Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
December 3, 2021

Why Story Is Important

by James R. Preston

Photo of a young woman reading to her white haired grandmother because story is important.

This essay was inspired by an article in the October 2021 issue of Scientific American about reading as therapy. It opened with the words, “Parents, teachers, and caregivers have long sworn by the magic of storytelling to calm and soothe kids.”

Story (you can hear the capital “S” can’t you?) is important. You believe that or you wouldn’t be here at Writers in the Storm, reading about the art and craft of writing. 

One thing that turns up in these essays frequently is "encouragement," words that help you keep going when it’s 2:00 am, you’re awake, you hate your work-in-progress and it hates you in return. It's the words that keep you going when you’re seriously considering trading in the keyboard and taking xylophone lessons. So I think it’s important to take some time to celebrate a value in what we do that we might not have thought of in a while. 

Telling the Tale

I make it a policy to never discuss projects at the idea stage. After I have a draft, sure, bring on the feedback, but until something is down on paper with a beginning, middle, and end that looks like it might actually come to life, well — mum’s the word. 

I broke that ironclad rule for this essay and I have lived to tell the tale. (Note how I work in another reference to “Story.”) We’ll come back to how that happened and why I find it important. 

Story is Hard Work

Harlan Ellison once said writing is easy — you just slice off part of yourself and slap it on the page. He was right in some ways. 

I say creating a story is hard! It’s work! (On the other hand, when it clicks into gear and you can feel the tale unspooling through you it’s like nothing else in the world.) I happen to believe that we all need encouragement, seeing a positive benefit to all that time at the keyboard. Barbara Tuchman, incredible writer, author of The Guns of August, once asked her publisher who would read a book about the start of World War I. He replied, “Two people. You and me.” I guess that was enough encouragement because she kept going. Here at WITS we provide not only an audience but also a bit more cheerleading.  

Sacrifice and Benefit

What we ink-stained wretches do, sacrificing our time and energy and household chores, can have benefits to others that we might not think of often.

One way stories— including yours — can help others is by having them read aloud. Hearing a story for someone who is bedridden or who has a difficult time reading can be a wonderful experience. The oral tradition in literature goes back at least to Grendel picking a fight with Beowulf and that tradition is still around. 

Who

A young male nurse reading to an elderly woman because story is important.

Typically I’m talking about reading to elderly folks. Reasons they might have given up or reduced their reading are many. They may have failing eyesight, it may be hard to hold a hardback book for long periods of time, or they may suffer from dementia. 

I read to my father as he fought his way through the latter stages of bone cancer. I don’t know how we got started doing it, but I know it was a good thing for both of us. 

If you know someone who might benefit from hearing a story, I say give it a try. Read to them. If it’s not working you’ll know. If you think the individual might not like it, try it anyway. You never know. 

What

What should you read? My choice was easy. I read books that I knew would please because they were in my dad’s library, and later I did one that was an experiment. Other people have read from the Bible. I did not use it, but it is a good choice, and that rolling King James verse will always work. If you really don’t have a clue you can always ask. Narrative fiction is probably better than a play, because the description can carry your audience away. 

Should you read from your own work? I did not. I had a large selection of books that I knew my father loved and picked from them. I read mostly westerns by a fine writer called B. M. Bower. For that experiment I mentioned I branched out once or twice and read from The Eye of the World, the first book in The Wheel of Time series, mostly because it opens with an exciting chase on horseback, but I did not think it was as successful. It seemed to be important to read something familiar. 

When

When should you do it? I suggest a regular schedule. It can become something the person looks forward to. 

How long should you read? Pay attention to your audience. Signs of fatigue will tell you when to quit. As a rule of thumb, I’d say not as long as you might think. How’s that for specificity? Well, it depends on many factors and it can vary. After chemotherapy my father tired quickly, so I reduced the time I read. Other times it was him saying, “One more chapter.”

Why 

Aside from the pure entertainment value, your audience will derive other benefits.

Slower memory loss. A study published in Neurology, a peer-reviewed journal, suggested that hearing stories slowed the rate at which memory loss occurred in the elderly. (See Notes,)

Activity. It’s doing something. Pure and simple. 

Improved cognitive abilities. Again, there’s evidence to support this. 

And there are benefits to the reader, too. Look, there’s a limit to how much pure conversation you can do with somebody who’s bedridden. Do they really want to hear about your hot date? Maybe, but a couple of chapters from a good romance novel relieves you of having to think of things to talk about.

And while you’re reading someone else’s writing you’re absorbing their style and rhythm and vocabulary. You’re learning. I got acquainted with a talented western writer that I knew nothing about. 

Reading Is Contributing to Story

Image of an  open book with images of a dog on one page and a young girl  carrying a red umbrella walking away from the camera down one of two ruts in the grass.

Ok, back to breaking my rule of talking about a project at the concept stage. About a week ago on our way to dinner a friend asked what I was working on and I found myself talking, not without some difficulty, about reading aloud to my father as a possible topic for an essay.

