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#55: Daniel Taylor 1996

Living In Stories, May 27, 2022

In Rewrite Radio Episode #55, writer, speaker, and traveler Daniel Taylor discusses the healing power of stories and the way stories make us a different person.


  • Moby Dick




[00:00:05] Rewrite Radio is delighted to share Dan Taylor's talk at the 1996 Festival of Faith & Writing. Taylor discusses the healing power of stories and the way stories make us a different person.

I'm Jennifer Holberg, co-director with Jane Zwart at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.

Dan Taylor is the author of several books, including The Myth of Certainty, Letters to My Children, Tell Me A Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories, Creating a Spiritual Legacy, The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist and three novels. Taylor has also worked on a number of Bible translations, and he is co-founder of The Legacy Center, an organization devoted to helping individuals and organizations identify and preserve the values and stories that have shaped their life.

So now, from the 1996 Festival of Faith & Writing, Daniel Taylor.


I'm Daniel Taylor, and I'm going to introduce myself for this session. This is sort of an ad hoc session, as you know, because you only discovered this if someone told you about it or you saw it printed somewhere. We did it yesterday, which—actually, yesterday was ad hoc too. 

They called a week ago and said, we've got all of these people coming in, and we don't have enough things happening, and have you ever said anything interesting in the last two or three years that you could say again? And I didn’t, uh, without claiming to have ever said anything interesting, I said, well, I would do another session. 

And so we added one yesterday and they asked if we would do it again. That’s the royal we, by the way. Does this go up? No. Well, I’ll—I’ll just hold it here.

So I'm going to do a session which we've entitled “Living in Stories.” And this is something I've been thinking about the last two or three, four, five, six years, which is the reason I agreed to talk about this as opposed to trying to suddenly create something. It is, conveniently, also the topic of a book that I've just published with Doubleday and my editor Mark Fritz is here—got a chance to meet him for the first time after endless email-message and phone conversations. And that's been a real plus about coming to the conference. 

But I don’t think, ah—and the book is called The Healing Power of Stories: Creating Yourself Through the Stories of Your Life. I don't, however, think it's particularly helpful to listen to an author summarize his or her book that you can either read or not read, you know, based on your own discretion. So I'm not here to just sort of plod through a summary of my book. 

What I do want to do is present the basic thesis of the book and some kind of assertions, perhaps, that flow out of that thesis. I’ll read you a few illustrations of the thesis from the book. But then what I really want to do is invite you to really confirm the thesis by telling some stories. And I think the success of the session really does depend on your ability to, or your willingness to tell those stories.

And we had a wonderful time yesterday with people sharing, shaping, what I call shaping stories, stories about characters or events that really made a difference in their life. And particularly, of course, stories about character. So that's what I'm going to do and would like you to participate in that. 

To help give you something to think about in the back of your mind while you're listening to my deathless prose, I have some questions here to think about, and I'm going to ask you these questions through the next hour and fifteen minutes, so you can be prepared for them. 

The first question is, are you a different person because of a story? Are you a different person, even slightly, because of a story than you would otherwise be? Can you identify any story—and I mean, stories from family stories, from school, from popular culture, from history, from literature—but some stories that you can identify that made you a slightly different person because you were exposed to that story.

Second question, have you—and this I've stolen from Wayne Booth, the critic who used to be at the University of Chicago—have you ever read or heard a story that made you want to be a better person? Have you ever read or heard a story that made you want to be a better person? Which Booth says, and many academics find, a shocking question and almost a heretical question, but I think is an absolutely natural and excellent question. 

[00:05:09] Number three: who are your favorite characters from stories? And again, it can be literature or otherwise. And why? Have you ever wanted to be like a character in a story? And do you think, in fact, that some part of you is like a character in a story, in a way that maybe you even consciously chose? Some aspect of some character from a story. Again, it could be a family story, could be a literary story, a story in history. 

Fourth question, do you think a story has ever harmed you in any way? You think you’ve ever been harmed by a story? Temporarily or over a longer period of time? 

And then last, sort of an introductory question to be percolating on. Aside from technical excellence, which we rightfully hear a lot about at a conference like this, but in addition to technical excellence, what are the qualities of a good story? What are the characteristics of a good story? What makes a good story good? In addition to strong characters, interesting plot, felicitous use of language—you know, all kinds of things you could say from a technical point of view, why a story works…what else would you say are characteristics of a good story?

All right. So those are questions to think about. Let me present you the thesis and kind of a nutshell, which I'll try to illustrate in my thesis. Basically it's stories that tell us who we are. stories are the answer better than anything else in human experience, all the big questions of life.

Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? What happens to me when I die? What is love? You know, I mean, any question. Any of the eternal human questions, it seems to me, have been best answered in a story. And that's for me, the great power of story. And we can talk a little bit about maybe why that is.

I think that by better understanding how stories work in our lives, we can live a better story ourselves. One manifestation of that will be to have meaning in our lives. I think living a healthy story in many ways centers on a feeling that your story is meaningful. You know, that there's really a reason why you're here and a reason for getting out of bed every day.

So the book encourages people to actively identify the stories that have shaped them. And also to consciously think of their own life as a story and themselves as characters in their story and to assess their lives, to see if there's a plot to their life. And we'll talk, we'll define some of these terms in a few minutes, and if they feel a lack of a plot in their story, or if they feel they're not active characters, but really sort of passive spectators, which I think many forces in the contemporary world encourage us to be that is passive.

