by James R. Preston
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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