Stories fascinate me. It should go without saying, since I write them all the time. But it still impresses me how EVERYWHERE they are. They’re the lifeblood of humanity, and they can be utterly invisible until you know what to look for.
When I was a young and somewhat oblivious junior-high-schooler, I was astonished when a teacher of mine remarked in class that we tell stories all the time, even without realizing it. That even the stray conversations we have with our friends, standing by our lockers in those precious few minutes between classes, were moments of storytelling. “Did you hear?” “You won’t believe what just happened…” “So this morning I’m minding my own business when…”
Once upon a time…
It is told that long ago…
Listen. I am telling you a true thing.
As humans, we can’t seem to help ourselves. We shape the narratives of our lives and of the world around us, and we want to share those stories. We turn ourselves into tales. We want to be heard. Stories are lifelines, intangible but vital connections between you and me. When I tell you a story, I’m showing you a piece of my heart.
Once, I was telling such an atomic, day-in-my-life story to a friend: a story about a recent miscommunication I’d had with another person. I was frustrated by how it had all played out, and she remarked, “Jen, it’s because you believe deeply in the power of words.” I was kind of taken aback by this. Of course I believe it—and my unspoken assumption was, who WOULDN’T believe in the power of words? Words are meant to mean something. That’s what they’re there for.
As a writer, words are the tools of my trade. And they are that—tools. Capable of building or breaking. They can be as blunt and straightforward as a hammer, or as subtle as fine sandpaper. They are capable of bearing a great weight of meaning, but just as capable of slipping sideways and getting around corners and through unexpected cracks.
I have to remember that. Probably that’s why “Into the Woods” is my favorite musical. The whole moral of that story can be summed up in the single line, sung by the story’s witch, “Careful the tale you tell.” A story can trap as well as liberate, and a poorly-told story, a story built up on a shoddy foundation, is no better than a lie.
The words we choose to build our stories matter, as much as the stories we choose to tell. A hammer can build a house as well as break one down, and the latter is much easier to do by accident if we don’t know what we’re doing, or if we don’t pay attention to the power we’re using. Remember this, when telling your story. Think carefully how you want to wield that hammer.