“The noblest art is that of making others happy.”
The modern film musical The Greatest Showman ends with that quote from P. T. Barnum. The film follows Barnum’s journey in making a name for himself with his circus show and entertaining audiences with his collection of unusual and extraordinary people. Characters in the film criticize Barnum that his show is only cheap thrills and unintelligent amusements for the masses.
“Do these smiles seem fake?” Barnum asks. Making others happy was his goal. Perhaps his show wasn’t sophisticated, but the people who flocked to it left with joy in their hearts.
This got me thinking about motives, about reasons we create art and entertainment. Why do I write? I ask myself. It’s a good question to ask yourself.
Sometimes the answer is simply because it’s fun. And that’s great. Nevertheless, if you wish to be a sincere writer, if you believe your calling is storytelling, it’s not a motive that’s going to take you far. Writing because you enjoy it is not a strong motive for a serious writer because the time will come when writing is an unpleasant chore.
A serious writer needs deeper, if not sometimes spiritual, motives to keep him or her going.
I think the one of the best motivations for telling stories is the people who will read them. The whole “write for yourself” thing has never worked well with me. I write because I know other people will read the stories I create and will (hopefully) enjoy them and perhaps gain something from them.
Perhaps you want to write to make people happy, as Barnum did with his “greatest show.” Essentially, storytelling at its core is about entertainment and brief escape from the real world, and I highly regard books and films which manage to give me enjoyment. Books like the Lunar Chronicles or films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe may not be overly sophisticated, but the characters feel like my friends and the stories give me delight. Bringing people joy is a fantastic motive for writing.
Nevertheless, while entertainment is a primary characteristic of storytelling, another motive you can have is to provoke your reader to think. Especially as Christians, we need to be aware of what morals and themes we are presenting in our stories.
However, it’s very easy to go too far with this motive. One of the many criticisms of Christian media today is that it tries too hard to slam morals and messages into its audience’s face that it loses artistic quality. Messages are not the purpose of storytelling. Brandon Sanderson puts it in quite well in his novel The Way of Kings: “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” Thus, we present truth in our stories, but we are under no obligations to make sure the reader accepts our version of it. In fact, as Christian writers, it’s tempting to think that we have all the answers and that we can evangelize so well through art because we’re so certain about everything, but the truth is, we really don’t know all the answers. Madeleine L’Engle writes in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art: “We live by revelation, as Christians, as artists, which means we must be careful never to get set into rigid molds. The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men.”
Writing to make readers think is a fantastic motive. But never tell them how to think and never force- feed them a sermon. Tell a story of truth and let them take out of it what they may.
Finally, the motive that perhaps wraps all of these up is that God has called you to storytelling as part of his plan for redemption. Perhaps making people happy is part of his plan. Perhaps making people think is part of his plan. Or perhaps simply creating excellent and beautiful art regardless of how it affects people is a battle cry against the darkness of the world.
One of my other favorite quotes from L’Engle is that “The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort towards wholeness.”
We live in a world of brokenness and destruction. Nevertheless, God has granted us the divine quality of creation to fight against that brokenness and strive to bring wholeness. So, whatever your specific or personal motives for writing stories are, that is the greatest calling to keep us going as Christians and writers. To tell excellent stories that shine light and joy into this broken world.