Then we can consciously, as part of our human freedom and our God given human freedom, choose to be more active characters in a story that has meaning. So that's the thesis in a nutshell, which I will expand upon a little bit here. I'd like to illustrate this thesis by telling a story that a very talented storyteller tells about a story in his own life.

So this is sort of a story within a story within a story and I think this is how great stories start. This is what happens with any powerful story that people hear or experience they want to tell to others. And that's part of the power of stories. This particular storyteller is Scott Momaday. And some of you know him as a very talented native American writer.

His first book he wrote that made a big splash was a House Made of Dawn in the late 1960s. But Momaday is a wonderful writer who combined the best understanding of the Western literary tradition with a native American sort of spirituality and sensibility and way of viewing the earth in a very attractive way.

And Momaday tells this story about his own beginnings which is very important to him. And I'll try to give you a compressed version of it here for time. Momaday is a Kiowa Indian. He was born in Oklahoma. The state of Oklahoma, the Kiowa's had originally settled further north in the Northern central Plains.

And one of the areas that they came to settle was in the area in Montana, or is it Wyoming? Of course, Devil's tower Wyoming. Sorry about that. Montana's on the brain here. This was when they moved into this territory, found this incredible rock monument that soars 1200 feet into the air that we call devil's tower, which Momaday says, by the way, is a terrible name for this sacred place.

[00:05:09] But he said it made a very interesting statement. He said the Kiowa knew that they could not take up normal everyday life until they had explained this thing. And I think that is true. There's many things we cannot do in life until we have explained to ourselves some of the central mysteries of life and every civilization, every culture, as well as every individual has to create explanations for the features of life and a primary feature for them was this huge outcropping of rock.

And if you know anything about devil's tower, you know, it has these amazing vertical lines in it from the way that the rock cooled. and if you are a film buff, you know, this is where Close Encounters of the Third Kind was filmed. So they knew this had to be explained and so of course, what did they do? They told a story about it because that is the way human beings have always and I would argue, continue to explain reality to themselves. And here is the story that the Kiowa told about how this thing came to be. 

There were seven sisters and their brother playing together. And as sometimes happens, the brother turned into a bear and he began to chase these sisters and he chased them very ferociously. I mean, they were in danger because their brother had changed into a bear and they, as they ran from him, there was a great stump of a tremendous tree that had been cut down or had fallen down. And the stump called to the sisters and said, jump up on me. And the sisters jumped up there and the bear came after them. And as the bear came, the stump rose up into the sky and the bear brother reached for them with his claws and he clawed at them and he produced with these claws, these amazing vertical lines in this piece of rock. And then the sisters were translated into what we call the big dipper. They were translated into a constellation, which is sort of a nifty ending.

The mythology seemed of use to a lot of people. It might be a clue for you writers when you're stuck about what to do with your characters, turn them into a constellation. But Momaday was born in, you could say, into a society for which this was one of their important stories. And as an infant in Oklahoma, for whatever reason, his parents took a vacation up to this area of Wyoming to devil's tower. It's actually called a rock tree, the Kiowa call it rock tree. Which is an interesting metaphorical explanation, this sort of tree-like thing, rising up out of the place. And he said he and his parents visited this area, then they came back to Oklahoma and the family gathered together to hear about the trip and do the kind of things that families do.

And he said an old man in the family looked at young Scott Momaday and said, this boy needs another name. And he named him and I don't know how to speak Kiowa, but it's something like Sao Tali, which means rock tree boy, to commemorate the fact that he had been taken to this sacred place of the Kiowa Indians.

And so when Momaday speaks and I've heard him talk in San Francisco a few years back, he says, Scott Momaday is only one of my names. He says, my other name is Sao Tali, rock tree boy. And he says, I am the boy in the story. I am named after the boy in the story. So, he says anywhere I look, anywhere I am in the world, I can look up into the sky and see my sisters.

And he says I'm never alone in the universe, you know? And he talks very eloquently in some of his writing. And when he talks orally about how that tribal story helped shape his understanding of himself and his place in the world, he says, it tells him who he is. He's literally been linked by name to another story.

He knows he's part of a story. So there's a role for him to play. He is the boy in the story. They share the same name, they share the same name and therefore those stars are his sisters. And he takes that in a way that maybe a scientific mentality would tend to diminish. He takes it very seriously.

So Momaday says, this story tells me who I am. I have a place in the universe. The universe is not alien to me. As I think the universe often feels alien to many people who have basically a rationalistic approach to understanding the physical world. He knows there's a place for him and that he fits. And I think the same can be true for all of us and actually is true for most of us.

If we stop and consciously think about it through understanding our role as characters in life defining stories and stories that shape who we really are, what our values are, how we act in the world, we can live richer and healthier and more meaningful lives. And we can assess our stories. My theory is that the famous midlife crisis is really an active narrative criticism.

[00:15:54] We sit there in the middle of our life. We realize that we probably have already lived more than we have left to live. We say, what is it that we're up to, is it worth it? Does it matter what I've done? What's my end going to be like? What will be said about me at my funeral? Which is a very healthy question to ask yourself if you're not, you know, not if you're depressed, maybe, but it can be sobering. But also a very direct kind of thing to ask yourself, what do I want said about me at my funeral? Because we're all gonna have one second coming, holding off as it apparently will for me, because I'm right near the edge. What do we want to have said about us? You know, what is Ron brown? Would Ron Brown be happy?

