: “Let those who wept as they planted their crops gather the harvest with joy! Those who wept as they went out carrying the seed will come back singing for joy, as they bring in the harvest.” (TEV) I weep now, but by the grace of God I expect to sing for joy some day.

  11. fsdthreshold Says:

    It’s been so long since I’ve read the books (and I don’t have copies here) that I can’t speak to where it occurs in them, though I’m pretty sure it does: but at the end of the movie version of THE TWO TOWERS, Sam has that wonderful speech about how there’s been so much evil and tragedy in the world that it seems things can never be right again. But in the old stories, the really _good_ stories, the ones that really matter — the ultimate triumph is all the more glorious, it shines all the brighter, _because_ of that darkness the heroes go through to get to it.
    Or, in the words of a poem I scribbled in college, our present suffering is: “The shadow around the candle, / The silence around the song.”

  12. I still miss Hooper Says:

    I should have been much clearer. Tragedy, of course, ends in disaster. What I shoul d have been more clear about is my belief that the experience of suffering, of tragedy, as it is happening, is an essential part of the eventual triumph.
    Is the Christian life a tragedy? Abosolutely not, as in the end we are saved by the grace of God and by the coming, the suffering, the death and the resurrection of His only Son.
    The greater point I was trying (and I admit, failed to argue well) was that to overlook elements of tragedy as essential to our Christian story is to misunderstand it.
    It is a very protestant — scratch that — rather, a very dispensationalist and pre-milinialist view to eliminate suffering from the Christian story.
    Fred is correct in tying what I tried to say with Tolkien’s words, spoken by Sam in the movie, about the glory of the ultimate triumph. Tolkien certainly placed suffering in his masterpiece almost as a necessity — that the end would not pay off with numerous disasters along the way.
    I am reminded of a quote that C.S. Lewis attributed to his friend: “To not see that the basic theme of The Lord of the Rings is a catholic one is to have misunderstood it.” (J.R.R.’s words, not mine)

  13. Eunice Says:

    Comedy is not just a happy ending, but a happy ending that SHOULDN’T have happened. It is the youngest, foolish son completing the quest and winning the princess by pure “chance.” It is the social order being overturned by an often happy-go-lucky character who had no intention of doing any such thing. Suffering comes along the way, but the winning in the end is not the result of strength and daring, as in romance, but of some benevolent higher power looking out for the childish and the foolish. Jesus’ victory over death and the forces of evil is a romance, but our participation in that Story is pure comedy (and sometimes even in the modern entertainment sense of the word, if my life is any example!)

    Tragedy is not just a sad ending, but a sad ending that SHOULDN’T have happened. It is bad things happening to good people. The cause of tragedy, however, is usually there in the sense of hubris. The tragic character, who is usually a uniquely good person, also challenges the powers that be or the gods in some way, and this is his downfall. Sometimes this hubris is inadvertent. Sometimes the hubris is simply being too happy, and thus offending the gods. Before the final ending of the book of Job, the story of Job is a classic tragedy. A Christian who is drawn to tragedy might have a keen sense of pride going before a fall, or of the uncertainty and vanity of life under the sun as expressed in Ecclesiastes. Hopefully there will always remain the sense of “all things working together for good.” Christians sometimes live tragic lives, but no Christian’s life is ultimately a tragedy.

  14. I stopped by Says:

    Thank you, Eunice, for your illuminating addendum. I recognize the insights of Frye, though I’ve never heard them applied quite like this: Christ’s story is Romance (indeed, Myth–and it is Myth whether it happened historically or not; it just may be, as Tolkien argued with a not-yet-converted Lewis, “a myth that really happened”), but our participation in it is pure Comedy. We are fools and children, yet have been given co-inheritance in the Kingdom. We’re also a main source of the Tragedy: when, in Christ’s name, we spout prejudices and start witch burnings and wars and inquisitions.

  15. Binsers Says:

    I, too, love a series when it involves a place that I love. The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, even the Lemony Snicket series (although it had an unsatisfactory ending). I also love the BIG books that you can really sink your teeth into – Gone With the Wind, Watership Down, Until They Being the Streetcars Back (not big in size but BIG). Today I have taken a break from the George R.R. Martin’s Games of Thrones Series in order to read your blog from starting at the beginning. It is going to take longer than I thought along with all of the comments. The thing I LOVE about this Game of Throne series is that George keeps me literally screaming by not doing the expected. I am a voracious reader and usually have an idea of what will happen next. So if you love an unexpected twist, I highly recommend the Game of Thrones books. I am on Book 4: A Feast for Crows and know there is a Book 5. I wonder how long he will go with these books. I am loving your blog and all the comments by the way . . . thank you for sharing your ideas and friends with me.

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