In her essay “The White Album,” published in 1979, Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That essay tells several stories, in glimpses—of Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, of a recording session with Jim Morrison and the Doors, of the Charles Manson murders; and finally of Didion herself, who, during the period chronicled, ended up as a mental patient in a California hospital.
Rod Dreher does not mention Didion, but the thesis of his new essay in the latest issue of The American Conservative, “Story Lines, Not Party Lines,” takes Didion’s core tenet—“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”—and reminds us that the quality of those stories shapes the quality of our lives.
For years I devoted much of my journalism—op-eds, blogs, even a book about cultural politics—to lamenting the rootlessness of American life and prescribing solutions for it from within the conservative intellectual tradition. Yet I never quite found the wherewithal to live as I preached. It’s as if I didn’t find my own arguments convincing.
Then, from my home in faraway Philadelphia, I watched my sister Ruthie die slowly from cancer, cared for by family and community in our south Louisiana hometown. The doctrines and ideals I professed as true unexpectedly took concrete form in the heartbreaking story unfolding there.
The essay is a reminder that, in Dreher’s words, “Argument has its place, but story is what truly moves the hearts and minds of men.”
For conservatives, storytelling has become a lost art. But he rejects the notion that we need “conservative stories.” Honest art that moves hearts and minds does not seek to “impose an idealistic ideological narrative on reality.” Instead, conservatives ought to master the craft of storytelling—in whatever medium—recognizing that beauty and craft are more powerful than narrow moral and political assumptions.
“This is not necessarily how a political party wins elections,” he admits. “But it is how a culture is reborn.”
And the latter, in the end, is much more important.
Dreher’s essay is thoughtful and thought-provoking. You can read the whole thing here.