Why? Many pragmatic and intelligent people have asked fiction writers.
Why waste your time with stories that aren’t real?
Why spend years suffering through self-doubt, and rejection when your work may never be published?
Why not pursue a steadier, more profitable profession?
Perhaps there will never be a complete answer to these questions. However, there is something meaningful to readers cherishing their favorite books, or a writer’s excitement at beginning a new story.
Here is my explanation why.
Picture the human mind as a house. Depending on the person, it might be scattered, organized, brimming with memories, or anxieties. Within these walls is the concept of reality and its limitations and rules. In this house, a mug can shatter, paper can burn, and no one can time travel or turn invisible. Everyone knows this.
However, there is a door in this mind house. Everyone has it, but not all use it. It is the entrance to the imagination. I tend to imagine this part of the mind as an expansive field with lush grass and a bright sun streaking blue, purple, and pink against the sky. If desired, there’s a refreshing wind blowing through one’s hair. It’s a blank meadow, ready to be filled with anything. Some might imagine it as an ocean, a castle, or a blank piece of paper instead.
When readers pick up a book, that is where their mind goes.
In this meadow, people are free from their vulnerability. They can interact with emotions, ideas, or conflicts they would shy away from in reality. It’s a free playground for creators to bring stories into existence. Readers experience those stories. They might enjoy it or hate it. It might change their reality, by introducing a perspective, giving them courage, or making them uncomfortable or even disturbed. Where else can they experience the trials of a Holocaust survivor, the annihilation of a far off planet, or the euphoria of riding into battle on a dragon?
However, it’s not all about dipping into different stories, or mere escapism. Good stories teach. They have the power to positively or negatively affect reality. (If this sounds implausible, consider the novels banned by certain countries or communities.) By sitting alone and reading about fictitious people, readers learn how to connect to others in our own lives. The best kinds of books leave them winded and lost in thought after they read the final sentence. Then they share it with all of the readers they know so they can experience that story together.
The best part of reading is when the page becomes invisible. The reader is transported into the story, experiencing whatever the character is experiencing, tasting their food, smelling their surroundings, touching what they do, and feeling their emotions. These fictitious characters, events, places exist as much as gravity does. No one can touch them but they can interact with them in a metaphysical way. The words on the page disappear to paint the story into their allegorical meadows.
Art, especially books, teaches empathy. Whether it’s a fairy, a person of a different ethnicity, a talking animal, a hermit bookbinder, or a protagonist similar to the reader, good characters reflect truths about the human experience, no matter what form they take. Fiction leaves the readers a little wiser about the world, people, and themselves, even when the story takes place long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
After all, art creates culture, culture creates society, and society creates the future.
The creative mind’s meadow keeps all of these fictitious experiences. I like to picture it as the pools of water leading to different worlds in the Chronicles of Narnia, or the portal trees to different holiday universes in the Nightmare Before Christmas. Reading and writing takes a person into a new dimension, often greatly different from one’s own. It took me years to realize that most people lived in one world, reality, after I spent much of my childhood in that meadow.
When put on the spot with “why do you write and read,” my response is a vague “because I enjoy it” although that doesn’t explain why I enjoy it or why I feel stories are important. This post is for all of those who have wondered why.
You might completely disagree with everything I’ve said, from my analogy with the meadow to my thoughts about books. That is perfectly alright. The best thing and worst thing about art are that it’s subjective. Let’s start a discussion in the comments about your opinions about the importance (or unimportance) of books and writing.