On stories and why we write them

New techniques for analyzing the brain support the notion that we’re hardwired for story. When science writer Stephen Hall created a story in his head during an MRI brain scan, an area the size of sugar cube lit up in his right frontal lobe. In his report for the New York Times Magazine, Hall labeled that thimbleful of brain, located in the inferior frontal gyrus, “the storytelling area.” It linked with other brain centers, such as the visual cortex. All told, they formed what Hall described as the brain’s “storytelling system.”

Hall’s example hardly qualifies as a rigorous scientific study, but is strongly suggests a biology of story. To me, that makes perfect sense. The myriad ways we use story to cope with the world make it hard to imagine that narrative isn’t part of our fundamental nature. As Barbara Hardy, the English literary critic, put it, “We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love, by narrative.”…

We see our own lives as a kind of narrative, too, which may explain why we’re so fascinated by the narratives of others. Psychologists have studied the way we picture our own life stories. They’ve found, according to the New York Times, that each of us has a kind of internal screenplay, and that “the way we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but also how we behave.” ~Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart



I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about story and how we tell stories and why. “It has been said that next to hunger and thirst, our most basic human need is for storytelling.” (Khalil Gibran) I suppose we all have our reasons for telling stories and, for writers, why we write them, but there’s something about storytelling that particularly intrigues me (and, yes, agitates me): that we’ve been telling stories for so long, since pre-historic time, and still, writing carries such little weight in this world, or at least that’s been my experience. And, maybe that’s why I kept my stories to myself for so long.

I remember a few years ago, someone told me, “You know, a lot of people are wondering why you’re writing a memoir when you’re only 35. I mean, what can you write about, V?” I was livid, of course, I mean, who can tell me how much or what I’ve lived, right? This got me thinking about how much I’ve internalized this bullshit, this discouragement of my writing and my dreams and what makes me so fucking happy I wanna do the running man in my livingroom right now as I think about it.

When I took a writing class in junior high, I was encouraged but I’m not sure it was taken seriously. My social studies teacher once said, “Oh, that’s a great hobby to have, Vanessa.” She had just commended me on how well I’d written a research paper and I’d told her that I love to write.

In high school, I was often told that I was a great writer, that I had a gift, a talent, but no one ever told me I should think about becoming a writer. And I never really considered it either, until maybe my junior year when a professor who knew me as an avid reader walked over to me one day as I was sitting on the mezzanine overlooking the lunchroom, my head buried in a book, and said, “Here, you should read this, Vanessa.” He handed me How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents. Julia Alvarez looked like me and talked like me and came from a Spanish-speaking country like my people did, and I thought, “Wow, my people write? Maybe, just maybe…”

And then I went to Columbia University where a professor told me, “this isn’t writing” when he handed back a piece I’d slaved over, and he didn’t have the cojones to look at me when he said it. And when I talked to my friends about our future plans and I mentioned writing, I was asked, “Yeah, but what else are you gonna do?” as if writing wasn’t enough, as if it wasn’t a real job, a real possibility.

I was told in so many direct and indirect ways that writing wasn’t something I should pursue as a profession. After such an elite education, no one becomes a writer, you go into law or medicine or teaching, but never a writer, so I did what was expected of me, and all these years later, after quitting my job three years ago to write and teach, to do what people told me I shouldn’t do, I’m still being told in so many ways that I should be doing more. And what pray tell is more? I’m not sure.


This morning I received an FB message from a woman I’ve known for many years. She just got my first novel Woman’s Cry and wanted me to know that she was up until 2am reading it. “I couldn’t put it down,” she wrote.

It took me so long to dredge up the ovaries to write that book. To consider myself worthy of doing it. To consider my writing good enough, my ideas good enough, myself good enough. Writing it is now a blur, and, I admit, I cringe when people mention it to me. Why? Because I’m such a different writer now and there’s so much I’d do different. Like the sex scenes, lord the sex scenes…Let’s just say that I’ve learned that less is more. That said, I’m gonna rep that book forever because when I wrote it, I knew, I owned that I am a writer and I’ve never let anyone take that from me since.

But there’s been a leap in my evolution as a writer as of late. I think it started when I was prepping for VONA and reading the hundreds (yes, there were hundreds) of pages of pre-reading that David Mura sent us. (I swear I had shaken baby syndrome before I even got on the flight!) In his writings on process and revision, Mura writes:

Instead writing is an act of acceptance.  Or rather it requires acceptance–of yourself, of who you are at this moment, of your unconscious.  You should approach it as would a Zen master, living in the moment rather than worrying about the future or the results of your activity.  You must realize that nothing you do now will make you smarter, more knowledgeable, more talented, sexier, more beautiful, more charismatic.  You are simply who you are, and this is the self that will write at this moment, so you ought to make the best of this.

My brother’s death has done many things to me, including show me a grief that I’ve never known and wouldn’t wish on anyone. It’s also put fire under my ass. It’s made me realize that this life is a short one and I have to get to doing the things I want to do: like write and finish this book and start the next one and just write, write, write. And, yeah, get fucking published because while some writers don’t write to get published and it’s not the ultimate goal, really, still, I want to be published in literary journals and magazines. I want my writing out there and there’s nothing wrong with that. But in order to get your work out there, you have to submit!

