A Good Story Affects You, Whether You Like it Or Not

I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard with my half-sister, Judy. She’s 81, decades older than me, my father having married the first time just out of his teens, and the last time, to my mother, when he was pushing fifty. Judy led me to the window of a lighting store, and pointed to a dusty painting leaning against the glass. “I so love that painting,” she said, “sometimes I walk here just to look at it.” Judy battles osteoporosis and moves very slowly. The store is half a mile from her apartment. It’s not an easy walk.

The painting was of townhouses facing a river. Although technically done by hand, it had clearly been mass-produced. It was very, very tacky. The kind of painting hawked by those guys who pull over to the side of the road with a U-Haul full of gigantic plush day-glo stuffed animals and shiny throw rugs of dogs playing poker.

Judy is very smart. A member of Mensa, she ran salon back in the day, she lives on TS Eliot and John McPhee. She only reads highbrow nonfiction, literary novels, poetry and the New York Review of Books. She knew the painting was tacky, and said so over and over, in an uncharacteristically gruff voice.  She was embarrassed. Yet she had brought me there to show me the painting. It did something to her, she said, she couldn’t help it.

And it got me to thinking. There is such a huge, yet deceptively subtle, difference between the things we “like” and the things that affect us. Liking something is a choice, a judgment – something we often analyze before admitting, even to ourselves. Being affected by something is not a choice. It sweeps in and changes us without our permission.

It made me realize that if you asked me what I thought the ten best books I’d ever read were, it would be a very different list than if you asked me what ten books affected me the most.

One of the lists would have a lot of guilty pleasures. The other wouldn’t embarrass me.

What about you? Is there a difference between the art, books, stories and movies you officially like, and those that affected you the most?

And if there is a difference, which list matters the most to you? Don’t think about it. Just feel.

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence (Ten Speed Press). Her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Lynda.com. Lisa has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and CourtTV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Lisa works with writers, nonprofits, educators and organizations, helping them master the unparalleled power of story, so they can move people to action – whether that action is turning the pages of a compelling novel, trying a new product, or taking to the streets to change the world for the better.