What About Story? A Conversation With Jean Lee

A few weeks ago, Jean Lee and I started a conversation about storytelling and its purpose in our lives. While it began as a debate, the viewpoints that we shared had more similarities than differences. Note that “AJ” signifies my replies and “JL” marks when Jean is speaking. My sincerest thanks to Jean for coming up with this idea.


  1. What purpose do you think stories have?

JL- For some reason this question takes me back to all those years of Bible class, where if one didn’t know the answer, one could just say “God” and somehow be right, however tangential a manner.

At the most basic level, stories help us grow.

They send us shivering to bed with cautionary tales of witches haunting the yard. They teach us to cope with loss, be it a pet, friend, or family member. They test our understanding of how the world works. They free us of the reality’s constraints and let us loose in realms both fantastic and boundless.

Stories provide that which we do not always have in our realities: Camaraderie. Understanding. Hope.

A dream.

AJ- I have to agree with most of this. I see stories as stemming from two things: 1) it’s an outgrowth of human language and 2) it’s a consequence of the uniquely human ability of imagination. Stories aren’t just lessons that we tell each other, they are proposals for life. We tell them not just to warn of what is there but to ponder what could be.

2.  With all the entertainment out there, why do you think reading is important?

JL- No other entertainment truly involves the kid like a book. I see it with my kids more than anything. My son Biff (age 4) can sit and stare at books for ages. He can read quite a few, but he mainly does it for the pictures: he’ll make the characters talk and go on adventures all his own. He doesn’t need the television to make all the adventures for him; books give him the tools to create his own. My daughter Blondie (age 6) devolves into a couch potato whenever she plays computer games or watches a show. Yes, we keep it pretty limited to educational stuff, but that’s still not the same as a book, where the senses depend on language to create. When Blondie reads, she’s speaking the words out loud, listening to herself say them, and in that, taking them all in. Her fingers run along every line of the page. She must study each word in order to say it correctly. The more she reads, the more story involves her, and therefore, the more Blondie utilizes her skills and senses.

AJ- I had a conversation with a child once at a school about Minecraft. He asked why I didn’t play it anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love Minecraft, but no matter what I create in that world I am still playing within the confines of someone else’s creation (plus most people simply won’t care about what you make in the game.) Video games and films present reality, basically saying “here it is, interact with it” while books collaborate with your imagination asking “what do you think this person looks like? What’s the scary thing in the dark doing?” This exercises imagination which in turn prepares us to actually contribute to reality. I like to say to kids that I much prefer to make my own Minecraft rather than live inside of Notch’s (the creator of Minecraft.)

3.  Should a book be literal in its meaning?

JL- Ah, here’s a dicey question. I suppose I should pick a side, yes?

Then no. No, I don’t think a book needs to be literal. I suppose this comes from childhood and Bible class again—all those parables of “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” I’m used to the idea that there’s something more going on than what the story tells.

Kids are smart…I mean, yeah, they’ll eat their own boogers, but they pick up on meaning pretty fast. Diana Wynne Jones, my favorite writer of all time, lamented how much a story had to be dumbed down for grownups. Children are used to figuring things out, she said. They don’t have to have everything explained to them—they take what you say as you say it, and figure things out as the story progresses.

If a story insists on being literal in its meaning, then that just sounds like the writer won’t let the readers work out the meaning for themselves.

Take a painting in an art museum. Viewers will look upon it with minds forged by countless different experiences. No perception is the same, which means no interpretation is the same. Yet interpret they will, and from that interpretation forge new ideas (even if that idea is Reason #73 of “Why I Don’t Like Art Museums”).

Now let’s say the artist is right there, explaining what all the meaning is in that painting. Some may agree, but for those who don’t interpret the painting that way, how do you think they feel? They didn’t “get” that meaning, which means something’s wrong with their perception. Something’s wrong with them.

That’s not how I’d want my readers to think.

AJ- LOL, forcing me to pick a side, eh? This was the question that started this debate process in the first place. Since the first proposal, I have had a lot of time to ponder the question and my answer is, well, a non-answer. It’s interesting that you bring up the bible because its use of stories, particularly the parables of Jesus, are a great example of why stories are both literal and figurative at the same time.

To continue with the Jesus analogy, consider the well known parable of the good Samaritan: taken literally you could interpret it as good people help other people (or super literal, as in news, that at one time a Samaritan helped a man on the road.) The brilliance of parables is that the listener opts in to the depth of meaning that suits their capacity to receive it. Most people will see that they are called to be like the good Samaritan. Others might comprehend that the Samaritans were neighbors to the Jews and should thus be treated accordingly while a select few may realize that none of these labels matter at all and that we are all both Samaritan as well as the traveler in need.

My favorite children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Joffe Numeroff is revealing meaning to this day. I’m still not sure if we should be willing to give mice cookies, knowing that we may be taken advantage of, or that we should be cold and heartless city dwellers that never give money to the homeless because it doesn’t alleviate poverty. If the book has taught me anything, it’s that the answer depends on the mouse who is asking.

