The Essential Need for Stories

My husband is a high school drama teacher. With art budgets getting cut left and right, he’s often called upon to defend why acting—why art—is so important. Why should we give it place in our schools? He struggles to articulate the answer because it is so instinctive to him.

This question—why is acting important?—has got me thinking. Theatre is akin to writing fiction. We embody or capture life through made-up characters and stories. Why do it? Why is it so primal?

Why do children spend entire days playing make believe? Why do they portray more than heroes and knights? Why do they also feel compelled to represent villains and monsters? When is that need to get transported to our imagination lost? It is my belief that it is never lost—or, at least, never should be. Fiction is our great filter, our great test, for our own world. Even without heavy morality lessons, even as we are entertained and turn page after page after we should be sleeping, fiction helps us understand humanity. As Neil Gaiman said at a recent event I attended, “Fiction is an empathy machine.”

There is a reason, as old as time, why we tell stories around the fire, why we dance to them, why we sing to them. There is a reason humans have done this over millennia and among their daily struggle to stay alive. Stories keep us alive. They fuel our hopes, our aspirations. They make us dream and believe there is more, that we are more, that we are strong enough to meet our challenges. Stories make us feel we belong, that we are connected and aren’t so different from one another. Our hope for life and for the triumphing goodness of others—despite the terror of the world—rises up as we share our voices and our stories among the platform of art.

As Martine Leavitt said at a recent keynote address, “It is not gray areas that are interesting, but darkness shot through with light, light reflected into the corners that nobody has seen before. Darkness is and will be. Darkness cannot and should not be ignored, but it is light that makes a soul and a book great.”

I want to wake up every morning with a bright hope. I want to open my eyes to a world full of imagination and possibilities. Fiction gives me that. It casts reality in a sweeter light and gives me understanding of others. I can’t fathom a world where art is considered superfluous. It is just as essential as literacy and mathematics, as eating and breathing.

Life reflects art and art reflects life. We cannot live fully without immersing ourselves in stories. And life is even more powerful when we become the creators of fiction, of worlds. Our gift is a limitless way to do so.


Kathryn Purdie’s love of storytelling began as a young girl when her dad told her about Boo Radley while they listened to the film score of To Kill a Mockingbird. Her own attempts at storytelling usually involved home video productions featuring her younger sister as a nerd or writing plays to perform with the neighborhood kids. In high school and college, she focused on acting, composing sappy poetry, singing folk ballads on her guitar, and completing at least ten pages in her journal every night. When she was in recovery from donating a kidney to her brother, inspiration for her first novel struck. She’s been writing darkly fantastical stories ever since. Kathryn is represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary. Her debut novel, Burning Glass, releases in winter 2016 from HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books.

3 thoughts on “The Essential Need for Stories

  1. Beautiful, Katie. I agree that storytelling is essential–that's why our children are taught in kindergarten how to write them! Thanks for sharing. Wonderful thoughts.


  2. Nicely said, Katie. People often ask me how I can write dystopias because they are so dark and bleak, but my favorite part about them is the light of hope that shines through for my characters despite all that's going wrong. I love that quote from Martine.


  3. I love this. And it really did make me think. It's true, stories/fiction permeate our lives in so many ways. Through theater, through books, through magazines, and TV and movie and songs and even with social media sometimes. 😉 Great thoughts!


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