Can Stories Heal Us?


One of the things I have enjoyed about working with novelist Barry Burnett is the way in which his novel, HOW TO LIVE FOREVER, makes me think about all different kinds of things. For instance, in an earlier post, I discussed Barry's thoughts on editors and editing, and there was some compelling discussion about the editor's role in shaping a book.

Recently I was pondering the concept of how books help us to connect with one another and better understand one another. I was also pondering my long held belief that laughter heals, and wondering why I think so. So I asked Barry, who in addition to being a writer is a family practice doctor. I wanted to know what a physician felt about whether books help us connect, and yes, whether laughter heals. Here is Barry's take on those subjects.

1. Do you think stories have healing effects or properties, as in “stories help us connect,” etc.?

Of course, as a doc and a writer I’d want to believe that, but I actually do. Where I start is with the notion that fiction helps us live, however briefly, alternate lives, and live them in a purposefully imaginary way that is usually not psychologically destabilizing. I figure that helps the reader understand ‘alternate people’ — that is, everyone else — which could certainly lay the groundwork for connection. Is that related to that Forster advice to “Only connect”? I think so: writer to book to reader, reader to book to life.

On a flakier level, I also believe that the music of language is primal and can motivate us in wonderful and not-so-wonderful ways. I’ve certainly had the experience of being trapped, like Fforde’s Tuesday Next, in a bummer of a book, and I’m taken by, say, Cormac McCarthy’s skill and obsession down a road I would not choose and so struggle to escape. Does that mean writers have the responsibility to write positive, healing stories? No way — too close control will destroy the magic, and then there’s the value of fantasy, of any kind of release. But as an optimist with a health message it can be a struggle, first to write something that fits the moment of the scene, then to twist it, just a bit, to your own external and non-dramatic agenda.

2. This book is a comedy. Was that planned? Is comedy hard to write?

I wanted to write a lighter book, and a few non-Boulder friends, on hearing I was trying to put together a Boulder serial, pitched for something satiric and harsh, a total take-down on cults, affluence, and pretensions. I encouraged them to fire up Scrivener and go for it, but felt I lacked a set of knives that sharp. Or rather knew that that sort of carving, no matter what evil fun, would preclude the attachment (there’s ‘connection’ again) I can’t help feeling for even the worst of my characters.

Still… I did have some slightly-evil fun. And most of the comedy just happened; I can sometimes snap off a good line, but usually watch jokes grow slowly. A few years ago I heard Nelson DeMille mention how readers are surprised he isn’t a brilliant come-back artist like his heroes, explaining that he’s got all afternoon to work on an ‘instant’ reply. Finally, the characters in How To Live Forever sort of frame the comedy, and luckily they’re funny folks.

3. Do you believe laughter heals?

Yes. To egregiously misquote, it knits up the wounds of all those slings and arrows, and that’s got to be good. Excluding, possibly, the harshest sarcasm, humor seems the very nature of lightness and resilience, a few of the ‘good-attitude’ qualities that seem to keep people going through all sorts of shit, medical and otherwise. Now, is there something in addition, like psychoneuroimmuniology, in which a state of mind creates a state of body (more resistant, with better bad-cell screening and internal defenses) by a known and identified pathway? Sounds good to me, but that pathway remains debatable. It would be nice to have a firm rationale to shore up the impressions, but regardless, my impression is that laughter improves life in manifold ways, and duration may be one of them.

4. Why write a novel that also offers a healthy living philosophy instead of writing a guide or self-help title?

I’m a reader as well as a writer, and when I lay back to read at the end of the day, self-help books can make my eyes simply glaze over. Not that they don’t work, but for me they’ve only worked in a sit-up, pencil-in-your-teeth, underlining kind of way. That is, when they really ARE work.

Now, that was harsh, and from the supposedly non-harsh guy. Let me try again. I think we learn better by observing — best, by participating, as in connecting — than by being told. Fiction totally fits the bill. At least for fiction types like me. For example, I live in the West, where water rights matter, and I never would have tracked that ongoing debate if I hadn’t been grounded in the information that so sneakily seeped out of Jose Mondragon’s flooded fields and into my brain while reading The Milagro Beanfield War.

5. Is writing really therapeutic and what makes it so?

Writing can definitely be a comfort, and one that takes unexpected turns, and those turns, with a few exceptions, won’t land you in jail. Comfortable, lively, not too dangerous — like a great journey in itself. Going places, spiritual places, places of the heart and mind. There’s also the pleasure (and pain) of polishing, and the joy of discovering new things about yourself and, thank you Wikipedia, the world. No wonder I’m hooked.

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