Mindy Greenstein Ph.D.

The Flip Side

Why We Write

What does storytelling really accomplish? A lot.

Posted Jan 12, 2012

What do books do for us, exactly?

For one thing, they teach. Teach us how to do specific things—whether it's the book that taught my son Isaac how to strengthen his pitching arm, or the ones I consulted when trying to design a website. Or they teach us how the meat industry operates, or the history of the ebola virus, or any of a vast array of subjects about which much is known or about which much is only imagined.

They also divert and amuse. In Getting Even,Woody Allendidn't teach me anything I deemed worth knowing about the world. I gained nothing tangible from learning about "Irish Larry Doyle—a racketeer so suspicious that he refused to let anybody in New York ever get behind him, and walked down the street constantly pirouetting and spinning around." But my laughter was justification enough for its existence.

The best books often do both—teach and amuse at the same time. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 has a lot to teach about the hell of war, but he does it in the context of having first made us laugh.

There's also a third use of books, but I'll get to that in a minute. Because humor is too important not to explore more fully first. My favorite definition comes from Mel Brooks's 2,000-year-old man, whose description recalls Sigmund Freud's:

Tragedy is if I'll cut my finger, that's tragedy. It bleeds, and I'll cry and I'll run around and go to Mount Sinai for a day and a half. I'm very nervous about it. 

 And to me, comedy is if you walk into an open sewer and die. What do I care??

Hence, the saying, "Comedy is tragedy that happens to somebody else."  The first known comedian, according to the 2,000-year-old man, is Murray the Nut, who gives his cavemates their first taste of sustained laughter when he gets himself eaten by a lion.

To give you a sense of just how important humor is—it might surprise you to know (unless you read an earlier post of mine!) that even Viktor Frankl, the famous Viennese psychiatrist who wrote Man's Search for Meaning, once gave someone a therapeutic homework assignment to tell a funny story every day—and that was in Auschwitz, where he and his "patient" were both inmates at the time.  Sometimes the men in the concentration camp barracks spontaneously put together a cabaret show, by moving benches around and starting to sing or clown around and tell stories. As soon as other inmates heard about it, they started pouring in to the room as if it were opening night at the Copacabana. Some of them even missed their daily rations of food, which were being distributed at the same time, because they considered the gathering too much nourishment for their souls to pass up.

Frankl regarded humor as a device for distancing yourself from your misery.  Perhaps the 2,000-year old-man's definition helps us see how.  Humor creates a perspective change—literally—as if the sufferer is now some other poor schnook he's watching, rather than himself.  I did something similar when writing my book The House on Crash Corner—the night my mother called the cops on my brother (after he mooned her; long story) was one of the most humiliating moments of my life. But, seen from the distance afforded by time, it was hilarious. And it no longer mattered how much I'd suffered at the time.   

This relationship works both ways—seeing the story from a distance makes it easier to see the humor; finding it funny makes it easier to create that distance, between the amused Mindy of today and the poor humiliated one standing dumbly in the kitchen while her mother screams at the police.  And I've gotten a lot of mileage out of that story ever since. As I've gotten some of my funniest stories from my experiences as a cancer patient, for the same reason.

The Writer and the Need for Meaning

As I mentioned in my last post, Frankl also introduced the idea that man is born with a need for meaning as a motivating force in his life. We crave a sense of wholeness, coherence, and purpose in existence. Goals to strive for. In particular, suffering and mortality push us to look for meaning—they break through fantasies of living in a just world, and force us to ask hard questions.  Finding a sense of meaning in the aftermath can help restore our sense of balance and alleviate our pain. 

 Frankl initially laid out his theories in a manuscript that he tried to smuggle into Auschwitz when the Nazis first took him away. Once he realized that getting caught with it would mean a quick nod in the direction of the gas chamber, he ditched it, but was determined throughout his imprisonment to rewrite the book if he managed to survive. In fact, he realized, the book itself was about how people retained a sense of meaning and purpose even in the direst circumstances.  And so he treated Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, and Dachau as his laboratories, even as he suffered alongside the other terrified inmates, even though he didn't know whether he'd come out alive. 

It's this attitude that he later credited for his psychological and spiritual survival. It transformed his unimaginable daily ordeal as he studied the psychology of the death camp inmate—his first subject being himself. It made him feel like a doctor instead of a tattooed number. It gave him a goal, and with that goal, the hope that one day he might survive long enough to see to its completion. 

In a place where a lagging spirit could easily lead to death, Frankl credited his need to recreate his manuscript with his actual survival as well. After he survived the war, he did indeed recreate it, and called it The Doctor and the Soul. He also published a memoir of his life in Auschwitz, originally titled Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything, and later renamed Man's Search for Meaning, an international bestseller. (For a more detailed exploration of Frankl's discussion of meaning, see my last post.)

Like Frankl, I transformed the way I experienced my own crisis—cancer—when I turned it into material for my writing. The pain of dealing with my initial doctors, for instance, was now excellent material for teaching future doctors not to behave the same way. I'd long known I wanted to write about my experiences as a psycho-oncologist. Now, I had much more to offer. And I knew I wasn't going to stop until it got published. Because I now had a goal that meant too much to me to do otherwise. If it didn't happen, it would not be for lack of trying.

Psychologists Jerome Bruner and Henri Zukier suggest that our minds have two general ways of taking in the world. When we perceive the world in paradigmatic mode, we act like scientists, connecting facts, looking for patterns and universal principles through which we categorize and understand our environment. The narrative mode on the other hand, is what allows us to endow life with meaning through the stories we tell about it. We note intentions and goals, beginnings, middles and ends. And if the story I told about my cancer was that it would help me be better at my profession, and force me to write the book I'd always wanted to write, or make me appreciate my friends and family as never before, then my experience of the cancer itself became more tolerable.  Sometimes, it was even funny.

This isn't a very new idea, of course.  Writers are famous for turning their suffering into material. They choose what to include, what to leave out, and make a coherent point about it.   Even more, they share their vision with others, who might learn directly from what they read. Or they might learn simply by being encouraged to think back on their own lives and create their own coherent stories. Or they might learn, simply by being reminded that they matter, just as the characters and events in the books they read matter. Writer Ursula K. LeGuin suggested that one of the earliest known stories consisted of only a few words carved in a stone in an English cathedral, "Tolfink carved these runes in this stone." Tolfink was here, and he mattered.

Now, we come to the last benefit that books, or writing in general, offer us. Writers create not only the worlds in their books, but a sense of community in the people who read them. Whether it's, "Did you read the latest Liss book?" or "What did you think of 'The Late Lamented Molly Marx?'...Yeah, me too!" the communities  created—between reader and writer, or between readers and other readers—transcend time and place.  

Click here for my book (one of O: The Oprah Magazine's 10 Titles to Pick Up in May; with Foreword by New York Times columnist David Brooks): The House on Crash Corner and Other Unavoidable Calamities—about the sad, hilarious and meaningful ways we deal with the crises in our lives.