Narrative is a Meaning-Making Machine

On my recent family vacation I was road tripping through the beautiful and scorched Sierra Nevada range. We had spent many weeks planning the trip via endless email chains, Google docs, and texts flying between four busy adults in three different parts of the country.  There had been votes, arguments, calculations of driving times, and re-calibrations due to no vacancies in various locations. My husband loves maps, and he had worked very hard to plan out some epic hikes that would satisfy the one daughter who had spent the summer working and hiking all over Yosemite and environs, and the other daughter who works behind a desk in Boston and couldn’t remember where her hiking boots were. We had a plan in place to spend a tiny bit of time on the Valley floor and a lot of time in the high country, and at the end, we would make the trek over Tioga Pass to the Western Slope – one of the most dramatic drives in the American West. Everyone was happy and in high spirits as we made our way into Yosemite Valley.

We stopped at the Ranger toll station and paid our fee. “Are you planning to drive over Tioga Pass?” the Ranger asked.

We all looked at each other in disbelief.

“Yes,” Rob said, his voice tinged with hope.

“Sorry, sir,” the Ranger said, “The pass is closed due to the Walker Fire. The winds have shifted and the road is in jeopardy.”

We got some information and some maps so we could try to salvage our trip, then slowly pulled away. Into the stunned silence, Emily, my younger daughter, said, “Remember that time we spent weeks planning a trip that never happened?” – and we all laughed and knew that whatever happened, it would be just fine.

I realized in that moment that what Emily had done was use a story to make meaning of our experience. She had instantly framed the situation as a narrative we would one day tell, and imbued it with meaning before any of the rest of us had even had time to consider the consequences of the change.

This is the incredible power of narrative. This is why stories are part of every culture that has ever lived, and why readers will always flock to books, whether fiction, memoir or non-fiction. Stories are how we make sense of the world. They are how we bring meaning to events and experiences. They are what we rely on when the rug has been pulled out from under us – whether on a long vacation weekend or when suffering the darkest night of the soul.

This is why, whatever you are writing, you need to keep writing it. Somewhere out there, people are experiencing something that they are struggling to make sense of. They are waiting for your book to help them frame the situation and give it meaning. They need your narrative to help them make meaning of it – just as much as they need air and water.

P.S. We had a great trip and actually got to make the drive over Tioga Pass, in a police-led convoy. (If that makes you think of The Convoy Song, you are not alone. I, in fact, sang it to the rangers at the top of the pass in order to earn our way through. I am not proud of the fact that I can remember the chorus to that bizarre 1978 hit, but there you have it…  The Walker Fire is still not contained.)