This year’s workshop reminded me why I love talking to teens. They are old enough to understand the world is broken, but young enough to believe someone can set its bones.
I tell young writers that the world can be changed through stories. Stories are the reason things are so broken, but they are also how things are healed.
The world is broken because a serpent told Eve a story about Laws, and she believed him. It is broken because Hitler told Germany a story about race, and she believed him. It is broken because people are willing to tell any story—or believe any story—in order to get what we want.
No wonder the battle is over stories! No wonder the public is deluged with movies, books, network and cable television, youtube, kindles, video blogs, radio, stage plays and podcasts. America is saturated with stories, and yet our thirst for more continues to grow.
I think there are at least three reasons for this.
First, we believe the lie that life is about getting. Because we swim through life like whales, mouths open, sucking everything in, we require a lot of story krill.
Second, many of our stories are stupid. They are endless repetitions of the same rehashed formulas repeated over and over, promising happiness but never producing it. We keep coming back to them because the hope for something more is so real, so tantalizing, that we assume our hunger indicates a reality. On some level we tell ourselves, “They know what I want. They have it plastered all over the plastic, shrink-wrapped cover. How can they know what I want and not give it to me?”
Third, we lack meaning. Because we lack meaning—and stories are first and foremost about meaning—we think that more and more stories will translate into more and more purpose in our real lives. On the contrary, more and more empty stories produces nothing but more and more emptiness.
All three reasons can be summed up by saying that we are trying to recapture the moment of the first story. By this I mean the story you heard when you were three or four and your mom or dad or uncle or Walt Disney gave you a glimpse into the world of once-upon-a-time.
I suspect much of life—much of entertainment—is spent trying to recapture those first feelings of awe. But we never do recapture them. Not fully. The world is too broken. It hangs upside down, all the blood draining from heart to head until even the head feels like it’s going to explode.
In truth, only a different sort of world will ever completely satisfy us, and every story that fails to point us to that world is a kind of lie.
To tell a great story you must understand man’s purpose. Life is not about what we can get from it, but what we can give to it. It is not about finding yourself; it is about losing yourself. Every story will fail to fulfill our hunger for purpose as long as we don’t understand this.
We need a generation of writers who are equipped to be honest with American culture. We need writers who are willing to tell us we are looking under the wrong rocks for our stories. The stories we are looking for will be found in a very different place. The best writers know that the best stories simply give us a glimpse of that place where every story is meaningful and perfect.
Ironically, many of our culture’s stories could be great, if only their producers understood that meaning always come from the outside in.
Our lives are written by our choices. If we would live with purpose, live to give rather than get, we would not need to look under every rock, follow every school of flashing silver. We would understand that stories are interesting in the same way flowers are interesting. It is only when I expect the flower to do something for me, to inject meaning rather than express it—that I find the flower dissatisfying.
Flowers and rocks point to something else. A design, a purpose, a significance beyond themselves, rooted in another world. Pointing to something else is the essence of meaning, and it is the essence of flowers, rocks and stories.
Modern stories fail because they promise to provide something they don’t own. They say, “look no further.”
They ought to say, “look much further.”