Monday, December 19, 2011

Stories to Tell

Today's guest post is written by Alison O'Leary, a junior Literature major at Patrick Henry College. I thought this post was a fitting inspiration to kick off our series of guest posts this year, on topics from story theory to excellent literature to writing's nuts and bolts. I hope this post inspires you to find and write the story only you can tell.
“Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found out long ago."– C. S. Lewis
My Dad called them “marshmallow books.” My Mom was always trying to get me to read biographies instead. So how did their daughter end up studying literature and desiring to write fiction for a living? I’m not sure…but I think God enjoys paradoxes.

I once heard someone tell me you know you’ve found your vocation when you would do it even if no one paid you. That’s how writing is for me. The stories in my brain are just itching to get onto paper. If I didn’t write them down, I’d probably go crazy.

This got me thinking…why do we like to write stories? What makes us want to sit down and start scratching out characters that are a bit, just a bit, like someone we know and plot lines that suddenly form holes without warning us in advance? I think it’s because we all have stories to tell, but we like to tell them in different ways.

My parents' lives have been full of one amazing adventure after another, yet neither of them write fiction. They would rather tell their stories face to face and read stories of people who really lived.
I also love telling stories. But I like to use characters to convey things I’ve experienced without having to be utterly personal about them. (I also like to write about things I’ve never done. Please do let me know if you happen to see a dragon one day; I should very much like to meet one.)

Maybe that’s why authors started writing fiction. They had problems, they saw problems, they were problems, and they wanted to fix problems. And maybe, just like me, they didn’t prefer to say, “And (insert name here) went and bludgeoned poor Lizaveta to death.” Okay, so Dostoevsky didn’t kill anyone, but he recognized the twisted sin nature in himself and others, the desire to have power over people. The best way he could capture what he was thinking was to write about a murderer-- a story which became Crime and Punishment.

In a similar way, I had a difficult time talking about some familial issues that rocked my world two years ago. I couldn’t write the pain I felt, but I could write about two brothers who had difficulty reconciling after one went away to war. So I did. Sure, I’ve never been deployed or had anyone close to me go away to fight, but I could imagine the hurt and pain they felt was similar to mine. And it helped my own heart recover.

 "I’ve been there,” characters tell us. Suddenly, we know we’re not alone because someone out there gets it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be so drawn to fictional characters. They speak to us because, in their own made-up world, they wrestle with the same real issues of love, despair, anger, and joy. If we convey those universal emotions in a compelling story, we can hope someone will read our words and find hope. I make a point of reading one of my favorite books, The Outsiders, at least once every year and I think the author, S.E. Hinton, captures what I’m trying to say.
I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going down under street lights because they’re mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing.
It isn’t just a personal thing. People are aching all around the world. As writers, we have the opportunity to reach them and say, “I understand.” As Christians, we have a message of genuine hope.

But first we have to understand the problems. Sometimes there aren’t easy answers. Sometimes you get hurt and there’s no pat way to fix it. We can’t just slap a story around the Christian Gospel. Everyone can see what you’re trying to do and that’s poor craftsmanship.

Instead, find a story close to your heart. Something you want to say. Maybe everything doesn’t get neatly tied up in the end, but that’s all right. Our own story hasn’t been neatly tied up yet. Offer hope. Let people know you understand, but there’s more to this world than pain. For, as Tolkien would say, “Oft hope is born when all is forlorn.”

Author Bio: Ali was born not too long along and will probably die sometime... most likely by lightening. In her brief span of life, she hopes to write some stories that may or may not be good, make lots of friends, and "seize the adventure" that God has sent her.


  1. Which division do I write for if I'm 15 now but will be 16 before the submission deadline? Thanks!! :)

  2. Hello Esther! Thanks for your comment. Technically, you could choose to submit a story to either category. If you finish and submit the story before your birthday, it would belong to the first division. If you finish and submit it after your birthday, you would belong in the second division. So, it's up to you! Hope this helps.