Why Stories Matter

People have been telling stories for as long as people have been people. They tell them and retell them times and again, presidents and kings and schoolchildren and factory workers. There’s something fundamental to being a person in the love of stories.

I don’t know what that something is, I’m just an art student. But I do know something about why stories matter to me.

Stories are home. Star Wars is the same wherever you go, and you can see Scorpius from California or Georgia. You can carry the stories you love most with you when life takes you away from familiar places.

Stories are friends. You get to know the characters as well as they know themselves, and so following their story feels like spending time with them. Some might have experiences like yours, but with dragons. Maybe it seems wimpy to need stories and characters as friends instead of flesh-and-blood people, but at some point everyone struggles with feeling a connection to the human beings surrounding them.

Stories are safe. Horrible, awful things can happen in them, but if it gets too much you can close the book or turn off the screen, and they have a set beginning and end. Life isn’t nearly that kind.

Stories are constants. Well, they are and they aren’t. Every version of Cinderella is slightly different, and the differences change what the story means. But there’s still a shoe, or a cyborg foot, left on the stairs, and a prince at a royal ball. Change is inevitable, except for from vending machines, but stories make familiar patterns no matter how much they are told.

Stories are exciting. Though life is too. It has octopuses in it, and colors and trains and quantum physics. There’s magic everywhere, if you know how to look for it. Trouble is, in the day-to-day drudge of normal life, it’s easy to forget that. Stories help bring back a sense of wonder.

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Icarus

Icarus  flew

too close to the sun, and

fell,

A stream of

melted wax

breaking wings

a father’s love.

Did someone,

one of Poseidon’s people,

anyone,

find him?

Did they wonder

at all the things

around him?

The story doesn’t say.

Icarus

was a boy.

They turned him

to a lesson.

They forget–

Icarus flew.

Icarus flew.

It’s more

than most can claim.

The Snow Queen

Watching winter through a window, it is easy to see a certain majesty to the scene. Snow drifts through the air, shining brightly under the street lamps. Clouds hunch above. Breath turns to mist. Jack Frost paints ice on car windows. It’s a time for stories and stillness, and dropping ice down the back of your brother’s coat.

One of the stories my family reads most winters is the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Snow Queen.” You likely know the story–a boy is stolen away by the queen of winter, and his best friend takes a long journey to get him back. The story has existed for more than a century and a half, and in all that time no one has been able to explain the Snow Queen’s motivations to my satisfaction. That’s never stopped me from loving her tale.

When I was eleven, I wrote a story about the Snow Queen while I was supposed to be cleaning my room. In it, snowflakes were faeries who served the Snow Queen. They fell to earth to watch the children and collect their wishes.

My tendency to write stories while I’m supposed to be doing something else has not changed in the slightest, but the stories themselves have evolved, and so has my attitude about the Snow Queen.

The ideas she represents-the power and majesty of winter, and the danger–are still wonderful, but my personal idea of her has an element of petty trickery that wasn’t there before.

Snow falls, and mounds onto car windows that were scraped clean yesterday. Ice forms in thin, nearly invisible layers positioned just so in order to make people slip. Snow plows scrape the ice to the side of the road, and the mound of grimy snow that forms stays there far longer than is fair–even after the rest of the ice has melted, and it is spring. The snow on sidewalks turns to icy sludge that will take the slightest weakness in your boots as a chance to soak your socks. If we anthropomorphize winter so that the Snow Queen is responsible for all of its pretty elements, surely we can picture her as being responsible for these.

Or maybe I’m just missing summer.

The Young Wizards

Story time.

When my little brother and I were kids, we were part of the library’s summer reading program every year. At the end of the program, if we’d done all the eating hours we were supposed to, the library would give us a book. There were all kinds of books on the shelf to choose from: Lord of the Rings, picture books, Percy Jackson, I even grabbed the Odyssey one summer during high school.

One summer, not long after we had moved into the area,  my brother got the the bookshelf before me, and naturally grabbed the biggest thing on the shelf. The librarians all cooed at the sight of such a little kid with such a big book. I’ve seen bigger books since then, but at the time it looked huge: the spine was maybe three inches wide, and the inside was all print. No pictures. It was called The Young Wizards.

I don’t think my brother has ever actually read it, or at least not all the way through. I did, several times.

