There are several reasons we write. For personal satisfaction, as a way of making sense of the world around us. We write to create emotions in others, to teach lessons that will (hopefully) make the world a better place.
We also write (perhaps most important) as a way of creating community.
Think about it: not only is our world defined by stories, but who we are as a people is defined by stories. We aren’t members of the USA because we live in a certain geographical area – there are plenty of people all over the world who define themselves that way. It’s not determined by laws, either – huge debates in the news give plenty of air time to people who are here “illegally” yet who stolidly insist they, too, are “Americans.”
So what is it?
An “American” is someone who knows the story of the American Revolution. Of the Civil War. Of Washington chopping down the cherry tree and Lincoln writing the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope. Neither of those last stories is true, but that doesn’t matter. Truth is less important than the binding capacity the stories have.
Another example: say you – like every other person in the known universe – went to see the final Harry Potter movie at midnight opening night. You got there six hours ahead of time so you could get a good seat. And while you’re sitting there, waiting for the movie to start, a middle-aged guy with a comb-over and a T-shirt that’s a bit too small for him whips around and says, “Do you think Harry will die in the movie?” And that’s the signal for a conversation to start. And it does.
Now, change venues. You’re in the local fast food place. Waiting in line for lunch. And suddenly the middle-aged guy in front of you whips around and says without preamble, “Do you like seasoned curly fries or the regular kind?”
This is the part where you very reasonably start edging toward an exit and perhaps put “911” on your cell phone’s speed dial.
Same guy. Same you. What was the difference? The difference was that in the first example you were sharing a story. You were, for the moment at least, members of the same community, of the same tribe. And we do not fear members of our community. We understand them. And it isn’t because they’re the same as us – there’s plenty of diversity and strangeness within every community. But the more stories people share in common, the closer their bond and the greater their trust. That’s what makes a “BFF” – just a bunch of shared stories.
So writers are in a place of sublime power and responsibility. Writers create the communities that others will cling to, they create the frameworks that the world at large will hang on as reference points for who they will treat as “friends” (i.e., fellow believers of their stories) and “enemies” (i.e., those who follow or believe other stories… or none at all). It stands to us, then, to create communities that are not merely joined in pursuit of “fun” or “escapism,” but in pursuit of those enobling properties that allow the human race to rise above itself and become more than it is.
Writers are the dreamers. And dreaming is and always has been the first step in the great act of creation. We create words. We create worlds. We create context, and in so doing we create community.
Without stories, every man is and always must be an island. But writers tie those islands together and create great continents – even empires – of meaning… and hope.