Storytellers Matter to the World

“[T]he fact that every life counts is built into the work we do.”

Roger Rosenblatt, Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing

I spent the morning of September 11th at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region. James Dewar read an excerpt from his poem about the attacks ten years ago, but otherwise the anniversary was not on the agenda.

The featured speaker was Ian Brown, who spoke about writing The Boy in the Moon, his memoir about raising his severely disabled son, Walker. Walker suffers from cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Among other issues, Walker has extreme developmental delays, compulsions to hit himself, and an inability to speak.

Two ideas in Brown’s talk resonated deeply with me. First, he spoke of how the severity of Walker’s condition forced him to face the reality of the world rather than his hopes for the world; in return, he got ‎”a refuge from the survival of the fittest.” Secondly, he described the job of writers as “to celebrate the individual in the face of doltish generalities.”

Celebrating the individual and providing a refuge from the survival of the fittest for myself and others are two of the needs that drive me to tell stories, whether on stage, on paper, or at InterPlay workshops. Knowing this is crucial to my identity as a creative person.

In the face of traumatic events like the attacks of September 11th and the enormity of the damage that to the national pysche of the United States in the wake of those attacks, the question of whether storytelling is valuable pops up, uninvited and unwanted, but inevitable. And my answer is Yes.

Stories matter. Fictional stories that allow us to imagine alternatives to a world that is otherwise paralyzingly bleak. True stories that allow us to see individuals as whole people with feelings and families rather than as personifications of Otherness. Simple stories that allow us to connect with the lived experience of another human being. Mythic stories that allow us to create a moral compass. They matter. All of them.

Without these stories, we become less vibrant as individuals and we become less able to function in community. Fear and isolation run rampant in North America these days. Compassion, interdependence, and community are in short supply. Stories have the power to open our minds and our hearts, sometimes even against our wills.

To have stories in the world that can work their magic, there must be storytellers.

And so, I raise my proverbial glass to all the storytellers of the world. We are the magic makers, the meaning makers, the humanizers, and the beautifiers, and the world needs us.


About Kate Arms-Roberts

Posted on September 16, 2011, in Interplay, Social Justice, This Writing Life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I agree with all this but I do have one objection. I may be reading this the wrong way, but it seems to assume a world that is very dark. You say, “Fictional stories that allow us to imagine alternatives to a world that is otherwise paralyzingly bleak.”

    I find a lot of writers – and artists generally – begin from the premise that life is a pretty awful thing. And I remember Jack Nicholson’s character Melvin in As Good As It Gets when he says, “Some of us have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just no one in this car. But, a lot of people, that’s their story. Good times, noodle salad. What makes it so hard is not that you had it bad, but that you’re that pissed that so many others had it good.”

    And I’m also reminded of what Shakespeare said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

    Maybe that’s an interesting question to put out there: Do writers/artists tend see the world negatively? Do we tend to see the glass as half empty?

  2. Kate Arms-Roberts


    Thank you for pointing out the ambiguity in what I wrote. I meant to imply that when the world appears bleak, fiction can create mental space for alternatives. I did not mean to imply generally that people’s individual, personal worlds are bleak. That said, I do think the big problems of the modern world (climate change, economic instability in developed nations, riots and revolutions around the world, terrorism, etc.) are paralyzingly bleak for many people.

    I think that because conflict drives narrative, storytellers do see the conflicts of the world particularly clearly. But, any story that reaches a happy ending is inherently hopeful. It also seems to me that any attempt to create beauty in response to the world is also optimistic at some core level.

    At least in my case, the drive to create comes from sensing a lack in the world and trying to fill it, but I don’t know that seeing the emptiness in the glass means I don’t also see the fullness. I think my creativity lives most fully in the place in my consciousness that is aware of both.


  3. Kate,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. My drive to create comes from a very similar place and I deeply believe that everyone has a story, an art, something to offer the rest of us that shows why the world is the way it is. Storytelling can be used as inspiration and encouragement.
    I also especially agree when you say that storytellers see the conflicts of the world clearly because conflict drives narrative. This couldn’t be more true, and I believe this is partly what makes a truly good writer.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      I am always touched when someone gets either encouragement or inspiration from my words, as it reinforces my ideas that writing can have that power.

  4. Kate,

    Thank you for telling and writing stories
    Thank you for your beautiful reminder
    that story telling matters


  5. “And so, I raise my proverbial glass to all the storytellers of the world. We are the magic makers, the meaning makers, the humanizers, and the beautifiers, and the world needs us.”

    Hear, hear. You know, I interviewed two “storytellers” (artists who make a living going to schools, libraries and theaters and acting out stories) on my road trip, but really all artists are storytellers. I’m reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance right now, and he says a world without art would be a world not worth living, because there would be nothing of worth.

  6. Kate Arms-Roberts

    I love that idea from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I haven’t read that book in decades, but that reminder makes me want to go back to it. (After I finish the 6-foot stack of other things by my bedside, of course.)

    I think “storytellers” in the oral performance tradition are seriously under-appreciated as artists. I’m glad you included some on your road trip.

  1. Pingback: Storytellers Matter to the World | Story and Narrative |

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