That book held the first five books in the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane, and at the time I thought that was all there was. It was enough. The gist of the story is that some kids, twelve or thirteen years old when they first start, find books on wizardry, and befriend one another over the shared interest. The books work, and they get pulled along on  various adventures to slow down entropy.

Adventure is a sort of tame word for it. Their first “adventure,” for instance, gets them pulled into a nightmare parallel-universe Manhattan where the cars are predators and the fire hydrants eat pigeons, created by a being known as the Lone Power, the one who created death.

Cheerful, right?

After books like  Fablehaven and The  Dark is Rising, this was one of my favorite books. The kids’ wizardry is all done through words,  and  one of the recurring themes of the series is how powerful words are to shape the universe. For a writer-to-be like myself, this was great.

The series was also one of the first things to spark my interest in Irish mythology and folklore, since  one of the kids gets sent to Ireland by her parents and  spends some time fighting off monsters straight from the myths. And there’s a scene with a cat going up a chimney that’s exactly like one of the folktales.

The reason I’m thinking about this right now is that I found out there are more books in the series than just the five books in that volume my brother had. Naturally, I have to reread everything. You know, when I’m not doing homework and other responsible adult things. I’ve already started.

It’s reminding me of the reasons I love storytelling so much, and why I’m trying to make telling stories my life’s occupation. There were plenty of frightening things in those books, but I never really got scared. I  was too busy feeling wonder at how a world so real could be conjured up with print on a page, and how the kids fighting the war against the corruption of good felt like something that had always been happening.

I was too young to have the story properly change my life, but it certainly had a hand in shaping it.

The Boy Who Never Grew Up

So, I missed two weeks.  Sorry about that.  There was a family reunion.  And a comic-con.

I also saw a live production of Peter Pan, which was great, and leads in to what I want to talk about today.

This image has been hopping around the net for a while:

And it is related to the original story–Mrs. Darling as a child had heard that Peter held children’s hands part of the way to heaven–but it changes or ignores the rest.

That’s okay.

When Sir J.M. Barrie first wrote the play about a boy who wouldn’t grow up, he wasn’t trying to make a myth.  He was just telling a story, inspired by his own experiences and interacting with his friends’ young sons.  That’s how myths start.   One person tells a story, and someone remembers it and retells it, and each time it’s retold it changes, because different elements are important to different people.

That doesn’t happen as often these days, except perhaps in the stories children tell each other, because the majority of our stories are set in print.  Superhero stories can be mythical in nature, and Captain America stories certainly aren’t being told the way they were back in World War Two.  But even superheroes aren’t quite there the way Peter Pan is.

Peter Pan is still in print, the same book Sir Barrie wrote, but it’s been well over a hundred years since it was written.  Even though we all have access to the story the first way it was told, it’s been retold dozens of times, and we remember Peter the way we saw him in a movie or TV show or a more recent novel.  Not the first play or the children’s book.

However many times the story gets retold, though, most of the core themes stay the same.  The idea that childhood is magical and wonderful and incredibly selfish.  That children are the centers of their own universes.  That there is a darkness in the experience of childhood that we adults can’t or won’t acknowledge very often.

Peter Pan might refuse to grow up, or be incapable of it.  He might be an Angel of Death or simply someone who shows up during transitions in people’s lives.  He might kill Captain Hook and be pleased with himself, or feel guilty.  However people tell it, though, he remains a child who doesn’t grow up, a child who could fly through any bedroom window in the world and include the children who know his story in his adventures.  That keeps him alive for all of us.  That keeps us reimagining him.

So when I try to find inspiration for my writings, I look to Peter Pan and other stories like it.  The stories that stick around for years, not because they’re the best written or have the most popular actors in their films–all that only lasts as long as it takes for a language to evolve or a generation to grow up–but because they pull at our shared experiences as human beings and say something about what it means to be a person that resonates with us.

A Story of Dragons

I’m not entirely sure what is so appealing about the idea of a giant scaly fire-breathing creature, but judging by the sheer volume of dragon stories in the world’s mythology, literature, and art, liking (or fearing) dragons seems to be an intrinsic part of humanity.

They’ve burned down villages and pulled Santa’s sleigh when Rudolph was on strike.  They’ve given advice and manipulated the puny mortals who dared enter their domain.  They’ve been angels and demons and boats and bestselling novelists–sometimes all at once, in the same story.  (If you haven’t read the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica yet, you need to.  If you want something shorter, check out a Brandon Sanderson story here.).

