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Who gives a sh*t about stories right now?

I will never be able to write again.

Or at least, that's what I've been telling myself countless times a day in recent weeks. How can one create stories at a time when stories feel so small, so insignificant? Who cares about things like TV series right now? How can one even think about writing fiction when reality is so unbearable, scary, all-encompassing?

Perhaps I should state the obvious – this is not how I thought I'd start this blog. This blog has been living in my head for a long time as something I was looking forward to. A way of escaping routine, an opportunity to explore the creative process that I love so much and to share it with others. I never imagined that the first post would emerge from such palpable fear. But that's how it turned out. The intellectual exploration of questions about the craft of writing will have to wait for another day. Right now, I need to answer a much more immediate question – how can one write at a time like this?

For me, the question is not just a philosophical one; it's a very pragmatic one. As someone who earns a living as a fiction screenwriter, my rent and emotional eating both depend on how, when, and even if I can return to doing what I do (and, at times, love doing). In fact, as I write these words, behind the document where I’m typing hides another document. One that contains the latest draft of an episode I’m currently rewriting. And the headline reads - Last Update: October 6th, 2023—the day before the world changed. I haven’t as much as looked at the document in two weeks.

It should also be noted that, although this post was written during an exceptionally challenging time – two weeks into perhaps the most terrible war my country has experienced and at the peak of existential dread (or at least, I hope it is) – the question of how can one write on any given day is no stranger to me. It actually pops up quite frequently. For me and many others in Israel, the entire past year has been chock-full of days like this. It’s been a year of unending emotional overload. It seems like in this past year, a day hasn’t gone by where I haven't pondered changing my line of work (for comparison, that's about twice as often as usual). For months, there hasn’t been a single "Help Wanted" sign that hasn’t caught my attention, that hasn’t had me momentarily stop and ponder what life would look like if I just took up that job at the juice stand.

So how can one write at a time like this? Maybe the question that needs to be answered first is: Are stories important right now?

My answer to myself (and to be fair, it hasn't produced a single written word yet, but one can hope) – is yes. Of course. Wait, no? No, it’s Yes. Maybe. Yes.

Wait, but why? Well, here are my thoughts, at this current moment, on why stories are important right now:

1. Stories help us make sense of the world. If you live in the world, you might recognize the feeling of reality constantly bombarding you with an unrelenting sequence of potentially traumatic events, making it hard to breathe, making you feel a complete loss of control, confusion, and meaninglessness. Sound familiar? Congrats, you live in the world. It’s a good thing we have stories – a device whose sole purpose is to create causality between seemingly unrelated events, to have them make sense, and to imbue them with a sense of meaning. That's what the news does, to a large extent – but in that case, it not only gives reality new meanings but also reminds us how awful it can be and how vast our neighbor’s missile arsenal is. Not great. Fictional stories, on the other hand, can provide us with a sense of meaning without directly addressing the reality we're currently living in. For example, in the past week, I found myself constantly revisiting a specific scene from "The Lord of the Rings" movies. The scene doesn't deal with the current war around me, but it does provide me with tools that help me understand my own reality. That's a lot to get from a fictional story. Not to mention that a big part of my dietary philosophy was inspired by Hobbits.

2. Stories help us feel less alone. Living where I live, this is a particularly difficult time. Not to say – a spontaneously-crying-inducing time. Not to say – I recently cried while cutting carrots. Stories, however – as Charlie Kaufman beautifully put it in this 2011 lecture – have the unique power of helping us feel less alone. Even the most rational explanation of why Everything Is Going to be Fine, as logical as it may be, will never compare with the effect of a brief emotional connection with a character we feel we truly understand, simply because we're going through the same experience right now.

3. Stories are a practice of empathy. For me, this is perhaps the most important answer. One of the things I find most lacking during this time, and in such times, and in all times – is empathy. The simple desire and willingness to understand the other. And I mean empathy towards everyone - whether they are the people closest to us, who dare to expect things from us even now; the ones we bicker with on social networks; the "world" that somehow never understands us; and, yes, even those who live across from our borders. Ultimately, if we were all exposed to a well-made drama series that told us the life story of any person we fear, the conflict with them would probably look very different. If they, in turn, were also watching a series about our own lives, until we both knew and understood each other, despite all the flaws and difficulties, like we know and understand characters in a beloved series – in that case, there would probably be much less conflict in the world. The very understanding of the other does not allow for genuine hatred. And here’s the good news - stories are an extremely effective conduit of empathy. As screenwriters, we constantly have to immerse ourselves in the minds of characters completely different from us, to try and understand them and act as they would. When we watch, read, or hear stories, we do the same – we dive into the lives of others and get a glimpse into worlds we would never otherwise have access to. I wouldn't go as far as saying that the key to world peace is in our hands, but at the very least, perhaps the key to shorter squabbling in the comment sections.

So yes, the world needs stories, even now. But it is not always easy. Because that same empathy that is required for writing can also be considered a luxury. For me, at least, it isn't easy to be empathetic when I do not feel personal security or when I do not have sufficient energy. I can only imagine the difficulty when it comes to an immediate life-threatening situation for my loved ones or myself. The amount of empathy writing requires can be the privilege of those not currently in distress.

So what do you do if you understand that stories are essential right now, that writing is essential right now, but it's just not working? My current solution is to promise myself several assurances. I withhold the right to ignore them entirely if necessary. Here they are:

I will make an effort to practice empathy towards myself, as well. It starts with recognizing that I won't always be able to write. That applies not only to difficult periods but to everyday life. There are days – and during times like these, more than one or two – when writing is simply impossible. In fact, on any given day, it's possible that I won't be able to muster the empathy and focus required for writing, and that's okay. The mental conditions essential for writing can be fragile, and beating myself up about it won't help. It certainly won't help me meet my deadline.

If I did try to write, and nothing came out, I would try to be a generous producer to myself, express understanding, and let this writing day go. Ideally, I will invest the time in improving my mental state as an investment for the future. This could include meditation, volunteer work, or anything else that might help. If at all possible, I would also prepare the ground for the next day when I try to write again – for example, through research or by watching other works that may inspire me.

If I really feel adventurous, I might try to set up a framework, a foundation for the next time I can write. Anything that would help me start: Tentative decisions for a rewrite. Chapter headings. The first sentence. Something. Anything that would make tomorrow's blank page just a little less blindingly white.

In short, I promise myself to try to create every day that I find it possible to do so. Or at least to try and allow myself the best, most lenient, and compassionate conditions for creation. And then, to wait for it. Not to push it too hard, but not to give up on it completely. Simply to leave the door open for it. Because in the end, through this door, stories will come – and right now, of all times, they will be more necessary than ever.

2 commentaires

orly nissim
orly nissim
29 oct. 2023

Dear Nir,

everything you said regarding the contribution of stories to our life is so true. No wonder they are such an essential part of every culture. Besides helping us making sense of the world, usually good stories are engaged in a dialogue with other stories (what postmodern theories call intertextuality) that were told even many years before the one we are dealing with. Such quality provides us with the understanding of our place in history, the part we play in the long line of human cultures. Good stories have also universal meaning and as you so beautiful put it - show us that we are not alone in our feelings and psychological reactions.

As for their part in practicing…

Nir Berger
Nir Berger
16 nov. 2023
En réponse à

Thank you, Orly :) I was not aware of the use of stories in mediation, sounds fascinating. By the way, the blog is also available in Hebrew if you prefer.


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