Readings on Story

Readings on Story

“There are no true stories; we are making up every one of them.” Pema Chodron

“There are only true stories. We are discovering the truth in them.” Christina Baldwin

Storytelling is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truth-teller. … We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.
Ursula K. Le Guin

Listening is soul work. It can help the living find the meaning to go on in the midst of trying circumstances, and it can help the dying accept the brevity of their lives. Without listening, there can be no story. And without stories, we cannot complete the unfinished work of healing. Richard Stone, The Healing Art of Storytelling

Research consistently shows that stories mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us [open to seeing each other and life anew].
David Zahl

Some years ago I had a conversation with a man who thought that writing and editing fantasy books was a rather frivolous job for a grown woman like me. He wasn’t trying to be contentious, but he himself was a probation officer, working with troubled kids from the Indian reservation where he’d been raised. Day in, day out, he dealt in a concrete way with very concrete problems, well aware that his words and deeds could change young lives for good or ill.
I argued that certain stories are also capable of changing lives, addressing some of the same problems and issues he confronted in his daily work: problems of poverty, violence, and alienation, issues of culture, race, gender, and class…
“Stories aren’t real,” he told me shortly. “They don’t feed a kid left home in an empty house. Or keep an abusive relative at bay. Or prevent an unloved child from finding ‘family’ in the nearest gang.”
Sometimes they do, I tried to argue. The right stories, read at the right time, can be as important as shelter or food. They can help us to escape calamity, and heal us in its aftermath. He frowned, dismissing this foolishness, but his wife was more conciliatory. “Write down the names of some books,” she said. “Maybe we’ll read them.”
I wrote some titles on a scrap of paper, and the top three were by Charles de Lint – for these are precisely the kind of tales that Charles tells better than anyone. The vital, necessary stories. The ones that can change and heal young lives. Stories that use the power of myth to speak truth to the human heart.
Charles de Lint creates a magical world that’s not off in a distant Neverland but here and now and accessible, formed by the “magic” of friendship, art, community, and social activism. Although most of his books have not been published specifically for adolescents and young adults, nonetheless young readers find them and embrace them with particular passion. I’ve long lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people from troubled backgrounds say that books by Charles saved them in their youth, and kept them going.
Recently I saw that parole officer again, and I asked after his work. “Gets harder every year,” he said. “Or maybe I’m just getting old.” He stopped me as I turned to go. “That writer? That Charles de Lint? My wife got me to read them books…. Sometimes I pass them to the kids.”
“Do they like them?” I asked him curiously.
“If I can get them to read, they do. I tell them: Stories are important.
And then he looked at me and smiled.”
Terri Windling

Remember this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them.
And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves.
Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel

“I will tell you something about stories . . . They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.” Leslie Marmon Silko 

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou

How do you see people facing each other and collaborating when they stand on two sides of pressing environmental issues?
I think we begin to face each other where we have the most at stake — within our own families and communities. And that is the most difficult. It is also the most rewarding. Dinner parties are a good place to begin a conversation because food binds us together. It also has a basis in generosity: the generosity of being invited to sit down and break bread together and the reciprocity of accepting the invitation to engage around the table.
When we share our stories, empathy enters the room. A tenderness is felt. We experience another generosity, that of listening to one another as human beings. The weather system shifts as we realize we are being heard and seen for who we are, instead of as people who hold a contrary position or opinion. Relationships begin to take root. Unexpected partnerships grow. Change becomes creative, collaborative.
From an interview with Terry Tempest Williams

We must engage and hold on to the humanity of black people. We must engage and hold onto the humanity of police. It is not enough to support the police and ignore black lives being killed with regularity by the state. It is not enough to only care about black lives and ignore that most police take their role to protect seriously and that it is a dangerous job. And it is very problematic to insist that because people of all stripes are protesting in our democracy — in our country that was born of protest — that the protesters are un-American.Can we tell a different story? I believe we can and we must. It starts by recognizing there is not just one story. There are many stories and they all touch on part of the truth. When we learn to hear each others’ stories and build a more inclusive story, we will make progress. Our country is in flux and it’s also increasingly polarized. But when we insist on giving into polarization, there is little room for hope.
We must reach for a new story. This story requires a new language that is not binary. A language that can hold respect for the police while challenging structures that do not serve us well. This requires dropping the impossible demand that blacks must first prove that their lives matter. This requires being willing to ask more of the black community, but not the impossible. This requires asking more of the white community, but not the impossible. This requires recognizing that the black, white, brown, Asian, Native-American, and mixed-race communities are all our America. This requires that we be willing to do things differently, whether it’s in how we fund and populate our schools and police departments to how we approach guns and violence in our society.
Most importantly, this new story requires that we recognize that we are all a part of each other and that we make all our practices reflect this. This new story requires more than words. It requires actions. It requires reaching inside ourselves and out across the gulf that threatens to divide us. This new story requires that we lean away from hate and into love. We will make mistakes and there will be setbacks, but we can collectively give birth to a new story and a new way of being.
Some will insist that things have improved. And they have. Some will insist that things have gotten worse, and they have. The question we must ask is: How do things get better? And equally important: What is our role in creating a new story to ensure things will?
John A Powell, from an On-Being column.

These are the days that have been given to us;
Let us rejoice and be glad in them.

These are the days of our lives;
Let us live them well in love and service.

These are the days of mystery and wonder;
Let us celebrate them in gratitude together.

These are the days that have been given to us;
Let us make of them stories worth telling.
William Murry (adapted)


“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion

“The truth about stories is that that is all we are.” Thomas King, The Truth About Stories


Longer Texts

From On-Being, writer Cheryl Strayed reminds us why telling stories matter.

An essay in Aeon Magazine exploring the impact of stories on our hearts and our brains.

Written by a Unitarian Universalist, this article reminds us of the spiritual power of sharing our stories.

This UU World essay is a gentle reminder to stop and read our own stories from time to time.


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