Recently, I’ve been reading The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall—an excellent companion to the work of Lisa Cron, on the evolutionary role of storytelling and its centrality to human consciousness and culture.
In the course of Gottschall’s argument that fictional stories are in fact essential to our learning and development as a species, he first dismisses the claim that novels are mere entertainment—in a word, escapism.
Anyone who knows my work knows that I too consider fictional stories an essential tool for human learning and development, a sort of “virtual reality” by which we rehearse ways to deal with threats and obstacles we have not yet encountered, learn from those who have gone before us, and fine-tune the critical neural pathways associated with social skills—as Gottschall goes on to establish at some length.
But part of me got stuck on that charge of escapism. Like, is that really such a dismissal of the power of story?
Or is it in fact one of the most essential powers of story?
Last week on The Skimm (yes, I’m a fan) I learned a concerning statistic: hospitalizations for children with mental health conditions skyrocketed by more than 25% between 2009 and 2019.
Further: Many of the kids admitted were 11 to 14 years old—the majority of them girls. Girls exhibiting self-harming behaviors.
And why? The same study that revealed this concerning statistic indicated that depression in this population related to social media use may be, at least in part, to blame.
This brought me back to my sixth grade year—one of the hardest in my life to date. It was the year I had no friends. The year I sat by myself at lunch, reading fantasy novels.
The year I wrote a fantasy novel of my own.
Fast forward to my thirty-eighth year of life—the second hardest in my life to date. It was the year I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. That year, after undergoing the surgery that saved my life, I sat in the backyard lounger during a summer heat wave in Portland reading novels.
Big, weighty novels. Novels that remain some of the most meaningful of my adult life: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt.
Yes, those books allowed me to face threats and challenges I had not faced in my actual life: The challenge of moving to a remote island inhabited by a culture completely different from my own. The challenge of living through a war of unprecedented scale and brutality.
Yes, those books helped to fine tune my social skills, my understanding of human beings, of men and women and children, and my understanding of history as well.
And yes, those novels both have deep truths at their core—timeless truths that really and truly gave me the courage to fight for life, and to understand how very much we as people are capable of enduring.
But what those novels gave me in the moment—and what the novels I read at eleven gave me in the moment—is no less significant. And that is the opportunity to leave the hardships of the world I lived in, at least for a while.
My husband and I are in an adoption pool right now, and this essentially means that we could become parents at any time—two weeks from now, or two years from now.
And in the face of the pressures young people are under today—in the face of the immense pressures of early adolescence, and the social toxicities of that time, exponentially amplified by social media—it occurred to me that there is only one gift I can think of that I might be able to offer my child, one gift I think might help.
One gift that might allow them to slip the bonds of time and space for a while and inhabit a completely different world.
That is the gift of fiction.
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