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What's More Beautiful Than a Great Story?

Authored By: 
Michelle Koza, English teacher

Why do we tell each other stories? For the English teacher, the similarities between fiction and our own lives are clear: both have protagonists and antagonists, characters, relationships, and conflicts. Like the novelist, we develop motifs and metaphors that color our experiences. Though these account for the “hows”, what of the “why”?

The readings we have done in my Advanced English class suggest some answers. Whereas in our own lives there are no do-overs, in literature there is always room for following the alternate route. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Czech writer Milan Kundera, the author speaks directly to the reader.  The characters, he claims, are born of his own experience (how could it be otherwise?), but make different choices. Novel writing (and reading!) is an exploration of potentials. And in our silent conversation with the author, we peer into these alternate lives, hoping perhaps to find some version of ourselves among the pages.  

Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy makes the point that a human life can only be appreciated as an aesthetic experience; our very lives are works of art! Like characters in a novel, all our choices shape the people we become by the end of the story. In Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, Michael is highly aware of the weight of his choices, and that his decisions will make him who he will become. Indeed, he has a word for this: cusp. Cusp is the moment of choice, where the individual has the freedom and responsibility to direct his story. The more aware we are that we actively shape of our lives, the more control we can have over our own stories.

So, why do we tell each other stories? We tell stories because we want to experience other lives, lives that perhaps we could have lived had we done things differently. We tell stories to understand ourselves and to understand each other. But most of all, I think we tell stories because we want things to be beautiful, and what’s more beautiful than a great story?

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