Our friend, who was riding to dinner with us, spoke up and told of how she read to her father as he declined with Alzheimer’s. My wife then said she read to her grandfather when he was in a nursing home. Ask around, you may be surprised. 

And when that story is making a difficult time just a little bit easier for someone, stop and remember that you are a part of that tradition. You are contributing to Story, and Story is important. 

Notes and References:

In the anniversary edition of The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman tells the story of asking her publisher who will read her book and he replies “Two people. You and me.” BTW, that essay is a primer on the writing process that should be a “must-read” for every aspiring writer. Check it out!

B. M. Bower was a prolific writer in the early part of the last century. My dad read her books growing up and late in life he set out to assemble a complete set of her works. Yes, “her.” She never listed her true first name because, gee, how could a girl write about six-guns and shoot-outs?

Full disclosure: Neurology requires a subscription to read the full article. I read the abstract. 

Story is Important

Finally, a bonus, and I’m not exactly sure how I feel about this. Some time ago I read another article, I believe in Scientific American, about reading to robots. Yeah.  Looking ahead to the time when machines become self-aware, the project started about five years ago. The goal is to teach ethical behavior. I’m not making this up. I guess the idea is when your self-driving car hears you talking about trading it in on a new model, it doesn’t drive off a bridge out of spite. I hope it works. Story is important. It might save your life. 

Now it’s time for you to share your experiences with reading stories. You’ll help all of us. Maybe you can suggest places to volunteer to read. 

* * * * * *

About James

James R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries and two historical novellas set in the swingin’ sixties. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill, one of the historicals, “a historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” Remains To Be Seen, the next Surf City Mystery, will be published in the first quarter of 2022. His web page is jamesrpreston.com.

Bottom Image by Comfreak from Pixabay.

Leave a Reply

21 comments on “Why Story Is Important”

  1. Reading this brought back a memory I thought I'd forgotten. I was only 8 or 9 when my beloved granddad died. He had been bed-ridden for a few months, and now remember that I used to spend time with him, reading. I can't remember what I read, but that time was precious.

    When I began teaching, in my English lessons,when we read the set book, I read it to the children. They had reading aloud practice at other times, but I thought the story would come across better with a fluent reading, rather than a stumbling pupil.

    Finally, just before I retired, during the time between registration and the start of lessons proper, I read to my registration group.

    The advent of audiobooks has helped people hear the written word, too, although it doesn't have the personal touch, of course, which can be very important, as in the case of my granddad.
    Thank you for this interesting post.

    1. Thank you, V. M. This is a great comment. One of the things writers can forget, lost in the struggle to find that perfect opening line, decide what happens next, and finish the WIP, is that what we do can have importance beyond what we might think. Story can help people, and this is an example. This essay helped you remember a wonderful time with your granddad.
      Thanks for sharing your story with us!

  2. Excellent post! Your father was blessed to have such a devoted son. You are right. Story is important and can serve the reader in many ways. There is a whole area of mental health dealing with fiction, primarily, as a useful tool in treatment plans. Bibliotherapy as described in Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/bibliotherapy

    As a reading specialist, now retired, my 1-8 classrooms were filled with students who were reading below grade level and struggling with the written word. There were as many reasons for their being behind their peers as there were students, but one thing held true across the years. There was an emotional component to each child's difficulty with reading. That is one of the reasons why we did a great deal of reading aloud of YA novels followed by discussion. Shared reading experiences build a bond and building bonds with at-risk students is the first step in helping them overcome their reading difficulties.

    1. Linda -- yes! Shared reading can be a bond. Obviously, late in his life there weren't many activities my dad & I could share, but B. M. Bower and the dusty trails were always there.

      "Bibliotherapy" -- story serves us even more. And all of us scribblers are part of that tradition, one that stretches back to Grendel choosing off Beowulf and the latter telling about the fight around the campfire, and that realization can help when we need one more chapter or when we wonder just why our character said something.

      I hope you are enjoying your retirement as much as my wife is.
      And thank you very much for the Psychology Today reference!

  3. Story IS important and Reading IS Therapy. I love that you had that extraordinary experience reading to your father. My experiences with reading aloud aren't with the elderly but with the young. I volunteered to help elementary students learn to read, particularly those who struggled with it. That was rewarding by itself, but when I could help a student "get it" and that light came into their eyes...we were both thrilled. I have also made it a point to read to my grandchildren until they were old enough to read to me.

  4. Oh, Lynette, thank you! I think it's wonderful that you have been on both sides of the reading aloud activity, as reader and then as listener.

    Reading to children is a great thing. I don't have grandchildren, but I remember reading (and making up) stories for my younger cousins. When they look at you and want to know what happens next -- priceless!

    And if I were a betting man (and I am) I would bet that your grandchildren will continue the reading tradition. And on it goes, endless . . .

    Thanks again.

