Why Story Matters by Nora Shalaway Carpenter and Rocky Callen
Once upon a time there was a small girl who loved stories. She loved listening to stories, reading them once she learned her letters, acting them out in the wild expanse of her 90-acre forest “backyard” in rural West Virginia, and later performing them on the stage.
Bit by bit, the small girl realized that one of the things she liked best about stories was the power they held: how could simple words on the page, strung together in a specific way, change the way she felt inside? How could they make her gasp, or cry, or laugh out loud? The small girl from the small, forgotten town (like a poor village in a fairy tale, she decided) determined to figure out to how to wield that power herself. Because it felt like magic. Weren’t stories really just very long spells, after all, woven together to produce a tale that changed hearts and opened minds?
The small girl collected stories, always imagining and always wondering. What if? With great gusto—because the girl never did anything halfheartedly—she started to string her own words together.
Okay, enough of the third person. I mean, I love writing in close third. It is my preferred point of view these days, but when talking about oneself, it can feel a bit much, you know? Plus, I think you’ve gotten my point. Young Nora wouldn’t have known it was possible to switch perspectives in the middle of a story—or to break the fourth wall and directly address the reader (hello!)—but learning those possibilities was another gift that reading gave to me. Another tool for my writerly cauldron.
When I was younger, writing gave me a voice in a time and place where not many people cared about people like me, rural people, most of us from low or low-middle economic situations (if we were lucky), living in places that society cared little about, along dried up railway lines or among the bones of logging not-quite-ghost towns.
When I traveled anywhere and people learned I was from West Virginia, the jokes were immediate: why was I wearing shoes? How did I have nice teeth? Why didn’t I sound like the hillbillies on TV shows?
Reading—and later writing—allowed me to escape from internalized shame around where I lived, shame that I realize now was induced only by the ignorance and carelessness of others. Writing gave me the power to say something before anyone could interrupt with a hurtful comment. It allowed me to show others that I was far, far more than the ideas they held about me. When people read something I wrote before meeting me, it changed the entire way they interacted with me.
When I teach writing, whether it is to a group of idealistic third graders or a room of more jaded adults, I make one point immediately clear: what they have to say matters. And that goes for you, too, reader. Don’t ever let someone tell you that your story—your experience or ideas—is unworthy.
The more I write and the more I read, the more my respect for storytelling deepens. It is so much more powerful than young Nora had ever dreamed. Indeed, as Lisa Cron explains in Story Genius, “we come to story to navigate reality” (16). Fiction, it turns out, is often much easier to understand than real life and usually much more comforting.
During a terrible, traumatic time in my life, it was story—writing—that allowed me to take the first steps toward healing. Indeed, in my darkest moments, I literally could not speak about what had happened. I could not say the words. But then I began writing them. Eventually I began speaking them. I began actively telling others and—holy moly!—others so often had similar stories to tell me. I wasn’t alone after all.
My story gave space for their story. Our stories gave space—gave healing—to each other. And the telling—the living—became that much less painful.
AB(SOLUTELY) NORMAL holds space for readers’ stories, just as it allows readers to hold space for the pieces—and the authors’ lived experiences with mental health that informed those pieces—in the anthology. Because with every story a person hears or reads, the more likely they are to feel able to share—or create—their own. And that is the true power of stories: the ability to reach across time and space and wriggle into readers’ hearts, warming them, opening minds and inspiring deep thinking, letting readers know that they are never—not ever—alone.
Nora Shalaway Carpenter is contributing editor of the critically acclaimed anthology Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America, which was named an NPR Best Book of the Year, a YALSA Best Fiction YA selection, and a TAYSHAS selection, among numerous other honors. Her debut YA novel The Edge of Anything wasnamed a Bank Street Best Book and a Kirkus Reviews Best Book. Her next novel, Fault Lines, comes out September 12, 2023. She holds an MFA from VCFA and serves as faculty for the Highlights Foundation’s Whole Novel Workshop. Connect with her at noracarpenterwrites.com.
I remember sitting in a circle on a scratchy rug in second grade waiting my turn to read from our class’s book for the day. The teacher had cotton ball hair, a round puff of white. She slapped rulers on desks and had eyes that bit with a blink. As I waited, I tried to practice my part, because fitting the letters in place in my brain always took me longer than the other students. When it was my turn, the room turned quiet and I stared at the page and struggled beyond the first three words.
The weight of the stares around me, the embarrassment felt like rocks that only weighed down the words in my throat more. They wouldn’t come out and when I took too long, the teacher yelled, “Skip!” The baton was passed. The next student read my lines with a sing-song voice. I remember sitting there in a puddle of shame, of not enoughness. Reading quickly became a foe in my daily schedule.
But then something happened. I transferred classrooms. There, my new teacher sat with me and showed me tricks to make the words make sense, ways to throw the rocks away. I went from struggling to keep up with picture books to reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in fourth grade. After that, books became not just my friends, but my saviors.
Because what my first second grade teacher didn’t know is that I had already been accustomed to slaps and biting gazes. I flinched at slammed doors. Yelling made me climb inside my head and shut my eyes. But with reading, my eyes could stay open and I could climb into stories that took me far, far away.
Something happens to a child when they feel who they are is wrong, is skippable, is not enough. Those feelings tangle up in thoughts and dreams and strangle them and they start to build their perspective of self on a cracked, sinking foundation. A teacher, a kind and patient teacher, showed me how to fill in those cracks. Stories showed me how to fill those cracks. People who love me show me that still.
The reason why I write for young people, often young people who feel alone, misunderstood, not enough, or different, is because I remember what it was like to feel so alone in all of those feelings myself. For me, writing and reading are ladders out of lonely dark places, but also the cement to help fill the cracks so the ladder has a solid place to rest its feet.
When Nora and I started to envision the Ab(solutely) Normal anthology, we wanted a collection that was brimming over with laughter, love, and hope as it navigated young people living with mental health conditions. We wanted it to fill in the fissures left behind by the stigma of mental health. As people who have grappled with these experiences ourselves, we had known what it was like to feel other, to feel different, to feel misunderstood and we wanted a space to say:
we see you, you matter, your life is big and bright.
Because that is what stories do. They help us climb up, up, up to discover that the stars are already ours if only we’d keep reaching for them. That’s what this collection is all about. The story of all of us. I want my every page to whisper even when not spelled out ink: keep going.
Rocky Callen is the author of the YA novel A Breath Too Late, which was named a Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Book of the Year and a Chicago Public Library Best Book and was featured in The Mujerista‘s 2020 list of the ten best young adult books by Latinx authors. A former behavioral coach and a passionate mental health advocate, she founded the HoldOn2Hope Project, which unites creatives in suicide prevention. Rocky Callen lives outside of Washington, DC.
Sounds like a collection to check out!