Catching a Vision

From 2006 to 2008, I was a customer service representative, and then a trainer and supervisor, for the At Home division of Scholastic, in Moberly, Missouri. For an English nerd, it was an awesome job. I was able to provide books to children and their families and train other customer service staff to do the same.

At this same time, my wife and I were homeschooling our two children and focusing on creating as many learning opportunities for them as we could. As you’d probably expect from a Writing and Literature geek, we used a lot of classic books. We knew they would provide incredible reading experiences and contain great moral lessons and discussion topics — what I would now call Truthspeaking. With this same homeschool philosophy in mind, and hoping to inspire a similar vision in my trainees, I created several personal “At Home” training handouts, inspired by A Thomas Jefferson Education, by Oliver DeMille.

I have long since left the company, and my children have graduated and moved on in life and further education, but the truths I taught my trainees still influence the stories I read and write. I won’t duplicate my handouts here, but I hope my sharing and expansion of these principles can help you too:

What Books Have Been Your Companions Through Life?

First off, consider the stories that mean the most to you; even if it means going back to a favorite childhood bedtime story. Were there heroes you pretended to be as a child? Do you have literary characters that you admire or identify with now?

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was, The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald, by Clifford B. Hicks, in which a teen genius creates crazy labor-saving inventions and solves a mystery with the help of his inventions, his little sister, and his best friend. In fact, if you look at the cover of my 1975 copy of the book, you’ll see I even crossed out Alvin’s name and inserted my own:

I suppose I’m in good name-changing company, because in the story Alvin “thought of himself as another Thomas Alva Edison (though, to himself, he always said Thomas Alvin Edison).” Later, I read The Hardy Boys, and then Sherlock Holmes; I even tried to start my own detective agency when I was about 10 years old. I also loved (and still love) A Wrinkle in Time and Treasure Island, and considered Anne Shirley a kindred spirit. These days, I still find myself rereading my old copies of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Guy de Maupassant, Louis L’Amour, and Jane Austen, whenever I take a break from more modern authors.

What about villains? When you visualize the forces or circumstances that hinder you in life, do the “bad guys” from particular stories come to mind? Are your nebulous archenemies conniving and intelligent like Professor Moriarty and Screwtape? Or are they more forceful and violent, like Voldemort and Mr. Hyde? Has visualizing your villains helped you come to terms with and overcome them? When I was a kid in the early 80’s, I pretended I was eluding ninjas all the time; but now that I’m older, my imagined enemies have become more manipulative and less overtly lethal.

The reason I ask these questions is that our personal libraries, in great measure, create our personal plots. Think about it: How have your favorite books, and even those you have disliked and rejected, shaped and influenced you—made you who you are? In my case, they have reflected my early desires to be clever and creative, and my fear of physical harm; and later, my worries about being out-thought, out-worked, and out-maneuvered by others. I was dreamy and artistic as a kid, and I still am, but I have always had an analytical streak, too. Because of these desires, I have enjoyed both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Star Wars Expanded Universe (and I’ve mourned its retcon as merely “Legends”.) Because of the stories I read, I have not only been creative and dramatic in my life, but also become more organized and proactive, as well.

What do the books in your psychological backlist reveal about you?

This is a central question as we consider the books we choose to read, and the books we strive to write.

What Is So Great about Books and Reading… or Writing for That Matter?

When I taught my customer service trainees, I asked them, “Why are we here? What is so great about books that our company would invest so much time and energy and money into publishing and selling them?” Now that I am increasingly focused on telling stories, as well as reading them, I ask myself (and now, you) the same questions:

Why are you here? Why are you a reader? A writer? What is so great about books and storytelling that you should invest so much time and energy and emotional capital into your Truthspeaking?

Here are just ten reasons that I have decided all of our investment of time and heart into reading and telling stories is worth it:

1. Stories help to develop imagination and creativity. They help us to visualize other worlds and people and situations. We enjoy vicarious experiences, and provide them to others when we write. Seeing our favorite protagonists adapt and overcome while navigating their hero’s journeys helps us to better imagine ways to solve our own problems in real life.

2. Stories can be an escape from the world, help us to process the present, and encourage us to see beyond the here and now. Perhaps you have noticed, as I have, that many of our peers in the writing community are currently wrestling with the elephant in the room (to mix a metaphor)—a virus that has impacted every aspect of our lives in some way. It feels like the whole world is in the grip of one gigantic COVID-19 quarantine. Whether it’s a global pandemic, or just a gloomy autumn Thursday, we can often feel trapped in our current circumstances. Through the stories we engage with, we can travel to other places, and see that the story of life goes on. We sense that “we haven’t come this far to only go this far,” and we can witness past events instead of focusing only on present times.

We don’t tend to rise above the books we read.