  5. James, I always love your think-y posts. 🙂

    I haven't read to seniors, but I for sure would do it if it was a volunteer opportunity I could sign up for. I read extensively to my daughter. Interestingly, in kindergarten, we'd finished all the kid books in the house so I thought, "I'll read one of my favorites -- Harry Potter -- and if it's too advanced, or if she doesn't like it, I'll go back to one of the more age-appropriate stories."

    She loved it. She was so caught up in the story, we read all of book 1 in kindergarten, then all of book 2 in the first grade. The summer after first grade, we were on Book 3 and she pulled the book over to her side of the pillow and said, "I can read it myself, Mommy." And so she did. There was a little more of trading off of the chapters but she'd basically gone through the entire series by the time she started 3rd grade.

    Harry Potter taught her the magic of STORY and the importance of asking questions while she reads. Plus, mama got to enjoy revisiting one of her favorite series. It was a win-win.

    1. Jenny, thank you so much for a great story. Your daughter will remember that reading all her life. And Harry Potter . . . we are privileged to live in the time when it was new.

      We were on vacation in Hawaii when, walking around a shopping center called The Whaler, I saw a line of young people coming out of a Waldenbooks, each carrying a large hardback. They'd walk to a bench or, if one was not available, sit down on the ground and start reading. It was, of course, the new Harry Potter and because of the time difference it was available before midnight.

      The Waldenbooks is gone but Harry lives. I don't know if J. K. Rowling reads Writers in the Storm (I wouldn't be surprised if she does) but if she sees it she will love your story.

  6. Tobecontinued:
    For some reason I do not see your comment posted here, so I will paste it in.
    This Reading works both ways.
    Dear Grandma,
    The only reason I got through college was because you fed me so many books when I was little! Love you,
    Bekah Turner
    Northern Arizona University
    B.S. Biomedical Science
    Minor in Chemistry
    Cum Laude
    May 10, 2019
    (Bekah is in her third year training to be a Pathologist.at Wayne State University.) She “renamed” her Grandmother and calls her Grandma Books.

    What a wonderful story! Books -- stories -- changed Bekah's life as they have so many others. "Grandma Books" is no doubt proud! Thank you for sharing this with the WITS readers. And best wishes to Bekah as she pursues that Pathology career.

  7. Hi James,
    I appreciate how you remind us to celebrate our work as Storytellers.
    It's truly a joy to have a story 'unspool' from us! That line resonates so well with that feeling.
    Thanks for an insightful post.
    Kris

    1. Hey, Kris, thank you! There's nothing quite like that moment, is there? And the process doesn't really end there, particularly if the story gets read aloud. I like the term "unspool" and will definitely steal, I mean, "borrow" it in the future. I'm glad you took a moment to celebrate; now get back to work and type faster!

  8. A line popped into my head, reading this. Sorry, I don't know the author or the name of the poem, but this one line resounds: Richer than I you can never be. I had a mother who read to me.

    I started reading to my kids when they were newborn, and they all learned to read early and still are avid readers. Before that, I made up stories for my younger siblings.

    Some people can't get into reading, but I've never met anyone who doesn't appreciate a story. Sometimes I think it's wired into us genetically.

    1. Hi, Virginia - Wow, that line does resonate! Thanks!

      Later. I found it! It's from a poem called "The Reading Mother" by Strickland Gillanan. It opens with:
      I had a mother who read to me
      Sagas of pirates who scoured the sea,
      Cutlasses clenched in their yellow teeth,
      "Blackbirds" stowed in the hold beneath.

      I was not familiar with it and I'm glad you shared with everybody. (BTW, for those who have a use for it, the poem is in the public domain.)
      As for "wired in genetically" you may be right.

  9. Wonderful post, James!

    I have not read to adults, with the exception of critique groups, but have extensive experience reading aloud to children, my own and many students.

    Reading with expression and enthusiasm to others gets them excited in the tale.

    Sometimes it sparks a reading bug. One great joy was when a 6th grade student came up to me and said, "Mrs. Buikema, I can't stop reading!" That made my year.

    1. Wow, Ellen, that must have been quite a moment when the student said "Mrs. Buikema i can't stop reading!"
      I'm glad you liked the post, and your experience is another illustration of the power of a good story. It touches us in ways we don't expect; it makes us wonder what we would do in a similar situation; and when it's really good it can make us understand each other a little bit better. I am sure many of your students are confirmed readers today, and some are perhaps reading to their children or students.
      Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. Of any era, I think. We're the prophets, the interpreters, the seers. I love the word "seer", literally meaning one who sees. And then we show it to others in a way that resonates with them.

      1. Virginia, yes! In his novel, It, Stephen King says that the kid that grows up to be a writer -- Bill, if memory serves -- can tell stories because he sees.
        I think that' true for writers, but I also think you have to work at seeing.
        Thanks for a great contribution.

    2. deleyna, sorry I didn't see this until just now. I agree completely, Mages & sages of this and all ages. Thank you! I'm sure you find working with writers rewarding. One of the things I like best is when someone shyly says, "Would you read my stuff?" Because there's always something good to say about it.

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts

Search

WITS Team

Categories

Archives

Copyright © 2022 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved