I’ve been thinking about stories a bit in the past few weeks. When I was little I loved reading stories that allowed me to escape my small, conscientious, timid life. I delighted in the rebellious escapades of the naughtiest girl in the school. I marvelled at what it would be like to be as bold and adventurous as the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. Gosh, my mum wouldn’t let me play outside in our unfenced front garden, and I was only permitted to walk home from school via the side streets rather than along the main road (okay, it was the era of some strange child abductions but still…). My anxious, pimply, adolescent self longed to be one of the girls in the Sweet Dreams novels. Imagine being asked to ‘go steady’ and wear a letterman jacket! As a suburban Melbourne girl, I’m not quite sure I actually knew what that meant but it was clearly the pinnacle of teenage boy-girl relationships. Stories were for entertainment and escapism. True stories? Blah! So boring! Where was the fun in reading about other people’s lives? It all seemed way too earnest to my younger self. I did enough ‘learning’ at school. I didn’t need it when I snuggled down under my blankets at night or was wiling away the school holidays.
But, of course, as we add more years to our lives, our tastes can broaden and change. I still love reading novels and short stories for entertainment and escapism but I have come to appreciate the rewards of reading about the lives of others. A few weeks back, I went to the opening night of the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Melanie Cheng, who was the winner of the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, spoke to the audience and she had a great line about writers being the “personal trainers of empathy”. I loved that! It made me think about some of the writers whose stories I have been reading recently, not just in book form but also online, and how they have helped open my eyes and understanding of life experiences different from my own. I have thought about Magda and how societal attitudes contributed to the pain that tortured her as she sought to accept her sexuality, Maxine’s many encounters with racist attitudes in Australia, and why representation of diversity in the media is so important to Carly. I challenge anyone to read the personal stories in They Cannot Take the Sky or to listen to The Messenger podcast and not understand the damage the Australian government is inflicting upon asylum seekers (disclosure: I provide transcribing assistance to Behind the Wire). I have remembered the blog posts Sarah and Amanda have shared about anxiety and MS and how they have reflected experiences in my own life.
Reading – or listening – to the stories of other people’s lives is not about escapism. It is about staring life in the face. Sometimes that can be confronting. At other times, it can be comforting.
There have been times when I have wondered about blogging. What is the point of it all? What am I writing about? For what purpose? Perhaps you have felt that too. Maybe we should reassure ourselves that whenever we write, we are telling a story about part of our life. It is a way to connect with others – and even if that is only with one reader – in sharing our stories we are opening the door to understanding and empathy.