Why We Write - What does storytelling really accomplish? A lot.

Published on January 12, 2012 by Mindy Greenstein, Ph.D. in The Flip Side

What do books do for us, exactly?

For one thing, they teach. Teach us how to do specific things—whether it's the book that taught my son Isaac how to strengthen his pitching arm, or the ones I consulted when trying to design a website. Or they teach us how the meat industry operates, or the history of the ebola virus, or any of a vast array of subjects about which much is known or about which much is only imagined.

They also divert and amuse. In Getting Even, Woody Allen didn't teach me anything I deemed worth knowing about the world. I gained nothing tangible from learning about "Irish Larry Doyle—a racketeer so suspicious that he refused to let anybody in New York ever get behind him, and walked down the street constantly pirouetting and spinning around." But my laughter was justification enough for its existence.

The best books often do both—teach and amuse at the same time. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 has a lot to teach about the hell of war, but he does it in the context of having first made us laugh.

There's also a third use of books, but I'll get to that in a minute. Because humor is too important not to explore more fully first. My favorite definition comes from Mel Brooks's 2,000-year-old man, whose description recalls Sigmund Freud's:

Tragedy is if I'll cut my finger, that's tragedy. It bleeds, and I'll cry and I'll run around and go to Mount Sinai for a day and a half. I'm very nervous about it.

And to me, comedy is if you walk into an open sewer and die. What do I care??

Hence, the saying, "Comedy is tragedy that happens to somebody else." The first known comedian, according to the 2,000-year-old man, is Murray the Nut, who gives his cavemates their first taste of sustained laughter when he gets himself eaten by a lion.

To give you a sense of just how important humor is—it might surprise you to know (unless you read an earlier post of mine!) that even Viktor Frankl, the famous Viennese psychiatrist who wrote Man's Search for Meaning, once gave someone a therapeutic homework assignment to tell a funny story every day—and that was in Auschwitz, where he and his "patient" were both inmates at the time. Sometimes the men in the concentration camp barracks spontaneously put together a cabaret show, by moving benches around and starting to sing or clown around and tell stories. As soon as other inmates heard about it, they started pouring in to the room as if it were opening night at the Copacabana. Some of them even missed their daily rations of food, which were being distributed at the same time, because they considered the gathering too much nourishment for their souls to pass up.  CLICK HERE to read the rest of the article. 

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