Friday, October 16, 2015

Why Stories Matter: My NerdCon Experience

NerdCon: Stories

The first annual NerdCon: Stories happened last weekend (Oct. 9th and 10th, 2015), and ever since I've been...refreshed. I've wanted to make and consume stories. I've want to share and discuss my favorites. I've want to curl up inside stories, like it's a physical place, and ride the creative thrum to something better. It's the best feeling.

Hank Green's kickoff introduction confirmed my suspicions about NerdCon:Stories...that it was not exactly a fully-fleshed, specific idea. It was in the process of being defined even as it happened. I wasn't sure what to expect, but "stories" are important (inadequate word) to me...and I saw that Rainbow Rowell and Patrick Rothfuss would be there, so I came.

My expectations were met and exceeded. I expected big things from the panels I'd targeted ahead of time. While they were as great as I'd hoped they would be, the real winner of the weekend was the Mainstage. More specifically, the Why Stories Matter segments.

So many of those talks struck cords. Sarah Mackey's (leader of NaNoWriMo) left me in tears. Some were hilarious, and others cut directly at the heart of the point. It was amazing to hear others discuss why stories matter, and I wanted to try to express my version of the same. So...

Why Stories Matter

Stories matter because they translate the teller's truth into something others can consume and recognize at a soul level.

Stories are how I make sense of the world. They are an abstract "between" that takes your observations, truths, and feelings and allows me to ingest and experience them.

This is no light matter. Every day, every conversation in some way feels distant. Life is a mess of trying to understand other people -- to sympathize, empathize, and coexist. Sometimes that's incredibly difficult...even if you already like a person. In the harder moments, your closest friends can be on a totally different page, and you just can't quite connect. It's a lonely feeling. It's infinitely harder if you either don't know or actively dislike a person with whom you must connect. Trying to understand another person based solely on the things that come out of our mouths is exhausting, and it takes a toll.

Stories break barriers that conversation (even great conversation) leaves standing.

When I read or watch a story, there are no other voices telling me how I should process it, or what I should see. It's the depths of someone else's imagination, informed and shaped by their own truths, speaking directly to the place inside me that receives, interprets, and feels. There's no fumbling middle-men of mouths and ears and misunderstandings. When I read someone's writing, it's the closest I've ever felt to existing in another person's headspace. And sure, afterward, there might be blog comments or the chatter of reviews picking away at my impressions...but WHILE I'm reading, it's magic.

While I'm writing, it's the same. I don't know why half the words I say aloud in day-to-day life form in my head or make it out of my mouth. Speaking is my clumsiest attempt to translate my feelings to others. It never feels like enough. And spoken words are gone so quickly, left for the speaker and the listener to remember accurately, inaccurately, or somewhere between. It's messy. It's prone to error. It's inefficient. When I write, I see the actual me on the page...and I get to at least hope that others can as well.

Some of the best storytellers are famous for their stories. Authors. Podcasters. Bloggers. These are people who tell a story that so clearly translates and transmits their headspace that thousands of others get the message. In my eyes, these people are heroic for managing that feat. It doesn't necessarily mean that their headspace is superior; it just means that they have the golden key...they have the talent and ability to speak their internal landscape in a way most do not, and they have a platform for it.

I don't geek out over fame. I can meet a famous person (even an author!) and keep my head on. Even with authors I love, like George RR Martin or Patrick Rothfuss. I've attended signings for both and said my hellos and told them how much I enjoyed their work. I thought this was sort of "how I do" with authors. Then, at NerdCon, Rainbow Rowell walked into the hotel restaurant while I was eating and chose the table next to mine.

I decidedly...did not keep my head on.

It was a pure adrenaline rush. I could not compute.

I flashed back to the first time I opened Fangirl, and how I was in tears by the third page because I recognized Cath's reality so distinctly. I was her. I wrote fan fiction in college. I shared her feelings, her habits, her weird thoughts, her talents. It was so jarring to read because I knew other people liked those things...there are whole communities surrounding them...but I didn't know others knew that Caths existed. It was like reading proof that someone else could understand exactly who I am, and I didn't have to say a word. And the author didn't know me. And the book was so popular. And that, logically, meant that it wasn't just ONE other person. It meant that one very good storyteller happened to be among the (likely) many who knew and understood Cath's (and my) truths. Reading that story wasn't about "just" reading a story. It was about making a connection so deep that when I saw the author, I felt a connection I knew was not reflected by physical or social reality...but was certainly real. It also meant I couldn't sit still and thought I might pee my pants.

While at NerdCon, my friend Beka started throwing around the term "soul book" regarding Lev Grossman's The Magicians. I'd only just started reading The Magician's, but I didn't need an explanation to know what she meant. I like the book, maybe even love it. But "liking" is not what soul books are about. Fangirl is one of my soul books.

It doesn't have to do with the plot or the writing or what happens. It's a connection. 

The weird part about making a connection with a story is that it still doesn't necessarily make human-to-human interaction easier. Talking about stories is still talking. There's still so much that goes unsaid for lack of the right words.

Having Rainbow Rowell in close proximity was the strangest experience. I knew her work (all of it) inside and out. I felt like I knew her. I also, logically, knew that she didn't know me even a little. I didn't want to interrupt her and be another fan who demanded more from someone who had given me so much. I figured I would save that for the allotted "mob" time of book signing the next day. But I also wanted to thank her for writing the books that had so much impact on me -- for reminding me why stories matter. So I hatched a plan, which was about as clumsy as my speaking. I paid for her dinner in what I thought was a super sly fashion, with my cheeks burning the entire time, telling the waitress I was a fan.

I guess in my mind, I saw the server telling Rowell after we left that a fan who loved her books had wanted to thank her by treating her to dinner. Instead, the server approached her table immediately and let her know...while I was still there, quietly dying in my seat, waiting for our check. Rowell came over to thank me, and I, having no time to prepare something rational to say, think I said something like "You'rebetterthanJaneAustenandIloveyou." Which seems a little crazy and inadequate. But so it went. She hugged me, and I felt stupid and lucky and emotional to get to have a few seconds with someone who wrote one of my "soul" books.

Stories matter because they can reach and interact with a place inside that nothing else can touch. They translate the world into something that makes sense.

So that is why stories matter to me. And that is why, no matter what else life tosses in my way, I won't forget that stories are the perfect refuge -- a place to sympathize, empathize, and learn -- a place to connect and feel.

Back to reading now...

-- Meg