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I want to love fiction

I want to love fiction.

I want to love both reading and writing fiction. I want to obsess over the craft of fiction, to pore over characterization and structure, to create stories that radiate color and humanity and hope.

I want fiction to be a tool for awakening the best of the human spirit, for it to make us more alive, more fully ourselves. I wish that the last page of every book would return me to myself reformed in some way—more empathetic, maybe, or more conscientious, or more determined. I dream of storytellers as candle-bearers, people who glow with heat and light in the confusion and darkness, the people you go to when your own candle flickers or goes out and you want to shine once more.

But when I look around, that’s not the role that I see fiction filling, either in my life or in others’. I make extensive use of fiction as a means to patch over time that might otherwise force me to reflect on where I am and where my life is going. Despite my idealistic dreams of what fiction ought to be, it’s too often just another weapon in the grand psychological struggle between the part of me that wants to grow and the part of me that would rather rot in familiar self-sabotage, and it’s not usually wielded by the good guy.

What does it mean for my own stories if I frequently take legitimately excellent, worthwhile art and abuse it to reinforce my patterns of avoidance and fear? I’ve read beautiful, moving reflections on life and happiness while I should’ve been working. I’ve hurried through masterpieces when I should’ve been engaging with the life that was right in front of me. What hope do I have of creating things that make life brighter and fuller when even great art becomes an excuse for despondency? How do you know whether your creation is energizing or draining? How do you know if you’ve given or you’ve taken away?

You don’t. You can’t. Stories don’t lend themselves very well to controlled trials and A-B testing for “overall goodness of life”. You try your best, learn from your mistakes, and hope. You have no way of knowing how your creations touch the lives of the people they reach. You have no way of knowing if your audience learned to treasure their time and their loved ones a little more, or if they just drifted along in the river of your tale a little further away from the things that bring them to life.

I’m sure plenty of people would respond to my concerns by saying something like “you’re worrying too much. It’s not your responsibility to ensure that other people engage with your creations in a healthy way, and besides, people wouldn’t consume your work unless they liked it, unless it was good for them”.

And yeah, I know that I can’t control or even understand the impact that my life has, that I can’t take responsibility for every corner of the world my actions could possibly touch. I know that trying to ensure every interaction is for the best would mean never interacting with anything or anyone, living out a quiet fearful flicker of a life.

But I just don’t believe that people will only engage with what brings out the best in them. History contains a graveyard of industries and practices that were actively, literally killing people for centuries, and we’ve only caught the most obvious offenders. Between social media, cigarettes, and bloodletting, it’s pretty clear that sometimes “I’m sure people wouldn’t ask for it if it wasn’t good for them” is…a little optimistic. Sometimes we don’t have a clue what’s good for us. I want to love storytelling, but it can be hard to get excited about it for the same reason that it’d be hard for me to get excited about, say, creating a new social media platform: sure, maybe I’ll finally design an environment where a healthy, vibrant userbase engages thoughtfully with worthwhile material. But how am I supposed to know?

I know my views on the role of storytellers are a bit grandiose. Many people think stories are just for providing a brief escape from life. Duck into a different world for a bit, and forget about your pain. Pure escapism.

But to me, storytelling as pure escapism feels…life-denying. “Life sucks, so you might as well escape into fantasy whenever you can, preferably by paying me, the storyteller”—what kind of lesson is that? Who would feel inspired and motivated to create that kind of story? If we should do nothing but escape into someone else’s fantasy, then what, dear storyteller, drove you to work so hard to create this story? Why is it that you should shine, but I should do nothing but reflect your light?

If fiction was ultimately just about escapism, maybe I could accept it, but it would have no appeal for me anymore. I’d feel the same way about telling stories as I do about working at a casino or making reaction videos—sure, I could make some money at someone else’s expense, but I don’t understand how anyone could be excited about it. It would feel so…zero sum. “Success” would mean gathering an audience like planets around a star, my light reflected in the listless eyes of countless strangers.

I’ve spent far too much of my life as a lifeless planet orbiting a star, and it’s kind of depressing. I want to believe that life has more to offer than other people’s empty daydreams, and I don’t want to spend my time sapping time from others. I have to have my grandiose ideals about storytelling, even if I’m not sure I’ll create stories that are really worth telling, because I can’t be excited about anything less. I don’t want to be in the business of surrounding myself with planets just to see my own light. If I tell stories, I want to be the candle-bearer. I want to be in the business of igniting stars.