For some time I’ve looked into and thought about how memoir writers get their name and work out there—by submitting excerpts to journals and anthologies and the like. But, I hadn’t really done it too much. I’d let the few rejections I’d gotten get to me, and didn’t acknowledge the acceptances, like having an essay published in the upcoming Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing From the VONA/Voices Writers Workshop. I’d gotten obsessive in my work so I never felt it was good enough. I was self-sabotaging.

….I’ve thought recently, when talking to many writers, that they are too reluctant to write their bad poems.  Maybe it’s related to that thing that started our conversation, that everyone has all kinds of dreams, everyone has all kinds of poems.  Some people are so afraid of–maybe this is where the risk comes in–so afraid of writing a vulnerable, or an unfashionable, or just a kind of cheap poem, that they’re inhibited as if their dreams, their poems, get blocked for a long time.  I don’t know how to get out of this speech that I’m on, but I often have a feeling that people’s standards are too high, and so the way I was going to enhance this was to say that some people don’t have the nerve to write bad poems, but I do….

…almost every day I write and so there’s a lot written, and if my standards are low enough, I can say I write a lot of poems, and if my standards are as high as some people’s, of course, I would dam up most of those so as not to be damned later by those who read them.  (from I Would Like To Also Mention Aluminum: An Interview with William Stafford)


In other words: The key to solving writer’s block is “lower your standards.”

Stafford views writing as a process rather than the production of a product: “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.  That is, he does not draw on a reservoir; instead, he engages in an activity that brings to him a whole succession of unforeseen stories, poems, essays, plays, laws, philosophies, religions….”

Stafford observes that one key to unlocking this process is “just plain receptivity.”  But what does this mean?  And how does this process operate?

One way I look at this is that language is not created by your conscious mind but by your unconscious.  In this view, what you are receptive to is the unconscious. 

When an uptight, hyper-critical, writer sits down to write, the unconscious mind throws up a sentence and the writer’s conscious mind wags its finger and goes, “Not good enough.”  Perhaps the writer even crosses that sentence out or erases it, as if the unconscious mind were a bad dog who has soiled the unblemished carpet.

Then the unconscious mind sends up another sentence, and the conscious mind goes again, “Not good enough.”

Then, a third sentence: “Not good enough.  A fourth sentence:  “Not good enough.”

At a certain point the unconscious mind finally says, “Fuck you!  I’m not sending up anything more.  You don’t like what I’m doing, well, I’m going to stop working, I’m going on strike.”

Hence, writer’s block.

The key then is to be willing to accept whatever the unconscious mind throws up.  In order to do this, you need to demote or push aside the conscious mind, and give more respect and attention to the unconscious. ~David Mura

My brother’s death made me stop that shit. Stop obsessing and over-analyzing and getting in my own way. Since then, I’ve established this process of just sitting with what’s walking with me: a line or lines I read, something I overheard, a conversation, an overpowering feeling of grief or anger or love, whatever. I sit down and I write. I let whatever wants to come out, come out. And in doing so, I’ve produced some really powerful writing (especially on this blog), and I’ve started submitting it. This morning I got word that I passed the first round of an acceptance process to get published in a pretty reputable lit mag and I’m ecstatic.

I’ve applied to several residencies because I know I need time to sit with these stories and put them together without having to worry about anything else, if only for two weeks.

I’m getting some work together for a few upcoming non-fiction contests, including Lumina, judged by Cheryl Strayed who think totally fucking rocks, and I’m excited and anxious and, yeah, just a little bit giddy. What matters ultimately isn’t whether I win or not, or whether I get these pieces published or whether I get into these residencies. (Well, that’s not what matters right now at least.) What matters is that I’m actually shifting my view of myself and my work. I’m being proactive. I’m writing more and reading tons and really putting a whole new energy into this writing life I created.


Yesterday, when my mother introduced me to the principal of her school and her co-workers, a few of them said, “Oh, you’re the writer!” I looked at my mom and she was beaming. Shit, y’all, whether the moves I’m making do anything or go anywhere, I can say that that moment made it all worth the while.


E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. ~Ann Lamott, Bird by Bird

This is the case with memoirs, too. The structure of it, the piecing together happens only when you sit down and write. The epiphanies rarely happen in your head, you have to get to the writing, and that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s what I needed to remind myself to go back in on this memoir after spending the summer chronicling my mother’s stories without knowing where or how they’d fit into the book. I’m back all in and I’m focusing on the headlights, on writing these essays that are brewing and bubbling over and feeding the memoir as I go, and I’m working, trudging, poco a poco, dia a dia. Because, really, that’s all we’ve got. 


  1. I do a lot of teaching and give a lot of speeches, and they almost always fall flat if I don’t tell a story in there somewhere, sometimes more than one story. Now I see that people are hard-wired for stories. That explains a lot.

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