What's been said about him over the last few weeks since he died in the plane crash, when I look at my own life, I can see much more clearly now than when I was 30 years old. The extent to which I've been shaped by stories and really the impetus for this book, not so much to write a book about it, but starting to think about. It came from another book I wrote called Letters to my Children in which I was writing individual letters not as a book. I wrote it literally as letters that later became a book and I never mailed the letters either. But I thought you're not always going to be around. There's no guarantee that you're going to even live to see your kids turn into adults. And so I started writing these letters and after I had written many of them, what I realized I was doing was telling stories.

These stories revolved around values that I was trying to communicate to them. And it wasn't a conscious strategy on my part when I was writing the letter, but I saw afterwards. And so I started thinking about the degree to which stories are not just sort of interesting things that you can remember and are entertaining, but they really determine how you act in the world and what you think about the world and what you think about yourself in the most fundamental kinds of ways.

And so that was sort of impetus to think about the nature of story and how it works in our lives. So, I'm going to read you a short section from a part of the book. I really only try to identify the stories that may have formed one part of me, because I realized as I sat down thinking now I've got to illustrate this.

You know, what stories have shaped you that they're endless? I mean, I couldn't begin to exhaust them in a particular book, but I thought about what I am like as a person. What are my values or characteristics? I can identify one thing and see what stories might have shaped that.

And so this is a passage that hopefully illustrates some of what I've been talking about. When I reflect on the stories that contribute to whatever I am today, I immediately realize there are too many to enumerate even to myself. Still, it might be possible to isolate a few to illustrate the process.

One of my defining qualities I now see is a pension for viewing the world through moral criteria. I have an instinctive fondness for the categories of good and evil, right and wrong that verges at times on the moralistic. I never consciously decided to see the world this way though. I have consciously decided as an adult not to abandon it.

I believe I developed this habit of perception because a steady stream of stories, secular and sacred presented reality to me in these terms, this is one reason why when you get the very common sort of feeling expressed in the late 20th century that there's no such thing as good and evil, those are just people's opinions about what they like or don't like that. What's left of the hair on my head kind of raises up because I just had this visceral belief that there is such a thing as good. And there is such a thing as evil and that it's absolute foolishness to smear that distinction or to pretend that it's totally produced by a culture or by individual experiences that have no kind of ground in how things are. So I just literally sat at my word processor and said, well, what are some of these, why am I like that?

And I started to think about the things in my life and the stories in my life that might've contributed to that. A powerful common theme and stories from my childhood are centered on good and evil punishment and reward and the consequences of choices, especially the bad consequences of bad choices, which were much easier to visualize and seemed more certain to a child than happy ones.

[00:20:50] Now, if you grew up fundamentalist, you know what I'm talking about. This is a dangerous world and everything is out to get you, especially Satan. So as a little kid, I was a disaster which was much easier to believe than anything else. An early source was fairytales. Sometimes it's filtered through Disney fairytales that offered a simplified, yet accurate view of the world where it mattered who you ran around with and what you did because Pinocchio listened to the wrong people. He ended up with donkey ears and was saved only through conscience and courage. And because two of the three pigs preferred to play before they work, they ended up as lunch meat for the big bad wolf. I moved easily between Pinocchio in the belly of the monster and Jonah in the belly of the whale. Some from my fundamentalist past would lament the confusion between what they take as mere imagination versus hardcore historical reality.

I see both as embodying similar truth, and therefore as allies Pinocchio didn't know, but paid the price. Jonah was assigned a bad territory to work Nineveh and he chose to ignore the assignment. Bad choice. God, it appears, gives commands, not suggestions. One reason among many why he is out of fashion.

I may have been thinking of my grandmother when I talked about this sort of fundamentalist distressed of the imagination. Something like fairytales I used to know. I still run into people who say, why would you want children to read fairytales? You know, those are the best.

They'll say those are made up. If they don't quite say they're lies, or if they read Bible stories, those are true. I remember my grandmother when I was about four years old and I was getting out of the backseat of this car and she was getting out of the front seat. It's very clear. I remember her turning around to me and I don't know what I've been saying in the backseat up to this point, but she looked at me fiercely and said, “don't use that story on me, you know?” And it was very interesting later, as I thought back that she equated story with lie, you know, to story. And there is a kind of metaphorical Atmos about that to sort of spin a yarn.

We talk about that kind of thing, but it also I think now betrays a kind of impoverished view, a very impoverished view of the story and the imagination and its ability to discover and reveal to us truth. It was clear to me as a child that donkey ears and whale bellies were just around the corner, depending on my choices.

I still see the dim light in the empty hallway of my second grade, Texas school. I had been sent to run an errand and as I passed the principal's office, I glanced cautiously in the open door. As one might when passing the cave mouth of a local troll. There through the second open door, I saw a boy bent over holding his ankles and the principal swinging a long broad paddle.

The sound of that paddle was the voice of God to me saying, “you Danny Taylor, living in the Baptist preachers, parsonage. I know you, and I know what you think about. There's a paddle waiting here with your name on it.” Actually, it wasn't so much the voice of God. It's the combined voice of my Sunday school teacher, the school principal, and various other adults in my life, but I wasn't worrying about fine distinctions or if the story of Jonah was reinforced by Disney. School paddling also found its echo in terrifying little Christmas songs. I took it very seriously. The one that says you better watch out. You better not cry. You better not shout. I'm telling you why Santa Claus is coming to town. That was bad enough, but what was far worse?

He knows. He knows when you've been sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows when you've been bad or good. So be good for goodness sake. It was our greatest desire and worst fear to be known. Somebody was watching good news. Somebody was watching bad news. Good news or bad, it mattered what you did.

