"Storytelling Saved Me"

Charlie Jane Anders on creativity and finding our way in the world

The world is so humbling—this week, when monsoonal rains caused gulley washers that filled Rosemerry’s yard with mud, one tool that helped her deal was her husband’s tractor! A shovel! And writing about mudslide as metaphor …

Preview: Episode 48 on Writing as Survival with Charlie Jane Anders

The imagination is a powerful tool—not just for pleasure, but for survival. In this episode of Emerging Form, we interview novelist, short story writer and journalist Charlie Jane Anders about her upcoming book Never Say You Can’t Survive and how our imagination and telling our stories helps us to reframe our thoughts, resee the world, find some control and, paradoxically, make peace with our lack of control. “Life is full of tricky questions bound up with emotion and culture,” she says. “We can’t solve huge problems until we challenge them through narrative.”

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of Victories Greater Than Death, the first book in a new young-adult trilogy published in April 2021, along with the forthcoming short story collection Even Greater Mistakes, and the book we’ll be talking about on this episode: Never Say You Can’t Survive, which  comes out August 17. Her other books include The City in the Middle of the Night and All the Birds in the Sky. Her fiction and journalism have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, McSweeney's, Mother Jones, the Boston Review, Tor.com, Tin House, Teen Vogue, Conjunctions, Wired Magazine, and other places. Her TED Talk, "Go Ahead, Dream About the Future" got 700,000 views in its first week. With Annalee Newitz (who we interviewed in episode 44), she co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.


What We’re Reading and Listening to:

Rosemerry:

  • Pleasure and spaciousness. What do these two words have to do with creative process? Everything. I love this article in Maria Popova’s Brainpickings blog on how poet Naomi Shihab Nye thinks about inspiration and discipline.

  • Our theme of creativity, imagination and survival this week has me thinking of one of my favorite poems by William Stafford, “Any Morning.” It helps me think about healthy ways to reconcile what is right in the world with “trouble.”

Christie:

  • I absolutely love Melissa Broder’s essay, “The Best Kind of Vanishing” in the Paris Review. “Mystery is an element I’ve always loved about poetry: the space a poem makes for the unknown. In a time where certitude is very trendy (maybe it was always trendy, but it feels especially hot now), I love that a poem can be a vessel for living in the questions themselves, a sphere of ambiguity, a celebration of negative capability, a field for the beginner’s mind, a braid of darkness and light, a little fortress of sacred pause.”

  • This New York Times piece by my friend Cameron Walker feels so timely. It’s about how to get unstuck when you feel unmotivated, and why treating yourself with compassion works much more effectively than beating yourself up.

  • On a whim, I recently picked up a copy of Brian Doyle’s posthumous collection of essays, “One Long River of Song.” I’ve long been a fan of Doyle’s beautiful essays and this collection did not disappoint. He was a master at noticing, and I’m sad that he’s gone too soon.


Telling Your Own Story

“Mom,” said my son when he was five years old, “Do I look like the man you married?”

He had just hopped out of his bedroom closet wearing an upside down sleeping bag. Only his blonde head showed beyond the zipper. He looked like a giant turquoise caterpillar.

“Um, no.”

“But wasn’t he wearing fine clothes like these?” he suggested with a little vocal flourish.

I laughed. “Yes, why yes he was. You DO look like the man I married.”

For the next five minutes we talked about what a nice day that was, that wedding day. Then, with a spin on his heel, my son turned to me. “I am NOT the man you married!”

“Oh! Who are you then?”

“I am the narrator.”

First, of course, I was shocked that he knew the word narrator. But second, I was delighted, no, ecstatic that at age five he was already in some way aware of his role as narrator.

As Stephan Baerman and Bruce Lipton write in Spontaneous Evolution, “It’s our perception of the story that shapes our reality.” The person or organization that frames the story has a lot of power. Though it is important to listen to and learn from other people’s stories, ultimately, we must be responsible to tell our own.

And you might think, yes, but aren’t I the hero (or heroine) of my own story? Well, yes. And. We are called to be both our own hero and also our own narrator. The hero is like the ego. The hero is independent. It wants to be right, to be brave and courageous and strong. And of course the hero wants things to end, well … happily ever after. The hero believes everything has to do with him or her and it will fight to make sure things go just the way her or she believes it should be.

But the narrator, especially a third person narrator, has a little more distance, a bigger perspective. The narrator is as interested in failures as it is in successes, as invested in vulnerability as it is in strength. The narrator does not really care if we get that promotion or if we heal from chronic injury or if our marriages endure. The narrator is more interested in watching the story unfold as it will unfolds and watching the hero as he struggles and achieves and falls apart. And hey, if the hero splats hard, it makes for a much better story.

Of course the hero doesn’t like to splat. It hurts, as we all know. Most of us will do everything in our power to avoid splatting. But as things fall apart, have you ever had that feeling you are outside of yourself, watching yourself? As if you are up in the corner watching the physical you down below? That is a narrator moment. It’s inseparable from ourselves, but so much more than ourselves. It’s so simple, this shift in perspective, but it can be so very, very difficult to do.  

For me, writing poems has helped me become an observer of my own life and tap into that grand narrator. Whether you write poems or not, you can still practice being your own narrator—treating your life with curiosity, awareness and openness. This is at the heart of what our podcast explores this week with Charlie Jane Anders.


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Two Questions:

(share your answers with us here on Substack or in our FB group)

  1. What book do you wish would be written?

  2. What poem, story or book saved your life?