Credit: Tatty Hennessy: all rights reserved.
I’m a playwright, which means I spend my time wondering what it would be like to be other people in the worst moments of their lives, how they might fight back or react or flounder when things go wrong, and how I can make their struggles more compelling for strangers to watch or read.
So I spend a lot of my time thinking about stories; telling them, reading them, hunting them, taking them apart and reworking them to make them better. But so what? What can a story do in the face of problems like climate change or political division? Actually, I think they’re vital.
Stories run on emotions and heart; the good ones make you feel. When you read a story, you take yourself out of your own small world and into another, much broader one, trying as best you can to understand the shape of another person’s mind. You sit with their dreams and pain and triumph and try them on for size. And then the lights come up or you turn the page or you take the headphones off and you’re you again, but not the same ‘you’ that you were before.
Sometimes this shift doesn’t fully happen. You follow the details of the story but the connections are missed, the feeling isn’t right, or the shoe just won’t fit – or when you do make this kind of contact the impact is slight - a glancing feeling that’s shrugged off quickly on your way out of the theatre or when the book is closed. But at other times stories can change your life. When you really get into a story, the story gets into you. I have no doubt that I am who I am in no small part because of the stories I’ve read and written.
This matters because the problems we’re facing feel less and less ‘people-sized,’ and that weakens the connections between problems and solutions - between personal commitment and political action. Storytelling is a way to close that gap. For example, my last play, A Hundred Words for Snow, follows a teenage girl called Rory who runs away from home to the Arctic Circle with her father’s ashes to help him walk posthumously in the footsteps of his favourite explorers. It’s an exploration of adolescence and grief as well as the impact of climate change in the region.
When I first started to research the play it felt like I was approaching the edge of a cliff without any handholds. I knew the climate situation was dire, that lives and livelihoods are threatened, and that we’re facing tremendous and irreversible losses. But I couldn’t take that sense of loss inside; instead it engulfed me.
It’s easy to look at the structural, systemic, global nature of the issues we face and feel tired or baffled or even apathetic. It’s not that we don’t know what’s going on - we’re more informed than we’ve ever been. The problem is that it can be hard to care about things that feel so much bigger than ourselves. It’s hard to care about a concept, but it’s easy to care about a person. We’re wired to do it, and stories run on people. A story can put a unique, individual, human face to nebulous ideas, bypassing our intellect and getting right to the heart of the matter. It can make us care, and caring is the root of action.
A story also allows emotion and sentiment into the picture. More than that, it demands it. So much of the conversation about politics and economics today revolves around eradicating feelings from the equation. We want to be rational, which we’re told to believe is the opposite of emotion. ‘Facts don’t care about our feelings.’ But this dichotomy privileges those who have nothing to lose from the outcomes of discussion. It’s easy to stay emotionless, to appear ‘rational,’ when the conversation is, for you, theoretical. It’s only possible to discuss institutional racism, poverty, sexual violence or disability discrimination without emotion when those things have never threatened you.
Climate change is like that too. It affects people living in poverty disproportionately and drastically exacerbates its effects, but it is largely fuelled and driven by those whose wealth and privilege protect them from the outcomes of their actions. A system that privileges rationality over emotion is a system that protects the status quo. Stories have no such qualms. That’s why it’s so important to ensure that a wide variety of stories can be told and heard.
Now more than ever, it’s also important that we all know how to read stories, so that we know when we’re being told one ourselves. During my English degree one of my favourite lessons was lexicography, or how dictionaries are made. Until that point I had imagined that dictionaries just sort of happened, springing into existence as accurate, objective and inert lists of words and definitions. The idea that someone had to write the dictionary, and in doing so decided what words meant, shifted the ground beneath me.
Someone somewhere decided that certain words should be included and others marked as obsolete or vulgar; that certain examples best illustrated the usage of each word; and that only some words were important enough to survive the cull for the dictionary’s pocket edition. The veneer of objectivity fell away. And just like dictionaries, little in the news media is objective either; different journalists and commentators tell different stories in support of their agendas and beliefs. As with Brexit at the moment, there’s no single national narrative.
That’s important because a well-told story can change your mind. It can also change history. The story you believe about the state of the planet dictates what you want to happen next, what you’re going do to about it, and what you want your government to do. We’re not rational or emotional, we’re both, acting on our feelings as well as our perceptions of the facts. And those feelings make us malleable - more receptive to a well-spun story, regardless of the facts that make it up. We’re being told stories all the time, but often in ways and from sources that don’t look like storytellers. So it matters that we know how stories work, how to spot them, how to understand what they’re doing to us, and who benefits.
When faced with problems like climate change it’s easy to feel hopeless. Stories can present us with more opportunities for hopeful change. They show us a way forward. In A Hundred Words for Snow, Rory starts out by idolising the colonial explorers of the past, admiring how they smashed through the ice to dominate the Arctic for mankind. She imagines the Arctic as an empty, inert place of death, waiting to be found and conquered. What she finds instead is a beautiful, interconnected system of life which is complicated, frightening and glorious. She realises that she needs to find a better, gentler kind of exploration, one that celebrates and protects how connected we all are to each other and the natural world. I wanted this story to inspire the belief that if we can change ourselves then we can change the world, and maybe save it.
Stories stop us from seeing ourselves simply as the ‘default’ in life. They allow feeling and emotion into our collective grappling with the biggest questions and concerns of our times. They warn us of the power that words can wield in manipulating our responses. And they give us the chance, if we’ll take it, to stand at another point on the world and take in a different view.
RJG Productions’ A Hundred Words for Snow is about to embark on a UK tour. For further information, please visit: https://ahundredwordsforsnow.com/