by Ami Maxine Irmen
Two years ago, I was given the task to write about why poetry matters, and it paralyzed me – because how does one put into words why poetry matters. As a writer, this frustrated me to no end. Words are supposedly my thing, after all. It took some time – and some reaching out to other poets – but I eventually found a way. So this year, I requested the opportunity to write about why stories matter. While poetry has become an important part of my life, stories have always been there.
You see, I grew up knowing the importance of stories, and I credit this knowledge to my grandfather, my papa. Papa was the best storyteller I’ve ever known. He could take a single moment and turn it into an hour-long story – and we would all sit there, rapt attention. It’s been over a decade since I was able to last hear the story of his hole-in-one, but I can still tell you the exact blue of the sky – probably right down to its pantone number.
And though my father would never admit it, he is a storyteller, too. Thanks to him, I know what it was like to watch the Beatles live in concert, to travel the U.S. on the back of a motorcycle, and all the ways I am like his mother, a woman I never had the chance to meet.
Stories are escape. They are magic.
I grew up on the opposite end of the block from my neighborhood’s public elementary school. Every week, I could be spotted with my arms full of books headed towards the school where the city bookmobile was parked. I’d trade that pile of books for another and make my way back home – where I would blow through the entire stack before the day was over. I was a voracious reader because it allowed me to not only escape to places all around the world and meet all kinds of people, but also because it allowed me to escape from. No matter what was happening in my life, I had these portals to walk through.
My dear friend Laura Chiavini echoed these sentiments, noting that “stories matter to me because they transport me to other places, other times, other cultures, and inside other minds. When I open a book, I walk around in another’s shoes for a few hundred pages and learn something about people and about myself. The experience always changes me.”
My friend and fellow writer Jack Lelko says, “Stories matter to me because they’re an extension of what it means to be human. They’re able to touch a part of the human soul or the human psyche that nothing else can reach.”
The older we get, the less we tend to believe in magic – but that is what exactly stories are: real life magic that we can hold in our hands..
And they matter for so many reasons.
Stories have the power to change us.
“When I was eight,” Laura recalls, “I saw a hard bound copy of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty in the dime store, and I loved the drawing of Beauty’s face on the cover. Being horse-crazy, I asked for it for Christmas, and I got it. I traced the horse’s head for many days and then finally cracked the book open to read it. I was no longer in my little Illinois working-class town. I was in the streets of London with Beauty. I cried so hard I could not read the words on the page when Ginger died (a passage that still can make me cry). I smiled when Merrylegs was in the shady paddock with all the other horses. I was thrilled when Beauty’s old groom was reunited with her in the end. I read it about five times back to back. And then I wondered if there were other books that could make me feel so deeply. Joyfully, I discovered there were. I got a library card that spring. I have never been the same.”
Stories are lifeline.
Confession time – when I was in high school, I snuck a book out of my school’s library without checking it out. I still feel guilty about it to this day – but I did it because I was in search of myself, and I was afraid of admitting it. Especially to the circulation desk. But back then, in a time before smartphones with a ready-made community at my finger tips, when the internet was just getting its start, and I was coming of age in a very tiny town, it was in books where I found others who were like me. And despite having easy access to the internet these days, it is still in books where many of us continue to look for our ever changing selves.
Stories are empowerment.
On June 16, 2014, I was aboard a plane headed for Africa. I was thirty-one and on my way out of the country for my first time. Ever. Four months previous to this, I had seen the end of an eight and a half year relationship – meaning I was single for the first time since my early twenties. The irony that I was headed to a small school for girls to teach the importance of telling their stories with their own voices when I was just learning that I had no idea what I even wanted my story to be was not lost on me. But the three weeks I spent there, with some of the hardest working students I have ever met, taught me more about the importance of my own voice than any other experience in my life thus far. Some of these women had already fought harder just to get an education than most people will ever have to fight in their entire lives. And they jumped at the opportunity to tell their stories in order to help other young women have access to education. They were able to opt into publishing their story in a collection that would then raise money for scholarships to the school –
because the best part about loving stories? Getting to share them.
A few years ago, my two-year-old nephew saw me reading – he grabbed a book, opened it up, and stared down the page – in perfect imitation of me. I remember thinking – if he learns nothing else from his auntie, let him learn to love stories. And in the couple years since, I’ve been astounded at the stories this little boy comes up with. Some may call what he does fibbing – I call it imagination.
And just last December, I sat on my sister’s couch snuggled up with my tiny nephew, and I listened as he read. I can honestly say that no matter how long I live, this moment will forever remain one of my absolute favorite memories.