Michiana Chronicles: The power of story
As a life longer lover of fiction, I have an intuitive sense of the power that story has to transform us by revealing the inner workings in the emotional lives of others. When I was a young adult, I learned from many different characters, among them, the loftiness of Ann of Green Gables’ idealism and great imagination and the misery of Raskolnikov’s fear and despair. Books uncovered for me some of the ways human beings I’d never be able to meet feel, think, and see the world.
Some are of the opinion that stories are frivolous and even question the value of fiction. For years I have known instinctively that one could learn as much through the exploration of another’s created world as through a systematic discourse on a serious subject. Stories and myths have the power to transform us, to pull us into what Richard Rohr calls the Great Story. When an author shares the deep understanding or lack thereof characters have of themselves, thoughtful readers, by reflecting on this process, can learn to understand themselves and appreciate the unique individuality of others.
This sometimes leads readers to cultivate an attitude of love and understanding towards themselves and a corresponding shift in their perspective towards others. This process is a way of following the great commandment of Jesus, the storyteller par excellence, to love our neighbors as ourselves. In becoming more compassionate toward our authentic selves and others we are building the beloved community.
Those who enjoy good literature, however, do not automatically become more compassionate persons. The Nazis, for example, highly valued literature. It made them “feel that they represent some higher civilization” as Katia Mann in Colm Toibin’s The Magician says. We readers need to be open to a story to deepening our understanding of one another and find ways to navigate our differences if we want to grow.
Until a few years ago, I’ve strongly preferred novels to other forms of fiction. Then I took a class at Forever Learning, South Bend’s venue for challenging older adults, and I was slowly converted into a short story afficionado. I joined a small group of seniors who are known to other FLI students as Sonia groupies. We are all great fans of teacher Sonia Gernes, a retired Notre Dame English professor, who teaches classes predominately on short stories. As a result of Sonia’s excellent teaching, I learned to appreciate what the short story has to offer—excellent writers, conciseness, an appeal to readers who enjoy challenges, and a story which, as Lorrie Moore puts it, is “…about love. But it is not a love story.”’
Several of us who were members of Sonia’s class on the Alice Munro’s writing fell in love with her short stories, and, eager to read and discuss more of them during Covid, decided to meet regularly to do just that. We discovered that her themes of women who find their voices, the unreliability of memory, love and marriage, transience, and death resonated with us as women. The simple process of reading and reflecting together about a short story united, challenged, and caused us to grow as people.
Both Munro stories “What Is Remembered” and “Meneseteung” are in part explorations of memory. If you’ve ever compared a reminiscence of a childhood experience with a sibling or tried to share an event from long ago with a college chum, you’ve probably discovered how capricious our recollections are. In the former tale, the recollection is a thing of value whose details are carefully nurtured and somehow keep the main character alive. In the second, the narrator questions what she has just recalled. Psychologists have confirmed that memories aren’t static but change each time we remember an event. Munro’s stories are filled with examples of this.
So, in story after story, she reminds us of the sacred duty of paying attention, the importance of respecting what is remembered, though it may not be factual, and the insights achieved through painful experiences. Memories can uncover truths even if they aren’t reliable. Munro’s narratives help us to move toward one another, growing gradually in compassion, helping us explore the essence of existence. Is there anything less frivolous than that?