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Why Tell Stories While the World is Burning? (A Cheerful Article?)

by Captain Ruffles



It’s a cliche at this school to remark that “nothing I do as an individual matters in a capitalist world-system built on exploitation.” I can avoid Wall Street all I want and make snide remarks about business bros, but there’s always a sense that I’m using this liberal arts smugness as a false sense of superiority. Anything to remind myself when I’m down, “If I can just point to someone more obviously complicit than me…” then I can find some shallow comfort to ease my conscience.

I’m also a creative writer. Second side of the coin. As much as I like decrying the world’s obsession with measuring the worth of anything by its instrumental “usefulness,” my instincts buy into this quantifying ideology all the time. If I wasn’t so bad at math and science, maybe then I could be an engineer or chemist developing new technologies to combat climate change. Shit, I hate economics, but if I understood how the economy worked, maybe I could contribute to designing anti-capitalist institutions. I’ve done activism and organizing, to a small degree, but it never feels enough.

No—instead, I like to write stories. In a world on fire, where your friends are the community leaders you wish you had the courage to be, where they are the researchers you know will change the world with their insights, what is the point of writing stories?

Illustration by Maia Hadler, Art Director

Escapism? Exploring the human condition? I don’t exactly think of storytelling in either terms. I have always seen storytelling as a conduit for dealing with difficult emotions. Feelings and realizations that won’t leave you. Thoughts and feelings that, no matter how much you talk and search for the right words, can never be fully understood in conversation.

Life will always confront you with absurdity, weird dramatic tonal shifts when convenience towards your feelings just refuses to exist, difficult decisions for which no one can tell you what truly is the right thing to do, overwhelming realizations at how small you are in the face of systemic issues. Writing and talking about these feelings and difficult decisions can be useful, but I’ve always found there’s just something about experiencing a story that explores messy mixed emotions and impossible dilemmas that feels more cathartic.

This is not the same as saying stories are best when they’re dark and heavy. It’s not about tone and weight. Comedy can be one of the best places to process overwhelming emotion. It’s why dark comedy can be so resonant. It’s why eat-the-rich satires can be so cathartic in a way that just shitting on rich people in conversation might just not be.

Moreover, stories and the worlds they build can tap into the feeling of what it’s like trying to constantly make sense of your place in an insane system. Journalist reports, academic readings, intellectual op-eds, these can be insightful and sobering in their information, sure, but they are ultimately too reflective and composed in essence to communicate the primal feelings that erupt when you’re sitting there bombarded with unexpected tragedy.

That feeling of recognition. Seeing myself, or more precisely, experiencing the emotions I could never put into words directly, all communicated through a story well-told, reminds me I’m not alone. While the world is burning, and as much as it’s easy for me to obsess over the urgency of what some of my peers are doing with their work, I try to remind myself of what storytelling offers.

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