Maybe even what you thought both had consequences. One particularly onerous consequence was the effect of my behavior on the Dodge. I was convinced that as a 10 year old there was a direct connection between my moral life and the place of the Dodgers in the standings. I took us very seriously. I mean, you talk about crises of faith and conduct.

I just felt that…of course I worshiped the Dodgers, so this was no small thing. Cheat on a spelling test. And Duke Snider will strike out with bases loaded. Memorize the Bible verse for Sunday school and he lines it into right field for the winning hit. The inescapable consequences of choices was a steady drum beat at home, at church, at school and on the ball field. You do this, you get that.

[00:25:43] What goes up must come down for every action. There's an equal and opposite reaction. You reap what you sow. Ding is followed by dong. My life was one unending lesson in cause and effect. Some of these lessons were silly in their application. Do you want to be caught in a movie theater when Jesus comes back?

But not in their underlying principle. It matters what you fill your mind with. Their aim was to make me a better person. It's not too much to say. Their aim was to instruct me in being human. As I got older, the stories continued unabated in sixth grade, they were colored baby blue. I remember clearly a seemingly endless series of bite-size biographies of famous Americans, all bound in baby blue covers.

I read them for extra credit in sixth grade. Nathan Hale regrets having only one life to give for his country. John Paul Jones defiantly declares to his more powerful enemies, don't tread on me. Abraham Lincoln was so determined to learn despite his poverty that he did arithmetic on the back of a shovel with a piece of coal.

I read for the points, but I was formed by the stories and all those stories were essentially one story, work hard, have courage, sacrifice for others. Do good. Some live by and for high values, hopelessly oversimplified, touchingly naive. Absolutely essential. The lack of such naivete today is killing this.

Well, I'll skip a couple of paragraphs here. Basically I talk about stories that come from church and the same kind of message that comes from family. It came from school. It also came from church. Talk about Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. It was joined by Jesus who commanded leaving father and mother.

Could that be necessary? The ubiquitous stories of missionaries took an uncomfortably personal bent. I was almost sure it was going to have to be one of my reasonings. What I wanted to do is grow up and play for the Dodgers or do what God wanted me to do with my life. Something that required wearing a suit. And I sort of ended up riding between. I don't fully wear a suit, but I don't quite play for the Dodgers either. One of the things I at least wanted to do was be a missionary. That was the thing God obviously would require me to stay out of hell.

The place I associated most clearly with missionaries was Africa. My image of Africa was formed less by missionary slides than by stories from popular culture tires in the jungle gym, Sheena queen of the jungle. If God makes me a missionary, I thought I would end up in Africa. And if I end up in Africa, I will eventually end up flat on my back with a spear point at my throat.

And this huge, frightening African holding a spear will ask me a question. Do you believe in Jesus? This was a scenario I played out in my head many times, this fateful imagined moment. My throat was Nathan Hale, Horatio at the bridge and the apostle Stephen all rolled into one. If I hadn't been Baptist, I might've thought of Joan of Arc or some other Saint as well.

At that moment, I would be forced to make a choice that would determine my ultimate fate. I would say yes, I believe in Jesus and would be immediately thrusted through the throat, ascending into heaven on the wings of an angel, shouting glory to Saint Dan in the highest. Or I would say, Jesus, don't believe I've heard that name.

And then of course I would be spared for the moment I would live, but I would live knowing I had failed the test. The big choice in my life would be haunted in my afterlife to grim, to contemplate. As with worrying about Jesus, finding you at the movies. This story I created from a patchwork of received stories was childish in its details, but not in its underlying conception of life.

It does matter what I, or anyone decides about ultimate things, including God. It doesn't matter whether we live by our values when doing so does not seem in our best immediate interest. At such crucial points in bedrooms, boardrooms, classrooms, and concentration camps, more than one person has been guided by a story, a story that told them what they decided mattered.

All right. So that's an illustration of just some of the stories, you know, just referred to really very much in passing that formed just one part of what perhaps is my character today. I think that stories spring from the very fundamental need and desire we have for meaning in life right after your lungs have enough oxygen and your stomach has enough food.

[00:30:38] That thing you next need most in life is meaning. You need it more than many of the other things that we think we need and pursue. And I think we tell stories because of this, because stories make connections between things and meaning depends on connections between things. This is important because it is connected to that.

And that the things that happened to us in life are not simply random or arbitrary, or, you know, just ephemeral things that pass away, but there is significance to them. And so we look to stories to help us find literally a plot to our own lives because I think story, as I've said, is the single best way people have for accounting for their experience.

I think sometimes people think that just writers at conferences like this are the people who tell stories or maybe a grandfather or something like that. I think we are all by nature storytellers and we do it all the time. I would love to have 25 cents for every story that all of you have told just today.

I think as soon as you know, up to this time, you've probably been sitting around telling stories or versions of stories and you'll continue for the rest of your waking hours. And then you'll go to sleep and you'll dream stories. We cannot escape, they're everywhere. Every time you ask somebody, what have you been up to? How's it been going? How are the kids or in the case of some of you, how are the parents? You know, what's new? Those are all story prompts. Those are all invitations to tell me a story. And we really literally want a story. What we don't want is the word find. Okay. I mean, try that out on your spouse. Particularly if you're a male, you can come into the house, you know, how was your day or whatever. One word answers will not do no matter how accurate they might be. That other person is asking you for a story. And that's because they want to make some kind of connection with you. And the story is how we make connections with each other.

