Stories and the Lives They Save
(Note to readers: The following was part of my presentation at the 2018 Fox Cities Book Festival, a session bearing the same title as this blog post. Many thanks to the FCBF, the Neenah Public Library, and Meghan Odegard for making the session possible.)
I was shocked recently when someone close to me said, “You don’t save lives.”
The comment hurt.
I knew this person was speaking in black-and-white terms, and I will concede that I don’t save lives in the sense that an oncologist does using radiation and chemotherapy. Nor do I save lives in the sense that a cardiac surgeon does in removing blockages from arteries so that the heart may continue beating. In one sense, this person was entirely correct.
But in another sense, the more important sense in the context of our gathering here today, I would contend that this person completely misses the point of my being a writer.
Stories do save lives—they always have, and they always will. We use stories to make sense of the world around us. We may sometimes turn to them for escape, and other times for answers to questions that plague us. Stories teach us. Stories lift us. Stories embolden us to stand strong in the face of challenges. Stories validate the fact that we matter, that we are not alone. In these and innumerable other ways, stories do save lives: not our physical bodies, necessarily, but our souls and our psyches, collectively and individually. These stories afford our minds and spirits the opportunity to speak and even sing. A body that lives and breathes without a mind that speaks or a soul that sings is not truly alive. It’s a body that merely goes through the motions of living. For me, this is an essential belief, a principle I’m unwilling to compromise, one that guides my life and my work as a writer, a teacher, a father, a husband, and a citizen.
What’s the origin of this essential belief? I can’t pinpoint a single instant—no grand epiphany, no choirs of heavenly angels, no light bulb flashing on above my balding head. Rather, it emerges from a long train of years and from multiple sources: my work as a student, as a teacher and scholar, and as a reader, work that has resulted in my efforts to imbue my writing with my belief that stories save lives.
In studying and teaching war literature, I’ve come to recognize that armed conflict damages, breaks, and kills not only actual bodies, but also hearts, souls, and psyches. Trauma and moral injury mark both combatants and civilians alike: soldiers, their families, their communities large and small, and entire bodies politic. This work introduced me to Jonathan Shay, a clinical psychologist whose life’s work has been devoted to helping veterans recover from PTSD and moral injury. The essential tool in his work? Stories. Shay found that more than anything else, the veterans with whom Shay worked needed to share their stories with an accepting audience willing not only to listen but to hear. Sharing their stories, and having them heard, acknowledged and validated their feeling. Shay’s two major books on the subject draw upon epic heroes of Greek antiquity, Achilles and Odysseus, themselves warriors who suffered physical, psychological, and spiritual wounds as a result of their participation in the Trojan War. For Shay, stories prove an essential therapeutic tool. With Shay, stories save lives.
Also drawing upon the wellsprings of the classics is translator and director Bryan Doerries. I learned of Doerries and his Theater of War project through an article in Haper’s. Doerries’ epiphany was prompted by the Washington Post’s reporting on conditions encountered by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan at the Walter Reed Medical Center. As a student of the classics, Doerries realized that perhaps the greatest dramatist of ancient Greece, Sophocles, had written tragedies intended to heal the psychic wounds and moral injuries of not only Athens’ warriors, but its body politic as well. The result of this realization is Doerries’ Theater of War project, which brings table readings of the ancient tragedies to communities marked by tragedy. These readings are most often brought to military bases, where the conversations among soldiers and their families and their commanding officers extend for hours into the night and for the weeks and months following the readings. Doerries, in a profoundly powerful and tangible manner, employs stories to promote healing among those wounded by war.
But for me, the most compelling example of the link between stories and the work of saving lives is found in the work of Tim O’Brien. I like to joke that when I grow up, I want to write as well as he does. Few writers can hold a candle to O’Brien’s artistry, and while I may never achieve his level of aesthetic achievement, I find my writing exploring similar themes. I admire how he gives readers Norman Bowker endlessly circling a lake, wishing he could tell his father the tale of how he almost won the Silver Star. I’m given the chills by Elroy Berdahl bearing silent witness to the fictional Tim O’Brien’s decision to go to Vietnam because he was ashamed not to go. And I’m endlessly awed by O’Brien’s ability to distinguish between truth as it happened and truth as it felt—the kind of truth that makes the stomach believe.
But for as impressive as all of these stories are in their treatment of war-related trauma, for me, O’Brien’s most impressive piece on the live-saving capacity of stories is his tale of a nine-year-old girl named Linda—O’Brien’s first-ever date—who dies of brain cancer. I’ll leave the specifics of that tale for you to discover if you aren’t already familiar with the story “The Lives of the Dead,” but I’ll share this aspect of the story: O’Brien, in creating a version of himself to narrate the story, discovers that by saving the life of his first love on the page, he is also preserving an unchanging “everness” as present in the eyes of nine-year-old Timmy looking back from a photograph as it is in the eyes of the forty-three year-old writer committing words to the page—a writer who has seen much, experienced much, and suffered wounds that have left an indelible mark on his soul.
The Meadow is a book that embraces the essential role of stories in healing wounds and saving lives. Walt’s father, Otto, is a World War II veteran who has never been able to share his stories, and he knows all-too-well the consequences of his inability to do so. Walt anticipates his brother Clay one day returning from Southeast Asia with a need to share stories in a way Otto never could (so if you like The Meadow, stay tuned for its sequel The Field). But The Meadow is also a book that preserves the life of a friend and mentor. It preserves the life of a town and its residents from America’s heartland during an era when forces seeming to spiral beyond anyone’s control left wounds that in many ways have yet to heal—especially because so many of us are still unwilling to even listen to one another let alone hear what our brothers and sisters have to say. And I wouldn’t be truthful if I weren’t to say that I hope, on some level, it preserves the life of a certain writer for his family, his friends, and his students—that it preserves the same type of everness O’Brien finds in both a grainy snapshot from the distant past and in the eyes of the writer looking back at him from a mirror.
In books, we find the antidote to so much of what plagues us, both individually and collectively. In this sense, the writer is an oncologist. Cancers of the soul and psyche are no less deadly than cancers of the lungs or breast or brain. Cancers of the soul and psyche may not appear on cat scans or MRI’s, but they metastasize and kill as unapologetically as their bodily counterparts.
In this sense, the writer is a cardiologist. So many of us live with heavy hearts. When we witness the rancor, pettiness, and vindictiveness so present in our world—and which, in being demonstrated by our leaders, is simultaneously sanctioned and encouraged—we witness heart failure. Stories can clear what blocks the body politic’s arteries, preserving in so many ways our collective cardio-vascular system.
Those who know my tendency to grow light-headed at the prospect of having blood drawn understand why I’ve never been able to step into scrubs and use a scalpel, but I work to protect and preserve through a calling of a different sort. I know that I’ll never become rich or famous as a writer, but money and recognition aren’t what motivate my efforts to commit meaningful, memorable words to the page.
I write to save lives.