The Power of Stories

‘Writers sit down,’ Ali Smith said, in her talk on the weekend. ‘But books make books. This is one of the freedoms I have inherited.’

Ali in her garden in Cambridge

Ali is one of the wisest people I know, and she gave a brilliant performance at the wordfest, discussing her new book, Artful, a series of essays on literature that were originally lectures given in Oxford. Only being Ali, she wrote the lectures in and through short stories, ‘giving herself permission’ as she put it, to do something very different with the space of a lecture:

I think fiction is authority, fiction is truth. To go directly to the source of truth that is fiction allows us to question and to be held, to be suspended in time. There is a root and a route between art and mortality; fiction becomes an obvious way to hold many things at once.’

What I think Ali was getting at here is that stories are the only way we have of making sense. They are also extremely familiar to us, given that we use stories everywhere, in the way we explain ourselves, what happens to us, how we account for the world to children, how we envisage new futures. Stories organise every aspect of our lives, from start to finish, but they also give us a timescale – narrative time – by means of which we can hope, anticipate and fear. By means of consequence and causality, the two axis of fiction, we imagine that this event provokes this result, which leads onto that event, and so on. So stories manage the paradox of taking us out of our immediate experience, transcending it to view it more clearly, and they embed us in our lives allowing us to hold the threads of any number of ongoing plots and subplots as if we had some control over them. Fiction and its truths tell us what has happened, what is happening and what will happen.

Ali was talking about how she realised she only had a couple of weeks to write her lectures in, and she didn’t know where to begin. So she went to the shelf and took down Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, and started to read it. That reading sparked off an idea, and she decided to read the novel over the course of writing the lectures, and to use something in the novel as a guideline or a springboard every time she had a new lecture to write. She spoke of the way that the reader can feel Dickens thinking and planning as he writes. This was a story that began its life as magazine installments; Dickens was creating his story without knowing the end, placing things in the narrative as he went along, hoping they might be useful or helpful later in the story. Ali decided to write her lectures on the same principle: ‘It gave me a way of trusting the serendipity of art; of trusting in the thing beyond us that organises art.’

This made me think of the Norwegian writer, Knausgaard that I had heard talking the previous day, and the way he had written his memoir by sitting down every day, taking a shameful incident from his past and writing about it, allowing himself to follow whatever energy arose from the narration, aware that he would remember more and more about the event the more he wrote. For both Knausgaard and Ali Smith, writing was about trusting the process of writing to fuel its own internal creative engine.

What also struck me about these two authors was how honest they were, how authentic as individuals. I know Ali quite well, and she is admirably straight, always. As the chair of the session introduced her and listed all her achievements, she was shaking her head, and I know she feels that all this glitter of art has nothing at all to do with the writing she does, or with who she is. She is the least pretentiously starry person I have ever met, although she has every reason to rest on her accolades. I was struck also by the way the Norwegian writer kept refusing the glib and conventional stories that his chair wanted to place over his experience. Several times she hoped to encourage him towards saying that writing his memoir had been cathartic in some way, or that it had improved the quality of his life or simply provided some therapy, but he refused that orthodox storyline every time. No, writing the book had not solved his problems, becoming a famous author was not the route to happiness. Life was one thing, storytelling was another.

I think that storytelling has tremendous power, far more than we realise, and for this reason, when it comes to life, we can abuse it. Or maybe not abuse it, but lean on it too hard, rely on it too much. What these two authors said to me was that it was one thing to trust to the unfolding of events to turn into a story eventually, quite another to take a story from the shelf, readymade, and try to make real events fit it. I think we do the latter far too much in our culture at the moment, leaning too heavily on stories of triumph over adversity, of achievement and success, of catastrophe and tragedy, when life is very unlikely to conform to such neat and tidy plots. We see the outside of people and assume stories about them that take no account of their messy insides, we enter periods of uncertainty and insecurity and rush to find some narrative –any narrative – that will fit, rather than trust to the uncertainty to gradually resolve itself, or even present brand new twists, new thoughts and ideas and possibilities. In other words, we let a few clichéd stories to dominate, rather than allowing the enormous range of potential stories out there to take shape of their own accord. Life is too rich and complex and difficult, really, to be treated this way. I’ll leave the last word to Ali, who when asked about the playful, multiple-storied approach she took to writing said: ‘I don’t have a choice; if there’s a story then there’s another story. There’s always another story.’ I think her latest book is going to be glorious.


I’ll be away from the Reading Room for about a week, as I’m in great danger of missing my deadline for an essay on Simone de Beauvoir and blogging takes up too much writing time. A case of a story here preventing any other story from happening, alas… See you all soon.


20 thoughts on “The Power of Stories

  1. What a brilliant approach to writing lectures! Just that alone makes me want to read them in order to see what she has done. You know, I haven’t yet managed to read anything by Ali. Maybe I should start making a list of reading goals for 2013 and put her at the top. Have fun working on your Beauvoir essay!