3. Our books and stories contribute to the formation of our character. Our efforts and decisions shape and improve us, or they hold us back. The same is true of the stories we create and consume. We must be attentive and thoughtful, because we don’t tend to rise above the books we read. They are often the catalysts that inspire the level of growth and progression we achieve. If poorly chosen, or misused, they are also the millstones that can drag us down and hinder our growth and development. Especially in matters of truthspeaking, readers are led along a path of learning. Learning leads to discovery, discovery leads to change, and change leads to action. Such stories can challenge us to be engaged in life, not simply passive spectators. The ancient Roman poet Virgil famously wrote, “ paulo maiora canamus” — Let us sing of somewhat higher things. This excellent advice and reminder features prominently on the inside cover of the very writing notebook that is sitting at my elbow right now. We should always seek for that which is elevating and ennobling, both in what we read and what we write.

Paulo maiora canamus (Let us sing of somewhat higher things)

4. Our stories are a part of family activities and bonding. Families need to live, eat, talk, and THINK together. Stories build community (more on that in a minute), and sharing bedtime stories and daytime adventures builds the most important community of all. “Remember the time when…” is a frequently heard phrase in most happy and tight-knit homes. What are some examples of your own family folklore and traditions? Every family has its collection of oral histories and shared experiences; inside jokes and allusions. I’m sure my own kids have tired of hearing the story of how their mother and I met, and how I nearly didn’t get the chance to propose to her when she was “almost deported” from Canada. ; thus we are defined by our stories and by the stories we choose to tell our children. Shared stories and books provide a needed diversion from TV, video games, and other distractions that can distance family members.

5. Stories can help increase our knowledge of the world. Stories can help us to see, feel, and hear the perspectives of others both close to home and far away, and encourage us to appreciate their views. The settings of such stories show us new scenes and can help us to learn about societies outside our own. In so doing, we discover the cultures that create those stories. When we connect with such national stories they become a part of our personal stories. Three of my favorite examples of this, (and I have several), are the Kalevala , from Finland; the legend of The White Stag , from Hungary; and the Jewish fairy tales and legends of “Aunt Naomi”.

The Kalevala is an epic collection of Finnish tales of magical heroes and mighty deeds, much like those of Norse or Greek mythology; The White Stag tells of the mighty descendants of Nimrod, who migrated from Asia to Europe after the Tower of Babel and became the nomadic Huns and mighty Magyars; and the tales and legends of Jewish folklore have always held a place in my heart, due to my own Jewish ancestry.

The values of every human society are captured in its stories, and to be civilized is to internalize those values. The books that members of a society have in common, and their response to those stories, are a gauge of their culture, values, history, and future. For example: Imagine Judaism without the stories of Abraham, Moses, and Esther and consider the cultural significance of the Passover, Hanukkah, Massada, and even the Holocaust. Imagine Black America without its writers and statesmen, such as Langston Hughes and Alex Haley, or Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Imagine America itself, without The Declaration of Independence, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Common Sense, Paul Revere, George Washington, Benedict Arnold, The Federalist Papers, and even September 11th. Imagine any culture or society stripped of its folk tales, fables, and historical heroes.

6. Stories help us to build our language skills and increase our eloquence. Did you know that there is a word for the extra weight we tend to gain when we’re stressed and overeat? The word is kummerspeck, It’s German, and it literally means “grief bacon” (I don’t know if that will ever be useful to you, but now you know.) As we read, we can encounter many new words and hear new sentence structures. I personally tend to emulate what I read and hear. After reading Jane Austen, my language becomes more stilted and formal; after reading Stephen King, I sound wrier and more sarcastic. That’s why reading in your genre (but not only in your genre) is so important. If you write science fiction, there’s a conventional style that’s expected; however, since you also don’t want to sound just like everyone else, reading widely expands your repertoire of styles and structures. Even sentence complexity and length can vary between authors. Some write in long, complex structures that pack in tons of content before they let you go, while others are quick to the point and keep it light. The Twilight series, for example, is written at a 3rd or 4th-grade reading level in terms of its sentence length, structure, and vocabulary.

Consider the books that you most like to read. What types of sentences do they contain? Do you tend to write at your own comfortable reading level or below it? Do you write the way you speak?

Through reading, we can also make new connections, discover allusions and new character ideas, and invent exciting mash-ups of genres. After reading a high-fantasy story a few years ago, I had a strange dream that brought the Amish into the mix. What if Elves sent their youth out into the human world, like an Amish Rumspringa, as a rite of passage before they could become full members of their society? This idea became (with modification) the seed of my current WIP (work in progress).

7. Stories take us to the frontier to be conquered. Our challenges, and our responses to them, mold and define us. Our modern burdens and trials and experiences are different from those of our ancestors, who sailed oceans, crossed the plains, and walked on the moon. We cannot become what our ancestors were without facing similar trials and attaining similar victories.

