Writing to Change the World: Why Do Stories Matter?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Bonnie Friedman's Writing Past Dark and a couple of other books that are my go-to books when my batteries are depleted and in need of recharge. This past week, I found another. I've been meaning to order Mary Pipher's Writing to Change the World ever since it came out in 2006, but for some reason just never did, despite that inner voice that said I should. And now I know why.

Pipher isn't writing to writers who want to be especially literary, nor is she writing to those of us who want our novels to sell. She's writing to those few, brave souls who are stubborn enough, visionaries enough, and perhaps arrogant enough to believe that something we write may have an impact on the world. Granted, she is talking more of activist writing than writing novels, and even says as much in her introduction. But as I read, I found myself nodding along and realizing that I am one who writes for a greater purpose, because of a calling that comes from outside myself. In my writings about the place of the mentally ill in society, though I want to haunt, spook, and entertain, I also hope to start a broader sweep of change that just might begin with the controversy I and others like me will spark with our books.

It takes a really bold voice to make such a statement, and to be honest, these last few weeks I've wondered if I have it. And, more importantly, I have wondered if I'm prepared for the reactions that such a work will spark. In the past, I've tended to polarize people in workshops, live audiences, and the editors of literary magazines. I've had pages of a play I wrote thrown down on the floor and stomped upon, and my former Sunday School teacher once concluded I was under the spell of a witch. But if my writing gets out there, I will have to contend with these same responses from complete strangers, strangers who may not understand what I'm trying to do and conclude that I, like my main character, need "an adjustment in the head."

But then I read Pipher, and felt like someone was speaking my language. Among her many gems in this book, I found the following, which really spoke to me. I hope it speaks to some of you.
I do not believe in fairy tales, and I don't think it's helpful to encourage others to believe in them either. As a species, we are self-destructing, and we are taking the rest of the world with us. I do believe in grace. If we open ourselves to the despair and pain of the world, and if, brokenhearted, we can still love the world, then we can become part of the medicine for the world.
I am broken now. Use me.


What do you think about Pipher's comment about fairy tales? I actually think there is a place for fairy tales, just as there is a place for literary writing. I guess if there's one thing I want to do, it's to get writers to figure out what kind of writers they are, but then not disparage the goals of other writers.

And sorry--all of this is part of my recalibration of who I am after 16 years of grad school muddied my voice.
Ann McCutchan said…
I don't think she's referring to traditional fairy tales, like those of Grimm or Andersen. I took her to mean lies -- untruths.

It seems to me that anyone writing in the service of truth is also writing toward change.
Joy said…
I haven't yet read the book, but that being said, I agree with Ann...I don't think it's traditional fairy tales either (which, by the way are pretty gruesome!). I think that's she's talking about lies too...fantasy, not like sci-fi fantasy but of unreasonable foolishness instead of faith because Faith has substance; Fantasy does not.
Right Grimm and Anderson were--well--grim. I always think it's funny the way Disney changes those tales, particularly The Little Mermaid, the original of which was my favorite as a child. And I agree with you both about the "writing in the service of truth is also writing toward change." I think that's what bothered me so much about grad school--it was like in this postmodern era, they just didn't believe in ANY truth. Pipher has an interesting metaphor about that--says that each of our relative truths are like waves in the ocean of absolute truth, which I find very comforting. At least if I speak the truth for me, I may be doing someone, somewhere some good.

Thanks for commenting!
Novabella said…
This is such an interesting post, Kathryn. As you know my writing is in the social sciences and policy, and I think there is often a fine line between the fairy tales (in our case, theory that is idealized or disconnected from reality), and writing that is more about experiences and underlying truths. I know that my best work (defined as the work that has resonated most with other people, or work that has created change) has always been based on things that I have experienced and that are important to me. Sometimes it has been hard to put down on the page.
Mylène said…
Interesting you should post this just now; I was chatting with Brooke Williams (you might remember I attended a workshop of his a while back), and we were discussing "writing to change the world" (Brooke's wife is Terry Tempest Williams, and they are both well-known activists). Brooke said something that struck me: when we write, he believes, even when we write as activists, it is unwise to sit down with the goal of changing the world. That tends to gunk up the gears. Better, Brooke believes, to sit down with the goal of writing the best, most honest, most thoughtful thing you can--"the best story you can write . . . Then you might change the world."
Yes, I agree with that, Mylene, although I admit I can't ever fully divorce my stories from my activism. In the moment I can, when I'm swept into the current of the story, but the second I step outside of that, I do think about how it will affect readers, which is something Pipher talks about. But I think what most comforts me about Pipher's perspective is that she defines changing the world as telling the truth, and also uses Baldwin's standard, which more aligns with changing an individual consciousness and creating a ripple effect rather than a tidal wave. Sometimes I think ripples are more effective anyway.

And I also think that fiction is often the best way, ironically, to tell the truth, and that even what some people consider purely "escapist" texts have the power to change the world. Think about how much influence and impact J.K. Rowling has had, for instance. I don't know that she necessarily has moved people to "act" on behalf of society, but I do think that she's inspired plenty of young people to read and write, which is in itself a huge feat.

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