    • Oho, I have just received my copy of Artless and feel sure it is a book you would very much enjoy! I would love to know what you make of her – I do think she’s special. And thank you, Beauvoir was fun in the end!

  2. Excellent post, Litlove about two obviously wise writers.

    I think there are only two rules to writing fiction.
    Rule one: Clarity in the prose.
    Rule two: Truth in the fiction.
    All else is personal preference and craft skills.

    • PK, I was really glad to hear from you when I saw your comment come in and I’m sorry it’s taken an age to get around to replying. I do hope all is well with you? I think both these writers would appeal to you, and I applaud your two rules. I’m right behind you on them.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post immensely, Litlove. As with so much of your writing, I find myself saying ‘yes, that’s exactly how it is.’

    My job is to encourage widening participation in higher education and for this personal narratives carry much more weight than generalized messages about the benefits of going to university. Life is, however, infinitely more complex than a ‘rags to riches’ story can allow, and this is what we look to writers to explore.

    I’ll certainly want to read ‘Artful’ now. Your blog is very bad for my bank balance!

    • Karen – lol! Book blogging altogether is bad for my bank balance! But I hope you read Ali Smith at some point, whether it’s this book or her novels or short stories. I think she’s wonderful. Thank you so much for your kind comment – and I can quite believe that the personal narrative is more encouraging for people wondering about higher ed. I also think education happens at the wrong time for a lot of people, and so it makes sense to go back to it later in life, with more time, energy, determination and so on. Good luck with your job – it’s very worthwhile.

    • Thank you, the writing turned out to be fun! And I’d love to know what you think of Ali Smith. I find her very wise and compassionate, so I would have thought she’d suit your taste!

    • Ruthiella, I really hope you enjoy it. I liked that one very much indeed, but then I know I’m an Ali Smith fan and she hasn’t disappointed me yet. I’d love to know what you make of her writing.

  4. ” For both Knausgaard and Ali Smith, writing was about trusting the process of writing to fuel its own internal creative engine.” Wow, that is an insightful comment, Litlove. I really enjoyed reading what you got out of Ali’s lectures, and relating to Knausgard – I went and read that post too right after, so see what you said there. It is interesting that both these writers have to let go, and let inspiration come to them, and they help to shape it by being honest and clear in their writing. Your post was powerful too, Litlove. I really think you have something there about the writing process, that I have been working through myself these past few months. Thanks for this post.

    Good luck with all you have coming up, too.

    • Susan, thank you for your lovely comment! I found both talks very affecting, and it was good to be able to write about them quite quickly afterwards, while the impression was still strong in my mind. I really felt they were both such honest writers, and so thoughtful about the process. Good luck with your own writing – we writers need all the solidarity we can get!

  5. I’ll miss your blog over the week, but I love this post too. There is so much in it, and it links very much with what I’ve been thinking about as I’ve just come back from my trip out west with a head full of new experiences.

    • Lilian, I have every faith that you will find ways to make the most of those new experiences, either on paper or off of it. I really do like thinking about narrative, and the process of creation is fascinating.

  6. Great post. I always enjoy reading your thoughts about narratives and writing. Ali Smith’s writing is wonderful and I’m glad to hear that she speaks so well about the process of writing as well. I found Knausgaard fascinating. I cringed at time for his ruthless honesty but he writes so well that he carried it off. And of course his writing was therapeutic. That doesn’t mean that he feels fine now or that he’s ‘cured’ (whatever that would mean in his case). But he has been able to express difficult things and come to terms with them. How is that not therapeutic?

    • Ooh Pete, I’d love to know more about your reaction to the Knausgaard as he was talking a bit at the wordfest about the difficulties of being a father and someone who wanted, well, needed to do creative work too. As you’re in the thick of that I wonder how it struck you? As for the therapy angle, I think he was saying that the expression of difficult things and the coming to terms with them were not directly linked – they happened independently of one another. He agreed that the process of putting words on paper was therapeutic, but that if his life had improved it was due to other factors, not the self-expression. At least I think that was what he meant! I wonder how I will feel about that when I’ve read his book?

  7. What a lovely essay. There are so many nuggets in this that I want to come back for a re-read. What jumped out right now was the remark about trusting the process of writing itself – that one speaks to me because words, ideas and the overall flow comes to me *only* when I start writing. I have a general idea of what I want to say but the details get sorted out only once I start typing.

    I was startled over the bit about certain narratives triumphing over others – startled because till I read it I hadn’t thought of it as such but of course it’s true.

    • Juhi, i know just what you mean. Whenever I look at something I wrote, it’s like an out of body experience. I wonder how on earth I thought of it? But in the moment, the pull of the creative process is very strong and it sort of takes over. I just love thinking about narratives and writing, it’s all so fascinating!

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