The featured article in the latest issue of Writer's Chronicle magazine – and here I resist a digression – makes a statement, in the context of creative writing programs, with which a heartily agree:
"Whatever shortcomings may arise when creative activity is institutionalized…creative writing programs at their best have promoted the public good by sharpening the uses and varieties of our national narratives."
This, in a nutshell, is why we feel the urge to write – and this is why we read.
image via fiatopen.rollins.edu
Narratives, whether they be local or national, are inescapably products of the cultures we're a part of. While historical narratives can be manipulated, truncated, or otherwise changed to accommodate the power centers (here I'm thinking of political, religious, or hot-button social groups) of our societies, they won't ring true when written about in a creative sense unless they accurately represent what's going on in society.
One of the functions of fiction – and creative nonfiction – as the above quote indicates, is to sharpen the varieties of these narratives. Which is to say it's impossible to define a narrative in a way that will take in society's complexities. But stories will do that. For instance:
image via lovettus 106.pbworks.com
If we read Thomas Russell's history of WWI, America's War for Humanity And William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, we gain a broad-brushed, somewhat slanted view of the western world during the twentieth century's first half. But if we read Hemingway's, The Sun Also Rises, followed by Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Dos Passos' USA trilogy, and follow that with Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, we begin to see a national narrative's many intertwined threads. We begin to see examples of society's seemingly unresolvable paradoxes. And we begin to see the evolution of that narrative on a much more personal level and how it accommodates paradox.
Without that personal level, then, the broader view of a society's history doesn't mean much. And without creative writers, we wouldn't be seeing our social narrative in such detail. This is a large part of what makes fiction more real than chronicles of history, yet at the same time this is what enriches history and its ongoing narrative.