Story Geek

I’m a pretty classic geek in a lot of ways. For goodness’ sake, my day job is editing roleplaying game books! My husband writes for roleplaying games and is usually GMing and/or planning a game. I have a small collection of dragons and a large collection of dice. We’re constantly reorganizing to find room for games and game books, and instead of a living room we have a library. I’m part of a fairly regular game group and have been, on and off, for 14 years. I’ve been in long term games run by Jim Butcher and by Cam Banks. Our summer vacations are spent going to conventions. Yeah, I’m a geek.

There are a lot of obvious things I could talk about there for Speak Out With Your Geek Out. Those things make up a lot of my identity and passions. But for at least a few of the blog posts this week, I want to talk about some of the other things I’m geeky about.

First up, an exploration of my love of story:

My college degrees are in fairy tales. Honestly. OK, technically I have a BA in English and Anthropology and a MS in Curriculum & Instruction, but what I studied were stories—primarily fairy tales and folktales—and how they both reflect and affect culture and in particular how we use them to socialize children. I wrote my masters thesis about the many variants of Sleeping Beauty and I did an independent study on Dr. Seuss. It was a heck of a lot of fun.

“How do you earn a living with multiple degrees in fairy tales?” you might justifiably ask me. Well, aside from a handful of folklorists, you don’t. So I got certified to teach secondary English. But that doesn’t mean my degrees are wasted—I see the world very differently for having learned to view it through the stories we tell, especially to our children.

Stories may not always teach us facts—even “true” stories tend to have an element of fiction to them, if only to make them more readable. But stories teach us truth, which is arguably more important. We learn about ourselves when we put ourselves in the place of the main characters, evaluating their choices and what we might have done differently. We learn about society when we see how others in the story respond. Even if we feel that the story is a poor representation of the people and culture around us, it’s at least encouraged us to look at our world more critically (as in critique, not necessarily criticize).

Kids naturally tell stories in their play. Some really interesting studies suggest that kids learn interpersonal skills from their pretend play—by roleplaying situations, they learn how to deal with anger, sadness, and conflict. Make their lives too structured, deprive them of time and opportunity to tell their own stories, and they may not learn enough about how to handle the world around them. At a young age, their experience is necessarily limited (no matter how much my kids think it’s unfair that I’ve experienced more things than they have because I’ve lived for 4 times as long) and stories let them experiment with things before they have to face them for real. To paraphrase GK Chesterton, reading fairy tales doesn’t teach kids that dragons exist. Even at a young and sheltered age, kids know that dragons exist. These stories—both ones they’re told and ones they tell themselves—teach kids that dragons, like the challenges they’ll face in their own lives, can be defeated.

Stories are powerful and glorious things. They’re used to control, to subvert, to rebel, to include. The things we learn through stories are often more memorable than a lecture. As our culture changes, our stories change to reflect that. And as the stories evolve, culture changes in response. It’s utterly entwined and interdependent. Studying the stories of different cultures, analyzing how stories have changed through time, and looking at the stories we tell ourselves now has really opened my eyes to the power of story. (It’s also made me a neurotic mother as I’m overly conscious of what stories my kids consume!)

Although a lot of our stories these days are told through movies, TV shows, and video games, they’re not really so different. They reflect the things that are important to us. They show us visions of what could be, both as motivation and warning. Perhaps it’s true that there are no new stories, but we can learn a lot about ourselves by looking at the ways we retell those stories.

And yeah, sometimes what you’ll see is horrifying and will convince you that as a culture, and maybe even as a species, we’re totally screwed. But a lot of good stuff comes out of stories, too, especially with acceptance of people who aren’t like you—you see it first on TV, in a movie, even in a commercial, and suddenly it doesn’t seem so odd. Slowly but surely, stories change the world.

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