The Power of a Good Story: Guest Post by Jessica O’Neal

Today’s guest post comes to you by way of Jessica O’Neal.  A self-professed ‘lover of the written word’, Jess is in the process of finishing her first novel.  You can follow her progress on her blog here (as well as read some great book reviews and thoughts on life in general), and you can cheer her on via Twitter, here.

Today Jess is talking about the power of a good story – the way it draws us in, turning the black and white of the page into something vivid, tangible, magical.

Jessica O’Neal, everybody!

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The other night I was reading a book and as I became more immersed in the story I could feel my body physically responding to the emotions the story was drawing out of me. This is not an uncommon occurrence for me, but it got me thinking and I realized that there are not many people I know who would understand what I was going through. In my limited circle of family and friends there are very few who truly “get” what it is about books that creates such passion in me. Most of the people I know find that emotional connection through music, some find it in movies, but very few find it through books.

Whenever I try to explain exactly what it is a book does to me I am usually looked at as though I have grown a second head, which is admittedly better than the people who think they know exactly what I am talking about but as they expound upon it I realize they have no idea. For me, the power of a book (or movie or television show for that matter) is in the characters and the story they are telling, and it is one of the most powerful forces I have ever encountered. It goes so much deeper than simply feeling a generic sense of happiness or sadness that you forget about an hour later as you go about your daily life; it is something that is felt deep within you and lingers with you for days or weeks, and even after you have moved on to new things you can pause to think back on that story and instantly feel those same emotions awakened within you once more.

I often wonder what I would look like to someone observing me as I read. I am not someone who just gets into a comfortable position and reads with a blank expression. I laugh out loud, I smile, I scowl, I gasp, I cheer, I exclaim and talk back, I cry (sometimes to the point where I can no longer see the words on the page), I make hand gestures, and occasionally I find the action so intense I have to sit on my knees so that I can move in motion with my anxiety. My poor husband has gotten so used to this that he hardly notices my strange behavior anymore and no longer takes offense when he comes to tell me something and I hastily wave him away without even looking at him because I am in the midst of some crucial scene. While most people find all this external display from a book odd, they can at least somewhat understand what I am talking about since it is tangible, quantifiable. It is when I attempt to explain the things going on underneath, the things that are causing this strange display, that I lose people.

I have been sitting at my computer wracking my brain for adequate words to describe what happens inside of me and nothing I come up with seems to do it justice. Whenever I am reading a great story there is a veritable storm of emotion brewing on the inside of me that I don’t know how to explain. How do you explain the feeling created in your chest and gut when tragedy strikes? How do you explain the happiness that bubbles inside of you so strongly that it causes you to cry when you watch a character who has struggled for so long finally overcome? How do you explain the wrenching feeling of frustration that makes you want to pull your hair out or reach through the pages and shake the character for being so stupid? How do you explain that nothing more than words on a page can be so intense they cause your heart rate and breathing to grow more rapid? How do you explain the feeling of emptiness and pain that will not leave you because of the way things ended? Sure you can use the words and phrases authors use to help create those emotions in the first place, but unless you have experienced these things personally those words are not going to help explain it any more than they helped create it.

It can be very lonely sometimes having such intimate and important encounters – even if is through “just a book” – and not having very many people, if any, you can share it with. This is one of the many reasons I am so grateful for the online communities created through blogs, fansites, and social networking sites. These things have allowed me to find and connect with some of my kindred spirits. I may personally only know a few people who “get” it, but all I have to do is go online to find a host of friends who understand the power held within a good story.

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GUEST POST: Colin Falconer

“We’re not just here to rip off Foot Locker.”

In a real-life world full of ever-present Villains and often absent Heroes, we need stories more than ever. Stories about courage and hope. Stories about doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing.

Colin Falconer is an author who believes in the power of fiction – or, as he calls it, stories. Colin has written over twenty – count ’em, twenty – historical novels, including HAREM and OPIUM (click on those links to purchase. Support great books and the authors you love!). You can also check out his blog here, and his website here.

