Why Tell Stories?

by Caitlin Gjerdrum

Why tell stories? A simple enough question, one that, I think, is usually best answered with a story and not a straightforward sentence.

Once upon a time there was a boy. He could not feel fear. He sensed that he was somehow different from those around him, and, though he did not know exactly what he was looking for, he knew he would never be happy until he found it. 
So, off the boy went on a quest to discover his humanity, and was met with nothing but contention every step of the way. That is, until he performed an act that was, to him, a trifle, but to those around him seemed superhuman. His reward was predictable and ostensibly enviable—great riches, a beautiful wife, and political power. It was not, however, what he wanted. He wanted to learn what fear was.
And so, his life continued, in a seemingly meaningless fashion, until, one day, his wife threw a bucket of fish water on him and it made him shiver! The end!

I remember at our first rehearsal, we read the play, and we all, inevitably, started trying to ascribe meaning to it, to pinpoint a justification for its absurdity. But I remember feeling deeply, divinely satisfied by its silliness, by its lack of a clear moral. This was storytelling for pure pleasure. For fun. For mischief’s sake. And the apparent arc, the fact that it SEEMS like it must be going somewhere profound, is part of the joke. The punchline is, there is no point. Which is the point. You dig? 

Neither do I. Which, I think, is the point.

This story—this play—is at once a metaphor for the confusion/ pain/ pleasure of life, and an exercise in utter ridiculousness. Which is to say, it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of every person’s life. We find patterns and meaning and deities and love amidst the chaos because it is beautiful, because it is silly, because it causes us pain. We expect some kind of grand release—a big finish—dare I say, la grande mort—to occur when we die. We hope for clarity. But what if none comes? What if death is just the same when we finally reach it as it always inevitably seems in life: senseless, absurd, and pointless? 

If this is all there is to life—begin, attempt to make sense of the crazy, explode, repeat—what the hell is the point? If there is no point, why bother trying? Why tell stories? Why get out of bed? 
Why act? 
The answer, of course, is that we do these things because they feel good. They are not a means to an end, nor are they always satisfying or successful. But that doesn’t stop us, does it; if anything, it propels us further into the daunting, tantalizing, confusing, beautiful abyss.

Who knows why we’re here? Nobody, that’s who. Maybe it doesn’t matter why. Maybe the what and the when and the how and with whom are enough. 

Why tell stories? I don’t know. I don’t know why we tell stories, but I think I know what compels us to write. We write to gain clarity. To organize thoughts. To release frustration. To actualize and articulate our dreams. To connect. To make sense of the madness, to escape the lonely, to visit the place where imagination lives.

I suppose, at times, we write to entertain, to amuse, to confuse, but, mostly, we write for the release. In penning our thoughts, we simultaneously immortalize them and put them to rest. The explosion of ink, so to speak, lets us sleep better. But it doesn’t last long. A day, maybe two. The human appetite is strong—everyone’s is, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, which explains, perhaps, why Wilhelm Grimm always eats when he writes, and why I have no appetite at all when I’m writing. The stories sustain me. And that is enough.
    The end.
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