On a final note, I’ve found that people will apply meaning to things even if the artist had no intention to have any meaning. Seriously, the human mind is active enough that it only needs a few crumbs in order to formulate a philosophy. In actuality, the fewer the hooks of evidence the more likely the person is to attach their own thoughts to the piece. Perhaps this debate isn’t for the artists at all because no matter how many toasters we paint, there’s still going to be a lot of people who point and say “what a lovely fridge.”

4. Should a book be primarily a metaphor?

AJ- Going off my previous comment, I believe that most stories are a mixture of metaphor and literal interpretation. Yet, just as a cake can’t just be flower, so too could a story collapse if it is only metaphor. I’ve seen other writers get caught up in a metaphor trap and by that I mean that they so stringently forced the components of the story to represent something else that they forgot that they were telling a story. Often this results in what people call “convoluted” or “overdone” because the writer was trying to apply some grand meaning to a canvas that simply wouldn’t accept paint.

JL- Oh, yes. While I adored the Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, allegory is not meant for everyone. It can also easily get very, well, “preachy.” Kids don’t need to be whacked in the face with a MESSAGE. They’ll learn by reading, and discovering for themselves. I think some writers get so caught up in what everything “means” that they forget a story can be precisely that sometimes—a story.

5. What about allegories and fairy tales, how do they fit into storytelling?

AJ- LOL, I kind of already answered this one but let’s delve a little deeper. I believe that fairy tales are the appendix of religious myths. Once humanity found other ways to explain natural phenomena, a part of our culture started to miss the fun and interesting stories that were now replaced with hard facts. Fairy tales are the one place where imagination is still permitted to go to absurdity (and yes I’m lumping sci-fi into fairytales at this point.) I doubt if anyone ever questioned the motivation for the dragon stealing the princess, it’s simply what dragons do. While allegories are teaching tools best suited for spiritual progress, fairy tales are the literary equivalent of recess. They are necessary for our growth, relaxation, and crucial to our entertainment.

JL- LOL! Yes, we did rather scope this out a little, but I think I’m going to step onto the other side of the fence here. Many fairy tales strike me as cautionary tales: beware of strangers giving treats (Hansel and Gretel). Beware of wanting what you cannot have (Little Mermaid). Beware of not paying what you owe (The Pied Piper). As you point out, humanity didn’t have a whole lot of science going for it back then, and it needed SOMEthing to explain the bumps in the night. Angels and devils work, sure, but they’re not earthly, are they? I’d imagine that few kids thought they’d see an angel in their lifetime, but they were all more than certain that a witch lived  out in the unknown, waiting for them if they were naughty.

6. Do stories only have one meaning?

AJ- Stories have as many meanings as any member of the audience is willing to place upon them. I think back on many visits to modern museums where I overheard patrons snickering at what was on display saying “I could do better than that” or “this isn’t art, I know art,” never realizing that the craft and look of modern art is a sideshow to the context and meaning of the work. Modern art expects the viewer to interact with it and place meaning upon the object with the aid of clues left by the artist. Literature has the same expectation, though the clues are usually contained within the piece itself.

JL- Oh dear. I was one of those snickerers, I’m sure. Well, when an artist literally puts an empty acrylic display case up, and calls that “art,” I start to question it! Or that long blue plastic plank leaning against the wall—what’s that about? Now the suitcase on the floor that opened up to a hole lower down where a shimmering pond full of life thrived—THAT I dug.

Anyway.

On the one hand, yes. I should think stories have many potential meanings, though I do think readers tend to force meaning on sometimes. I’ll never forget my first graduate-level lit class: I was scared ****less because I had never taken any form of theory before, and people had been throwing out terms and theories over such’n’such and this’n’that for weeks. Our teacher only wanted OUR thoughts; we weren’t to research. Yet I was so overwhelmed and confused as to where people GOT all these meanings that I started reading critical theory about the story of the time anyway. Well, later that week the class was audibly stumped over a character. No one could think of anything. I slowly raised my hand: “Would you like to hear what the critics say?” The teacher threw up his hands in surrender, and smiled.

Whether or not the writer intends so many meanings is, I think, irrelevant. The writer can’t go around to every reader pointing at various things saying, “See how this means that? See? SEE?” Nor should the reader be banging on the writer’s door demanding, “So what does THIS mean? And THIS?” If we can all accept that many stories have some themes, some things it wants to get across, we’ll either catch them or we won’t. And the writer should, I’d hope, care more about telling a good story than preaching a message. That’s what pulpits are for. 🙂

7. What happens if a reader misses the point of a story?

AJ- I don’t think either the reader or the writer are penalized in any significant way. Now, if the story was boring and lost the reader’s attention, that’s a whole different issue; but if the reader simply walked away entertained then it was mission accomplished. Not every story is life changing, however, the ones that are resonate with the receivers for their entire lifetime. I have my own collection of impressions from great works that usually boil down to a single sentence or scene. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense why I kept them, yet they still bubble up at the weirdest times. If I choose to, I may reflect on that impression and place it into the context of my current life. If not then what’s the harm? First and foremost stories are meant to entertain. Instructing and inspiring are secondary.