Why they’re so cool to the rest of the world, I don’t know.  But I know some of why I personally like dragons so much.

The one thing dragons have hardly ever been was afraid.  They might be afraid of spears or arrows or the death of the universe, but it’s not the same fear I had as a little girl who didn’t really understand why the world was as chaotic and painful as it was.  Who ever heard of a dragon with anxiety?

When I was in middle school, the last Harry Potter book had just come out and I was carrying it around everywhere rereading it.  My English teacher eventually shoved me into the school library to find something new to read.  (This confused me–my mom read the book seven times before I was allowed to touch it.)  So I searched in the library’s database for a story that had something a bit like Harry Potter.

What I found involved dragons–starting with a little book called The Hobbit.

I’ve lost track of the number of dragon books I’ve read since then.  I think at one point I couldn’t find any new dragon books in the middle school library and started reading about the Loch Ness Monster.

It’s kind of hard when you’re eleven with a nearly-college reading level to find books that interest you, are age appropriate, and challenge your reading skills.  Somehow, though, most of the dragon books I found fit that criteria, while also being inspiring and showing me where to find courage.

When it came time for me to pick a pen name, of course I thought of dragons.

Stories for children?

Yesterday I finally finished and submitted my application to the university’s illustration program, complete with a digitally colored portfolio piece, drawings of people in their underwear (they’re big on figure drawing, go figure), a filled sketchbook, and something called a “letter of intent.”

I found it absurdly difficult to write the letter of intent without using my ironic version of the formal voice.  I think my sass got loose and ate my non-ironic formal voice sometime in high school.

Anyways.

I didn’t do much yesterday, or most of the past week for that matter, besides work on that application and the occasional homework assignment.  So, no blog post on Friday.  But now I have a bit of time to think, even around the knot of tension at the base of my skull.

So let’s talk about fairy tales.

In one of my classes, I’m working on the dreaded Group Project, working on showing movement through a sequence of twelve images.  Above, you can see the first one I completed.  Mostly completed, anyway.  The sunlight could use some work.

Being art students, none of us could do that simply, so we decided to retell the story of the little mermaid.  The Hans Christian Anderson version, not the Disney one, so it actually resembles a traditional fairy tale–gore and all.

Though no one gets to draw her losing her tongue.

With that going on, the utter ridiculousness of traditional fairy tales has come to my attention.

Cutting people out of a wolf’s stomach.  Lifting someone up a tower using hair.  Trying to get an immortal soul.  A shard of glass that freezes the heart.  Ghost women who will dance a man to death.  Who looked at these and decided they were bedtime stories?  They’re bizarre and impossible and insanely creepy.

As a child, of course, those were all of my favorite things about fairy tales.  I was a weird kid.  Or maybe children in general are just weird.

The great thing about fairy tales, though, is the same thing that’s great about Star Wars, or any other expression of speculative fiction:  It is impossible, and a bit ridiculous, and often creepy, but it reflects life.  Through a distorted mirror, mind you, but mirror it it does.  And since it’s so distorted, it shows us things that we wouldn’t normally notice.

Back to the mermaid.  She wants the prince and an eternal soul.  She doesn’t get the prince, but she does get another chance at getting an eternal soul.  I personally would have asked for a name and an eternal soul, but that’s just me.

The mermaid’s mixed success is important–it reminds us that we don’t always get the things we want or need, even when we sacrifice for them, but that it’s possible to be happy anyway.

And perhaps it is the ridiculous qualities, the nightmarish aspects, of the story that makes it so memorable, so that it sticks in people’s minds and the message gets passed on.  The messages aren’t always about happy things.  All my favorite Irish fairy tales end with everyone dead.  Then again, this planet isn’t always a happy place.  Might as well reflect that bit accurately.

I think that’s why so many good modern stories use the old fairy tales.  They might alter the messages to suit the needs of the storyteller or the times, they might change the setting, but the core of the story is still a fairy tale.  Not because the writers couldn’t think of an original plot, not because fairy tales are popular these days, but because fairy tales are good.  They’re memorable.  They remind us of aspects of the world that we don’t always pay attention to.

At the very least, the fact that so many of the most retold fairy tales are dark helps me feel a bit less awkward about loving dark stories so much.