The art and heart of storytelling: we have a need to tell and hear one another’s stories; to communicate our yearnings and fears, share our history and humor. Through storytelling we discover magic, ignite imagination and heal community.
Once upon a time past, children gathered around one of the family’s elders to learn the details of the clan’s history or to hear a tale of magic, mystery, and adventure. And then again upon another time, a nation perched in front of an electronic mouthpiece to be carried away to unfamiliar places, to imagine strange events, to belly-laugh at outrageous behavior, and be otherwise entertained. At various times, young vacationers gathered around a campfire to share tall tales and be frightened out of their wits. Then came the theaters that could tell grand stories in both words and pictures projected on screens as big as life itself. Follow that with the infamous “tube,” telling stories first in shades of grey, then in “living color.” At the heart of all the scenarios described above is the story — the wondrous way humans can communicate their most fervent yearnings, needs, and desires. And although the need for us to tell stories will probably never disappear, the art by which a single human being imparts a timeless, vital message to eager, receptive ears, may be close to disappearing. That’s why several organizations have sprung up in recent years to preserve the art of storytelling.
I was prompted to write this article because I was riding in my car a few weeks ago and happened to tune in to a program on Public Radio that featured a storyteller engaging in her craft in front of a live audience. I found myself mesmerized to the point that I had to pull over to the side of the road for a while. In an instant I completely understood what it must have been like for listeners to the famous Mercury Theater production of War of the Worlds. But I was captivated by more than just the story and fascinated by more than just the imagination necessarily sparked by listening to the story on radio. I was enthralled with the storyteller, too. There was a music-like quality to the tone, style, and cadence of her voice. There was a separate poetry in her manner of presentation. It was infectious. And you could feel the contagion spreading among all those in the audience. I felt like I was with them, too. Most importantly, I kept wanting to hear more. It was an epiphany. I had stumbled on the power of live storytelling. Actually, I’d stumbled upon it a few times before in my youth, and although I remember its leaving an impression on me, I don’t think I was in an evolved enough place to fully appreciate it. And I promised myself that when I got the chance, I’d write an article about the most recent experience I had and encourage folks not only to discover for themselves the magic and power of storytelling but also to connect with and support the various storytelling associations.
One of the premier organizations dedicated to preserving and advancing the art of storytelling is the National Storytelling Network. This is a values-driven organization whose mission is to bring together and support both individuals and groups who cherish the power of story and seek to preserve and grow this precious, intimate, but unfortunately endangered performing art. As a statement of principle, the organization asserts:
…Storytelling is a unique and powerful performing art. Utilizing both humor and pathos, it engages the emotions, the imagination and the intellect of people of all ages.
Storytellers serve as agents of positive change in the world…[because storytelling is]:
- Storytelling is essential to education: neuroscience is demonstrating that the human brain organizes, retains, and accesses information most effectively in narrative form.
- Storytelling plays constructive roles in the workplace, in organizations, corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and small businesses.
- Because telling and listening to stories can have powerful healing effects, storytelling is essential in the work of therapists, clergy, and health care practitioners of all kinds.
- Because storytelling expresses, teaches, and preserves values and beliefs, it is of primary importance for all individuals and the communities to which they belong.
- Stories provide a community with the common historical knowledge and shared vision needed to inspire collective action.
- Listening to stories is essential to the development of human imagination, creativity, and abstract thought processes.
- Diverse and even antagonistic communities come to understand and respect one another through listening to each other’s stories, and therefore storytelling is an essential tool for peacemaking.
It’s been said that there’s no one as strong in faith as a convert. Perhaps this is true in my case as it pertains to my recent and brief, but nonetheless transforming, encounter with storytelling. It made a believer out of me. And at the risk of sounding sappy, I think it would be a genuine tragedy if this unique art form were to pass away because of indifference spawned by the over-availability of more glitzy, sensational, or immediate forms of communication and entertainment. There’s something really special about one human being connecting with another to tell a story. And if we don’t find room in our hearts to treasure and preserve that special something, the mere fact will tell another, albeit tragic story.