JL- I’m with you, AJ. I even blogged about this recently, too—I never understood how people pick up all these themes in stories; it was one of my biggest struggles in graduate school. I was either engaged by the story or not. As a writer, though, I’m starting to appreciate the importance of theme in creating the story. Whether people pick up on that theme or not doesn’t matter; I just want them to enjoy the story. But I have to write it first, and I have to write it right. Theme, or having that point, helps guide writers in setting the right stages to get the right reactions out of the characters to keep the story moving forward. How’d I put it… “It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.” So, I’d say writers MUST have some sort of point, theme, however you want to call it. Readers? Readers might pick up on it. They might create some totally new themes on their own. And why not? A reader is in and of him/herself an element of the story, too. A reader brings all his/her perceptions and ideals into visualizing the world and characters. They’ll see things the writer never considered, and from there, discover new themes and ideas to apply to their own imaginations.

Nothing wrong with that. 🙂

8. Can you give any examples of a story that has no meaning at all?

Hmm. That’s a tough one. I suppose the short answer would be this: “Nope.”

A slightly longer answer would be this:

JL-Every reader has his/her own tastes. While other girls got into The Little House books, I was reading about the cases of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. I wasn’t out to derive any meaning from them, just like I doubt my daughter’s determined to learn about life from The Black Lagoon books. Children aren’t the ones who “look” for meaning, nor do they know it when they see it; that’s on the parent, I think, and as a parent, I’m not restricting my kids to strictly “meaning-full” books. I like how The Black Lagoon series shares Hubie’s various misadventures in various school experiences, because they help my daughter feel more comfortable in her own school, but I’m not going to keep my kids from books whose meaning–if there at all–eludes me.

Perhaps that is a question to handle for a future debate: how much can an adult ask of a child’s story?

AJ- How much can adults ask indeed. I often wonder if parents obsess over the meaning or the lesson of a book when none of that actually matters to the child. Not to mention that it’s questionable if the morals even sink in with the child without parental intervention. Again, stories have meanings placed upon them and it’s critical for the parents to discuss the story with their children and communicate what they want the children to learn from it. In that regards, the chief job of the book is to open the conversation, not preach to the reader.

9. How do you explain pop culture media, or other “non-artistic” entertainment?

JL- Super-short answer: I don’t.

Rambling answer: I’m unable to explain this sort of entertainment, but I can tell you this: I certainly don’t care for the current trends in humor aimed at kids, nor the adult humor thrown into kid’s entertainment for the adult’s sake.

For instance, my family adored the recent The Peanuts Movie. The previews shown before the film, however, are atrocious, as each highlights peeing in the pants and turds rolling out of pant legs as the highlights of their kid-geared comedy. Then you have plenty of Disney films with extremely adult-based humor, such as a plane saying he “kicked ASSton Martin out there!” and cars describing how they wore out their tires on their honeymoon…driving.

Thanks to my controlled exposure of current pop culture, I’ve kept my children out of some markets, such as the “sexy” Bratz/Monsters High. Unfortunately, peer pressure at school can undo a lot of effort, and further propagate the “non-artistic” entertainment kids devour like a plate of brownies. My daughter has shed tears more than once because we won’t give her an I-Pad. Why does she need an I-Pad? So she can play Minecraft like the other kids.

Sadly, books no longer drive the pop culture. I don’t know if books ever did before the Harry Potter series, but they certainly haven’t since. The video game Minecraft has appeared to be the greatest of, well, game-changers, crossing from entertainment medium to medium. Yes, I know there are Minecraft books now, but those books don’t grip my daughter’s classmates for hours on end like the game does.

AJ- LOL, you are correct that most books never break into pop-culture, however, books do provide a foundation for the rest of pop-culture to build upon. Most movies have some literary foundation, as do television shows and some comics. Video games too have drawn from that well, but the same isn’t true in reverse. Movies and books based upon video games often fall flat or are disappointing because there’s no literary substance to the source material. Successful property adaptations, such as the Angry Birds movie, require so much additional material that they end up only sharing token aspects and a name. For the forceable future, I believe books will continue to be the breeding ground for most pop-culture ideas.

10. Does everything have to be so serious? What’s wrong with entertainment?

JL- GOSH no. How boring if everything had to be serious! It’s not like I learned any life lessons from my favorite 80s cartoon Silverhawks, (You can stop snickering now.) (Seriously, stop snickering.) (Okay I KNOW everyone thinks Thundercats was cooler. Leave my 80s alone!)

Sure, it’s cool when a book about pigs doing the polka also teaches instruments, or when the kids learn how weather works thanks to Curious George. But to say that’s all reading is good for–expanding knowledge–is an injustice to literature. Reading not only expands knowledge, but imagination and creativity. Reading introduces us to characters who know all our fears and hopes and dreams. Reading nudges curiosity out of its safe corner and into the wide world, if only to say goodnight to the moon.

AJ- Much like candy, stories without a hard edge are good only in moderation. The same goes for serious stories though, as they can make the world seem hollow and unfair. There has to be a mix and the best stories actually have that mix built into them. I strive to achieve that in my own work, even though most people think I do silly monster nonsense. I’m totally ok with building Trojan horses though. 😉

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