I want to read a passage or this kind of way of talking has been in the air for quite a while, really among theologians and philosophers and psychologists. I want to read a passage from Allister MacIntyre, who some of you know is a very prominent contemporary philosopher and ethicist who has been very influential in helping people start to think, not just in rationalistic terms, but in story terms, even about things like truth.

MacIntyre says the following. I can only answer the question. What am I to do? If I can answer the prior question of what story or stories do I find myself a part that is part of you? Can't literally answer that question. What am I to do in life? Unless, you know, what the stories are that you've bought into either consciously or unconsciously, he says it is through hearing stories about wicked stepmother's lost children, good, but misguided Kings and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine that children learn or mislearn what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama to which they have been born and what the ways of the world are deprived.

Children have stories and you leave them. This is very interesting. Deprive children of stories, and you leave them unscripted, anxious, stutterers in their actions. As in their words, I think that's a wonder. Observing a young person literally does not know their lines. They have no script. If they're not part of a story, or if it's a confused or broken story, I have a seven year old daughter, believe it or not. It's not my granddaughter. It's a daughter, the caboose of the family who is in a play right now at a Bethel college. She's got six lines. She knows them. She's proud. She's gonna knock them dead.

She knows what to say at the right time when every child also needs to know what to say at the right time and what to do at the right time in their real lives. And if young people often seem directionless or aimless or passive or whatever else, it's often because they have been deprived of good stuff.

You're not rooted in a story in which they feel that they are a character who knows more or less what to do, not in a robotic way or a mechanical way, but who has a sense of the story and of the plot of which they are apart. And of course, it's also equally true of older people. It's not just young people, anyone who is basically confused about their lives may well be in need of rethinking what is the story of which they are a part and which is helping to define them. 

[00:35:39] Let me offer you a very brief definition. Not anything poetic, but the kind of thing that you need to use to defend yourself because people say, well, what do you mean by these terms? And there are always people like that lurking around.

So here's my brief stripped down definition of a story. A story is the telling of the significant action of characters over time. The telling of the significant action of characters over time. And what I want to do is explore a little bit of those terms because I think each of them, although they're fairly mundane in themselves, each of them is significant and helpful to understanding what the story is. The notion of telling, it starts to get at the community aspect of the story. Storytelling and stories implies a minimum of two people: a teller and a listener. So stories exist in communities, even if it's just a very small community of two people. And that's a very important human fact and a human need that exists in communities. When I tell a story to you, we are during that time a community, and if the community is working well, the ethical thing really, for me to do is to ask you your story.

Afterwards, the story is not interested in monologues. Even though we have monologues within the story, healthy stories, or at least dialogues and among, they're multi voiced. And so, telling is very important. Part of that definition grows out of our innate nature as social creatures. James Q. Wilson, who some of you know as this important criminologist, sociologists, or social scientist at least has an interesting book called The Moral Sense in which he argues contrary to the orthodoxy of our time, that there really is an innate moral sense in human beings, which most social scientists deny outright morality. The Orthodox view is that morality is only created by cultures which is sort of antithetical to a Christian understanding of all of us being made in the image of God. But it's the reigning view. James Q. Wilson said, that's really not true. And he says the key to human morality is in our innate sociability.

Even infants start very early to show that they care about what happens with other infants. You get, you know, two kids and one of them starts crying and it bothers the other kid and not just on a selfish level. And he talks about this in a very persuasive kind of way. Kids start to share, they start to pat each other. They sort of take care of each other. And he says, in this, out of this innate sociability grows what we call the moral sense in human beings. I think telling is part of that. Robert Frost has a poem. That he chose to be the very first poem in his collection of poems. It's called “The Pasture.” He says, “I'm going out to clean the pasture this spring. I'll only stop to rake the leaves away and wait to watch the water clear. I may, I shouldn't be gone long. You come to, I'm going out to fetch the little calf that's standing by the mother. It's so young. It totters. When she licks it with her tongue, I shan't be gone long. You come too.” And that refrain in that very short poem “you come too” is I think the essential invitation of the story. It's an inclusive story. 

Let me tell you my story, you know, and we need to be ethical listeners. We need to pay attention to people's stories, listen compassionately. And then the ethical response, as I said, is then to let the listener tell the story. So telling seems to me is a very important part of story, and that is an invitation to relationship and invitation to community.

Second part of the definition says story needs to have a significant action space. It's the telling of significant action by characters over time. And I think that's getting us to this notion of plot. And it's also connected to this idea of meaning that I said is so important.

[00:40:13] We only really care in the long run about stories in which something happens that strikes us as significant that it mattered that it happened. We're not particularly interested in the film on a bank security camera, right? I mean, they're producing an eight hour epic every day and you can sit there and it's filmed and you can watch people come in, fill out their little farms, stand in line, leave, and you can see it in fast motion.

The reason we're not interested is because there's no real significant connection between all these people who come in the banks, if they're all putting in or taking out money that doesn't strike us as particularly significant. So just having events or having things happen or having characters or people do things does not make a story.