There are few remaining geographic frontiers left to conquer, but the last and hardest frontiers still remain within ourselves. Our internal struggles with love and apathy, courage and fear, faith and despair, and life and death are more lasting than material things.

What stories have challenged you and revealed your inner frontiers? How have you grown through what you have read? In my case, the Scriptures have been my greatest guide to navigating frontiers, but other books have been instructive as well: Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, has forced me to confront my own responsibility for my success and happiness in life, and has reminded me that in any circumstance I always retain the freedom to choose my response. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, has taught me to follow my dreams and listen to inspiration. And Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, has repeatedly brought me to the frontiers of forgiveness, sacrifice, and redemption.

8. Stories force us to think. At first, reading can be a chore, but then it becomes entertainment and education. When our exposure to stories hits “critical mass”, everything clicks and we are changed by what we read. Our ideas and imagination are bigger, our dreams are wilder, our plans are more challenging, and our ability to communicate is enhanced. First, we think about the characters, then we apply their stories to ourselves and others, and then we extend them to the world in general. Worthwhile reading can be hard work. We should seek opportunities to read “over our heads” from time to time. It is like exercise that requires rigor and effort. Like barbells, we can either put them down or exert ourselves. We must struggle, search, ponder, discover, decide, and reconsider. As with exercise, we are always changed for the better.

9. Stories bring us face to face with both greatness and disgrace. They teach us about human nature, and we learn from the failings of others and build upon them without the pain. We encounter new heroes and villains, new victims and victors, and new dilemmas. In literature and stories, we see ourselves and others reflected. We see the triumphs and failures of others and learn how they happened. We can then act well. Life is too short for us to make all the mistakes and slay all the dragons, ourselves. We are wise to learn from the errors of others, and to gain from the growth of those we observe. We begin to become great by emulating the greatness of others, and by avoiding the flaws and failings of those who could have been great but chose another way. In such stories we come face to face with:

  1. Washington at Valley Forge; Frodo at Mt Doom; and Macbeth at Duncan’s bedside.
  2. Moses on Mt Sinai; Jim Hawkins on Treasure Island; and Captain Ahab on the high seas.
  3. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy; Penelope and Odysseus; and Catherine and Heathcliff.
  4. Beowulf in Grendel’s Lair; Winston Smith in Room 101; and Sydney Carton at the guillotine.
  5. Jean Valjean confessing in court, and Adolf Hitler writing in Landsberg Prison.
  6. Thomas Jefferson writing a Declaration of man’s liberty; and Karl Marx writing a Manifesto to stifle it.

Who we are changes as we continually set higher standards for ourselves. We often experience the character of others more powerfully in books than in real life, because we are privy to their thoughts and motives, and we can celebrate or mourn the consequences of their actions, even if those characters don’t. After reading, we can often ask ourselves, in difficult circumstances: “What would they do?” and act accordingly. I even know of certain young women (who shall remain anonymous) who have rejected young suitors, after astutely categorizing them as being a “Wickham” or a “Willoughby”, rather than a “Darcy” or “Captain Wentworth”.

10. Stories connect us to those who share those stories. Stories imply a community of at least two, a teller and a listener, each with responsibilities to the other. Even in our own cultures, books and stories provide us with a common intellectual currency. We develop a cultural literacy that enables us to understand and be understood by those who share in the stories, whatever their age, race, creed, or time in history. Allusions become effective for us and we can say and mean more with less, by communicating in metaphors and themes and stories that we share with others. The rapport we develop by seeing and identifying with the choices, failures, and successes of historical and literary characters helps to erase the prejudices and biases that divide us from others. As we learn about the world and other cultures, it’s harder to be judgmental and prejudiced, because we have walked the paths and heard the tales of others who are unlike us.

How would you answer these questions: If you had to be evacuated to another planet and could take only five books to teach your family and base a new society and culture upon, what would they be? Why?

Societies are successful when people choose to be good; they are mediocre when they choose mediocrity; and they fail when they choose weakness, decadence, and hate. People choose to be good when they are taught to believe in good and act upon it. Teaching influences belief, which guides action. What determines how well a society is taught is the books and stories it collectively values and considers to contain truth. These comprise their “National Books” and national authors. Good books and stories, that teach truth and combat falsehood, inspire good societies; evil books and stories, that mock truth and proclaim falsehood, produce and enhance bad societies. And when there are no national books, no source of truth and nowhere for people to seek guidance, there is no culture produced and society decays. In your own writing, do you seek to provide lasting meaning through the entertaining and thought-provoking content you produce? Perhaps your words can change someone’s world.

In all of these examples, stories bring us into contact with truth—either by revealing its power and weight and value directly, or by showing the consequences of its absence or opposition. These are among the many reasons I read and write.

Sothliche!

WR Gilmour