I remember the night vividly: As midnight approached, the line of excited fans waiting outside grew so long it wrapped around three city blocks. Those of us who’d made our reservations early were the envy of all, flashing our wristbands as we made our way to the front. Despite the late hour, the crowd was buzzing with excitement, hyperactive nine-year-old boys standing shoulder to shoulder with middle-aged men, giggling teenage girls and angry-young-and-poor twenty-somethings like me and my friends. Lots of folks had come in costume, creatively donning the colors and symbols of their heroes. But for every geek in a wild get-up, there was a lady in mom jeans and practical shoes standing nearby, with a smile just as wide.
This dazzling press of human bodies radiated unchecked and unashamed enthusiasm, transforming the dark urban streets into a spontaneous community block party where everyone was welcome to join in the fun. I found myself marveling at the beauty of how such a simple thing could bring so many people together. In an age of cynicism and self-interest, surely we fans here had discovered something amazing.
Finally, the clock struck midnight, and the bookstore opened.
It was Harry Potter. What else could it be? But this was no movie theater line — this was the local Barnes & Noble, where people had been pre-ordering Book 6 for months. For the first time in my life, I saw huge crowds gathered in the middle of the night just for the chance to get their hands on a book. Inside, the store had been transformed into a veritable Hogwarts, with festival games set up throughout the aisles where folks could try their hand at bean bag tosses or jelly bean guessing games, or just enjoy the free wizard-themed snacks while showing off their handmade witchy wardrobes. Even at the time, there were critics of J.K. Rowling who bemoaned the popularity of the Harry Potter series, citing it as evidence of the infantilism of modern culture and seeing nothing more than mindless consumerism. But those of us there that night knew otherwise: we understood that there is magic to be found in the telling of a good story.
These days, I see the same enthusiasm and sense of community among those who participate in National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo). This month my local public library’s Twitter feed has been flooded with announcements for write-ins and social gatherings almost daily, where professional writers, starry-eyed teens and soccer moms all get together to hang out, chow down on snack food and… well, write.
How crazy is that? Dozens of people gathered in a room to write together.
Most of us think of writing as a solitary activity — as something that maybe only truly inspired (but always half-starved) artists can do, hunched at their desks with ink-stained shirt cuffs and fingers callused from typing, driving themselves beyond the breaking point (maybe with a cigarette or a beer along the way), wrenching words syllable by syllable from their utmost depths and spilling them onto the page like blood.
I have never liked this image. As someone who takes perhaps unreasonable pleasure in the written word, it always seemed somewhat unfair to me that my particular vocation should condemn me to a life of obscurity and self-torture, while the astrophysicist and the bank manager and the firefighter and the dairy farmer were all allowed to take a certain pride in their work and enjoy the satisfaction of being a vital contributing member of a supportive, grateful community. (Okay, well, maybe not the bank manager. But he got to own more than one pair of shoes.)
There is magic in good storytelling. And in a world that can seem so woefully devoid of magic, we have a tendency to romanticize the writer, the artist, the “creative type” who is in touch with that magic in a deep, visceral way: crafting new realities out of sound and silence, drawing whole landscapes in black-and-white Helvetica. I think there is a part of us that even wants to believe that we could never do that kind of thing. If the writer is a special kind of creature — if his genius comes from inhabiting a cramped and impoverished little world, like an ascetic monk who spends all day on his knees in prayer hoping to earn divine blessings — well, then we can be forgiven for not having the stamina or the stomach for that kind of work, can’t we? I mean, some folks just aren’t cut out to be monks.
But it wasn’t always this way. Sure, there have always been those few bards who, mad with the wandering moon, find themselves stumbling through the wilderness with unkempt hair and the language of beasts on their tongues. But there were also the family gatherings around the hearthfire each evening, when grandmother would weave stories out of smoke and flickering shadows as simply and as surely as she wove bits of much needed yarn into hole-riddled socks. There were the stories father told at bedtime — old favorites about the Good Folk who tortured Old Man Henry down the road for building that fence across their invisible lanes, and new stories invented on a whim to coax the dreams or soothe the fears of sleepy children.
Humans have been telling stories for as long as we’ve been human. We build whole communities around the stories we tell to one another. (As any Harry Potter fan can attest!) Those who are lucky enough to call themselves professional writers have a particular set of skills and an admirable work ethic, but they don’t hold the monopoly on good storytelling. The astrophysicist and the bank manager and the firefighter and the dairy farmer have stories of their own to tell. (Okay, well, maybe not the bank manager.)
Which is why I can’t be anything but gleeful, and grateful, each November when suddenly my community is once again abuzz with stories — stories of all shapes and sizes, stories from old and young, stories that have been carefully researched and plotted for months in advance, alongside stories that go careening from page to page like sugar-injected toddlers with no direction at all, overflowing with the sheer joy of being told.
Most of the year, I sit at my desk pounding away at the keyboard hoping that at the end of the day I’ve managed to produce something that will speak to somebody, somewhere, someday. It can be a long and lonely process, sending my ink-babies out into the world without even a coat to keep them warm.
But storytelling at its root is a communal activity, something that can be shared by everyone. How wonderful that, once a year, we can return to those roots to find new inspiration and support. NaNoWriMo inspires us because it reminds us that storytelling is not about self-torture or perfectionism or asceticism, let alone popularity or profit. We can reclaim storytelling as basic human nature. We can recapture the creativity and imagination that is our birthright. We can push back against a society that would drain the world of its magic and lock our artists and writers away to toil in half-starved isolation while the rest of us are relegated to the role of mere consumers. We can shout from the rooftops the plain and simple truth of it:
Good storytelling can be as humble as darning socks, and yet as powerful as making fairies out of firelight.
And so, I dedicate this post to all of you out there who have thrown yourselves wholeheartedly into NaNoWriMo this year. Whether it’s your first year or your fifth. Whether you’ve met your word count goals, or you’ve only managed to scribble a few paragraphs in your notebook on the bus on your way to work…. I salute you! You stories matter, and your courage to tell them can change the world.