In fact, one of the most famous definitions of plot or story comes from Ian Forrester, the British novelist, who says, “if you have the king die, then the queen dies. You don't have a story. You just have two events.” He says, “you say the king died. Then the queen died of grief and you've got a story. You've got motivation, you've got a causal link. You've got something worth exploring.” And what we want in our own lives is that sort of significant link between events and not just random events. The key to that significance grows out. I think of the third element of the definition, and that is character. The telling of the significant action of characters over time and character it seems to me is the absolute key to story and to our interest in story. Long after we have forgotten plot symbolism, even theme, we remember characters for a number of years. I taught Moby Dick when I first started teaching at Bethel college. Then, they hired somebody who knew something about American literature and so I moved over to things that I knew more about. I was just sort of covering that, so I haven't taught Moby Dick in many years. And I remember spending a lot of time in class on things like symbolism and intricate kinds of things. Isn't this cool? Look how this, three days they're chasing the whale here and that’s what three is, that's obviously a symbol like it always is. And this and that and themes. I remember just going on about all these themes, you know, I can't remember any of those anymore. I can't remember quite what the themes are. I can't remember the symbolism in any great detail, but boy, do I remember that Ahab guy still scares me, you know, and Melville wrote that in a way to introduce him.

And he kind of builds suspense because he has characters talking about Ahab in a kind of a fearsome way before we ever see a have in the story. And Ahab sticks into my head and Ishmael, this wonderful narrator who at the very opening of the novel says, well, I've got two choices, shoot myself in the head or I can go to see again as a wonder, and I said much better than that, but it's a wonderful kind of comic, tragic opening to the novel that nobody ever mentions.

But I think it's wonderful and quick. This Indian harpoon is covered with tattoos who Ishmael ends up sharing a bed with on his very first night in a very funny scene. All of these characters and in this name any, you can start naming stories and what you're first going to remember as characters and maybe that's all you're going to remember.

So characters of course are very important. Well, what is character and what are characters? Character, as we talk about it in moral terms, is the intersection of life and values. It's life and it's values actually lived out in. It is not values that are intellectually assented to, or believed. And I think this is a great failing in the evangelical church.

Maybe anywhere in the church, probably in all of humanity for that matter, we think what's important is what we believe. And so we feel like if somebody says, well, do you believe in Jesus? And do you believe he was raised from the dead? And he's even you, as long as you can say yes, then you're sort of covered, you know, you've taken care of things.

I don't think that's biblical, nor is it true to how story works. What's important is what you do with those beliefs, the way those beliefs show themselves in your acts and the way you relate to people in the way you act in the world. So, nobody should ask you whether you're a Christian, they should ask your neighbors, whether you're right. And your neighbors will tell you to give a much more accurate assessment of whether you're a Christian or not than you will yourself. Now, if any of you have any ideas about doing that with my neighbors, I've just got one or two I'd rather you not ask, but character is the essence of story in literature and history and in our own lives. What we are interested in about characters and the stories were basically interested in key people. Trouble stories are almost always centered on people and we want to know what choices they're going to make. They're in tough spots. What are they going to do? Or they're in hilarious situations or whatever. And it doesn't have to be real dramatic.

It can be a very quiet kind of story. But if characters aren't making choices, being forced to make choices there, it's likely to be a very dull story. So we are drawn to finite people in difficult situations, making difficult choices, largely I think because we often feel that we're in that situation ourselves in life and we're looking for clues, right?

[00:45:51] We're looking for hints, not directly, we don't say, oh, let's see what did Ishmael do when they gave him a bad time? But we're sort of always collecting stories from each other, from literature, from history, and making it part of our own stockpile. And I argue in the book that you can bring it to bear. And a lot of wisdom that you can bring into difficult situations is brought in directly in story form because characters have choices and are making choices. Story is inherently concerned with morality. And I think nothing strikes me as more foul and just obviously wrong than a very common assertion that literature has nothing to do with morality and that we should keep those things separate.

I mean, you just cannot keep those things separate any place you have human beings, making choices, you have morality because you have a choice, implies a value. Why this, instead of that, what is the art that underlies that choice? And every value implies a judgment of right and wrong or true and false or insured.

So of course, if people are making choices, morality's involved, of course morality is important in politics. And, I mean, you just don't have politics without morality. How can you choose what you fund, where you spend your money, what you know, how you vote on an issue without your values being engaged.

And so I think that's one of the things that story teaches that I think is very helpful for us to know in the late 20th century. There is so much relativism, so much suggestion that well, everybody makes their own decisions and makes their own values. And so who am I to say that there's a pressure to make us very passive spectators and being a spectator is really opposite of being a character or almost the opposite.

Certainly there's a time for observation and stuff, but a person who's frozen as a spectator of life or of other people is really engaged in a sort of a dehumanizing activity. I mean, it's really the essence of voyeurism and pornography and all kinds of things where you turn instead of having relationships with other people, you turn them into it's their objects or things to be observed and healthy stories will not allow us to be merely spectators.

The last element of the definition is to tell the significant action of characters over time. And that's important because time makes change possible. Stories can not happen in an instant. They take chronological time to unfold, both the stories we read and the stories we live in our own life.

And because they take place over time. And because we are characters, making choices, we can choose for our story to be different from them. And again, there's much in modern thought that tells us that we don't have free choice, that we're determined by our genetics, by our gender, by our class, by our race, by any number of things it's all been determined for you and you're just a victim or you're just a victimizer and it's all where you came from.

It is where you came from. But, we still have free will and we're still characters. And so, because stories unfold over time, choices can be made by characters and we can change our own story. And I think that's one of the great reasons for hope in the world. It really changes the impossible. We're in a pretty desperate situation at the very least we're in a boring situation, but because we are real characters in our own story, we can change and things can be different than they are. Okay. I'm gonna read a short passage, not as long as the last one. And then I'm going to ask you to identify any stories in your life that you think may have changed you. This is an attempt to, in a very brief story, summarize this definition or illustrate at least. A friend of mine, whom I value very much, once confessed to a group of us that he suffered in his life from what Winston Churchill called the shaggy black dog of depression.