I’m super-psyched to have him guest-posting on my blog today! Colin Falconer, everybody!

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MY JERRY MAGUIRE MOMENT

I saw a curious thing reported from the chaos of London a couple of months back; it seems that while delis and electronics retailers were being looted all around them, most bookshops were left untouched.

Is it that rioters can’t read? Or do they all have Kindles? (If they didn’t before, apparently they do now – even if they don’t know how to use them.)

Looking at the TV pictures, it’s not much of a stretch to figure these kids can’t or won’t read, unless it’s a manual with lots of pictures on how to break stuff. But I’d bet London to a hurled brick none of them read fiction: or the word I like much better – stories.

With publishing going digital it is sometimes easy to forget that we humans told stories to each other long before there were paperbacks or iPads. We learned about life sitting around a campfire thousands of years before Amazon or Harper Collins.

I am a writer; but I am equally a reader. Books – stories – matter to me, not as an intellectual exercise, but something visceral that has guided me in my relationships and my working life. Wherever I go, Atticus Finch, Yossarian, Nathaniel Blackthorne, Harry Flashman and Huckleberry Finn go too. Picasso said that we use art to explain the world to ourselves, the same way that the Greeks used myth and fable to try and make sense of their place in the world and with the gods. It’s what stories do, intentionally or not.

And the one vital component of every story is a hero and a villain. You cannot have a story without them; and some, like James Bond or Hannibal Lector or Gordon Gekko, become larger than life and take up residence in our deep psyche.

As we have seen in recent times, there are plenty of villains in the world right now and more than enough weak secondary characters among our political and corporate leaders – but precious few heroes, people of courage and decency and toughness. There is little to inspire mankind about David Cameron or Rupert Murdoch. The rioters in Clapham may be scum, but really – is there much difference in the basic mindset of someone who hacks the phone of grieving relatives or steals from an injured and helpless kid’s back pack?

While it was all happening y editor at Corvus sent me a Youtube clip of a gutsy Hackney woman with a walking stick shaming the rioters to their faces. ‘We’re not fighting all together for a cause’, she yelled at them. “You’re just ripping off Footlocker.”

So what should be our common cause? I do not believe that any religious belief or political system will change the way we treat each other. Hardcore religion only breeds fanatics or atheists; political systems, democracy or communism, are always corrupted for personal gain.

It is why I think stories are so important to all of us. Because they work subliminally, they are very powerful in changing how we look at life. They are the way we enshrine our bushido, a way to fix our moral compass when politicians and corporate suits are all looking south.

Perhaps I am being fanciful; a starry-eyed Jerry McGuire in a world full of Bob Sugars. Maybe so – but I had me at hello.

You see, I believe in the power of stories, I have given my life to it. Stories are not about the size of the advance or how many sales we can make on Kindle. They are much more important than that. It doesn’t matter to me that I am not be the best storyteller in the world, or even close, just that I believe it matters. I think all writers matter in this world. Great stories can teach us about hope and courage, and that old fashioned word called personal honour.

Just for the record, my parents were from Hackney. I was born on the Blackhorse Road. I escaped North London so I know no one book will change the world, and it certainly won’t change Broadwater Farm. All the more reason for us to create a wealth of stories that affirm who we are and all that what we can be, both as individuals and as nations. We need heroes right now.

We need them in Croydon and Tottenham; we need them in our Parliaments and in our Senates. We certainly need them on Wall Street and we need somehow to infiltrate them as sleepers into Rupert Murdoch’s business empire.

The thugs in London and Birmingham didn’t steal from the book shops for this reason: there was nothing in there they wanted. I believe our job though, from the humblest story-teller to the greatest, is to make sure that at least there is everything in there that they need.

… And that goes for the vandals on Wall Street too.

There: I have had my Jerry McGuire moment. Go ahead and laugh. But I believe in the book (and the film and the play) and I believe in the people who make them. And I think that if we make common cause, like the lady in Hackney said, we can make a difference. We’re not just here to rip off Footlocker.