[00:50:28] Perhaps I should have guessed this. Having admired his many drawings and paintings of dead birds in various stages of decay, some draped casually from his bald head in self portraits, I guess I wish it would have been a clue to me. The wonderful trines and paintings of himself, some of just birds, but others of himself standing there staring out from the painting with a dead bird on top of his head, but a wonderfully gentle man. Perhaps I should've seen depression declaring itself in his gently sad eyes or in his slightly too deep sigh, but I didn't. And then he told us an important reason why he was still alive. He said that a few years back, his daughter had moved back home, pregnant broken marriage collapsed.

It was a dark time for him. Death seemed attractive, hope and faith seemed far away, reasons for going on came reluctantly and without conviction, then life offered him one more reason in the form of a grant. Five minutes after the birth, my friend held him in his hands. Whispering grandpa loves Nick. Grandpa loves Nick. He told us this story with his voice cracking and our own eyes filled with tears. Nick was sent to the world to keep me alive, he said, whenever I felt despair too heavily in the months to come or thoughts of death filled my mind. I picked up my grandson and whispered over and over. Grandpa loves Nick. Grandpa loves Nick. Grandpa loves Nick. You may wonder whether grandpa loves Nick qualifies as a story. I believe it does. These words are the tip of an iceberg, breaking into a breadth of years of pain and perseverance. They are a brief eruption into language of a story that had been more often articulated with his artist's hand, but I will claim more.

These three words. Grandpa loves Nick are by themselves. A story compressed unadorned and elaborated, but a story vibrating with the power of a splitting nucleus, they have everything required. A speaker, a listener, an action, a message, and a heart on fire. Could Nick have had a better welcome into the world?

Do you doubt that this story formed him over the months? Informs him still today? You wish that stories for every newborn baby, for every child, for yourself, this story shaped teller and hearer alike, as all our stories do. So my question to you is can you identify and are you willing to testify to any stories from your life that you think made you a different person than you would have been without this.

Anybody willing to start us off. I can wait as long as you can. You have to remember I'm a teacher and I'm hardened to silence.

Yes. Right? Sure. I think one of the great sort of byproducts of a certain story for me. I teach a course called literature, the oppressed, and teach everything from Holocaust literature up to native American and feminist and African-American literature. And the effect for me, every time of teaching those stories is to lower my own whining threshold or raise it, I guess you should say.

The things that I would sort of instinctively begin to babble about seem so petty and surmountable compared to the stories that you hear from other people. And it's not a way of silencing a natural desire to express our pain, but giving us a kind of scale against which to measure. That I think makes me at least more accepting of this, of the details of the story I'm living.

Yes. On the further back then we'll go to use the second next highest.

[00:54:42] Yeah. That seems to be another basic human need to feel that you're significant. And the kids love stories in which they are the characters. My kids first off, I read tons of stories to my kids, but they really liked it when I made up a story. And of course they were the heroes. And as it turns out, my kids were at that age when the Star Wars movies first came out, so we had lots of stories from me and of these land walkers and Darth Vader and they were Jedi Knights and it just worked out great. And I think it's important that we focus on the stories from our past that are positive in the way that you're talking about there, because we can all create a sort of Canon of terrible stories. Those have to be told too, but we should balance them with the best stories that we can remember. Somebody after this session yesterday told me that she works with juvenile offenders and tries to teach them and they have horrific stories and she tries to get them to use the story in a positive way. And one young boy talked about the time that his mother saved his and his sister's life and snatched them out of a burning room and took them. And he loved telling that story and how, for him, it symbolized how much his mother loved him and would do for him as a social worker.

She knew that fire had been set by the mother's boyfriend on purpose and it was a terrible family situation. And in many ways you could create a situation there where the mother was very derelict. And yet what the boy remembered was what his mother did. And I don't think that's a false interpretation of what happened at all. She did save him and she did love him. And she, you know, that was her best self doing that thing. And that was very appropriate for that kid to remember that.  And I think, you know, I'd want to emphasize that we've got to tell our whole story and that includes the bad part as well and not sugarcoat it. On the other hand, as you say, even bad stories can force choices that can be turned into good things. Of course, this is part of the optimism of Christianity that you know, that for all the ugliness in the world, God is redeeming his creation. I mean, that's a great act of faith. I mean, Christianity is an incredibly optimistic religion for all this talk about sin and the stuff that's so close to our lips to the idea that something takes care of all of this and writes injustice in the end is amazingly optimistic.

And I have stories, one of which I may read here if we have time, about people who are in circumstances that don't seem like anything. There's no silver lining to this, and yet they have an attitude toward life that redeems, even dark stories. Let me just make a few assertions based on this thesis and this definition that I've offered.

And I won't elaborate on these at any length, but I think they're important. One is that character is much more important than your personality. And this is something I think we really lost and they explored at some links in the book. We really have become obsessed with the notion of personality in the 20th century, largely at the behest of the social sciences.

And obviously particularly in ecology, and there's nothing wrong with a notion of personality. There's nothing wrong with psychology's expiration of it. But what is the problem is that it has pushed the notion of character right off the stage. And we look only to the social scientists to tell us what it means to be a human being.

And we have become obsessed with a sort of inward manipulation of our psyches and probing it and et cetera, that becomes very narcissistic and ultimately anti-community. It turns us so much inward, not inward in order to go outward, but just sort of inward and stay inward that I think a renewed understanding of story and of character in ourselves as character can be very important in helping to at least balance that out.

Bruno Bettelheim makes a very important point. I think in a book he writes about fairytales and the importance of fairy tales for children. And it's related to this notion of the centrality of character. He says that stories and fairytales in particular play an important role in the moral development of children.

He said, one of the things, of course they do is they show good news. And it's real good and it's real evil. And, you know, maybe it's over simplified, but  it makes that necessary distinction that there are two different things in the world sometimes mixed together, but in fairytales more often, quite clearly separated.

And he says, it's important for a child to see this. And it's also important to see in the fairy tale, that characters make choices vis-a-vis good and evil, and there are consequences to their choices, very clear kinds of consequences. And of course, many of these fairy tales and stories were almost designed or grew out of the need to instruct.

And so they're often very didactic, but he makes a key observation. He says, the child listening to the fairytale does not say, do I want to be good? The child says, who do I want to be in this story? And I think that's true for most of us. We don't abstractly think, alright, what's the qualities of a good person that got to have all those qualities? Or at least I don't think it's particularly productive to do that.

[01:00:47] Maybe occasionally what we do just as often unconsciously as consciously is we see people around us who we want to emulate. Now the problem in our culture, I think, is that often we want to emulate people for the wrong reasons and we want the wrong part of what they are.

But throughout the course of education. The history of moral education has been based on storytelling and finding heroes and mentors and models to follow after. And I think, you know, Bettelheim, like McEntire in that earlier quote, is telling us that children need to see people that they can try to live a life like that in one way or another.

And I think it's true for us as well. We do well to consciously identify and choose among the characters in the stories that surround us and really try to appropriate part of what they are to what we are. And I have my own sort of Pantheon of heroes. I'm sure there are many people who, if I spent more time, would think of many more people. But people like Martin Luther King Jr, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Pascal or Harriet Tubman or all these kinds of people. These people are really for me models, they have aspects of their life which I would like to be part of my life. Now it does not depend on me thinking these people are perfect by any means.

I mean, Contemporary history and journalism loves to show us the clay feet and all our idols. And that's maybe a necessary corrective. The mistake is to say, because this person was imperfect, therefore we have nothing to learn from their life. And that results in a kind of cynicism about life, which is very prevalent.

And I think it's a story that argues against that because even the heroes in stories, especially contemporary modern stories in the last two or 300 years, are always very flawed. They have that. And yet there's something about them that contributes to them living a successful life in the way that we could emulate.

Let me read another passage about the person who I just mentioned is living in circumstances that you wouldn't think had anything to do with us. But who had an image of the plot of her life that made all the difference. And then I'm going to ask you to identify some characters, perhaps from your own life.

I've written elsewhere of a dying woman named Phyllis. She was the divorced wife of a foe of my father's friend from college days. That is when my father was in college, in her fifties and dying of cancer. She seemed to have little to show for her life. Her marriage had dissolved. She had traveled paths the well-known Father would never have approved. Her beloved daughter had been killed in a car wreck a few years before, and she was broke. As college students, my wife-to-be and I visited her in her last days. The room was bare and dingy, the walls painted a dirty looking tan. She sat in the reclining chair in which she slept because it was too painful for her to lie down. A curly wig covered her baldness, nothing in the situation, hinted at the greatness of spirit that filled the woman.

She talked to us about life and the way that only those with little of it left can do all the trivial urgencies of daily living which had seeped away, nothing petty was worth her attention, or for those moments or hours. She talked among other things about her pain, but in a way I had never heard anyone talk.

She addressed it as her companion, as her escort to another world. She said, God sometimes came to her in the night, a warm light that filled her body and assured her that all shall be. Our culture has a great aversion to pain and suffering of any kind which she thought a bad sign. Pain was a part of so many good things.

Giving birth, writing a poem, asking forgiveness, even saying, I love you. Complete freedom from pain meant separation from life. After being with Phyllis, I could never think of my own pain or the world in quite the same way. She gave me a fresh way of seeing something that was very old and familiar. She did not erase the reality of suffering, but she offered me new ways of thinking about it.

And therefore I have evaluated an act in the world slightly differently in the many years, since I have been ensured a different character and thereby lived a slightly different story because of this brief encounter with a dine woman whose life had all the external marks of failure. Any stories from you about characters? I'm interested?

[01:05:32] I mean, I am interested in any story, but has anybody ever been influenced by a character?

Well, I'm going to skip all the rest of this stuff because of time. I guess I would just close by saying, I think stories have the power to heal what ails us. And I'm ambivalent about this as a self-help book. Because it isn't a self-help book, at least it wasn't in my mind. On the other hand, I think it sort of is a self-help book.

What's the difference? Um, the difference for me is that so many self-help books turn you inward and leave. You turned inward. And I think if we think about story, it definitely probes very deeply into what we are as deep as anything can, but then it also turns us back out to community and what we need, I think often as individuals.

And I certainly think we need this as a society, our healthy stories, which give us a sense of connectedness between things in which we can be characters, doing purposeful things. And the great tragedy of one of the great tragedies versus cities that are common storytellers in television.

And that's the quality of story that we get and that we all share together. And unless we improve on the quality of stories, we're in trouble as a culture, and I think we can improve if we propose to. So thank you very much for your attention. 


Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.