The Beauty of Storytelling

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

 “There is no greater agony,” wrote Maya Angelou, “than bearing an untold story inside you.” Over the past, agonizing year, more than a few of us tackled our inner agony by telling our stories. Not for fame or fortune, just for the joy of telling that untold story. 

Everybody has a story. This is an argument for storytelling, along with a few suggestions about how to tell your own.

I have just finished (you might have figured something like this was coming) a collection of stories for my children and grandchildren, thanks to the help and persistence of an interesting website called StoryWorth.com. This is a totally unpaid plug. Other sites may also be great, among them StoryCatcher, StoryCorps, Ancestry and MyHeritage.com; I just happen to have landed with StoryWorth and haven’t tried the others. Consider this anecdotal – but enthusiastic.

My enterprising daughter purchased – with my advance consent (an important detail) – a StoryWorth account for me over a year ago; that’s how long I’ve been working on this project. In the end there is now a collection of stories – as close to a family history as this family will come – about their parents and grandparents. But it is also about great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, far-flung cousins; cities and towns; quirks and foibles that inhabit the past. I would have given all my worldly goods for someone to StoryWorth my own grandparents.

How to start? The value of enrolling in a program of some sort is that the storyteller gets both guidance and a constant nudge. StoryWorth sent a weekly question such as ‘What were your grandparents like?’ or ‘How did you get your first job?’ or ‘What did you read as a child?’ When I later realized I could write my own questions I invited my children to submit their own. Surprise, they didn’t send any softballs. How about ‘What was the biggest challenge you faced growing up?’ ‘How did you handle it?’ But questions and nudges help get stories told; the challenges thing is in my collection.

Stories need not be just for families. Every cause you support, every job you’ve done or place you’ve lived weaves itself into history, just as all of us become a part of history in the process of passing through. And history is nothing but a collection of stories.

Storytelling also may just be good for the soul; what’s good for the story might be balm for the teller.

Among young people, storytelling is the great introductory ploy. It’s the way high school students break the ice, the way nonprofits build community among their supporters; in my MFA program (University of San Francisco, Class of 2000) we spent the summer session writing an autobiographical narrative – telling our stories – that launched us, both individually and as a community of writers, into the semi-rarefied atmosphere of graduate study.

In senior communities, encouraging people to tell their stories is increasingly seen as a way to bring meaning – and joy – into often lonely lives. For those not inclined to type their stories there is a growing supply of voice recorder apps, and there is the old-fashioned tape recorder which can record stories that then can be digitized. So it seems one is never too old (and seldom too young) to benefit from telling one’s story.  

Today looks like a good time to start.

The power of stories

Do stories really hold the key to the future?

For a storyteller, this is heady stuff. For Jonah Sachs, author of the newly released Winning the Story Wars, it’s serious stuff. The book’s subtitle is Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future and Sachs appeared recently as part of a Commonwealth Club panel, to explain why this is true. The panel was specifically considering environmental stories, part of the Club’s ongoing Climate One program. (The time series below, based on satellite data, shows the annual Arctic sea ice minimum since 1979. More about the Arctic below…)

This time series, based on satellite data, sho...

The panel, moderated by Climate One Founder/Director Greg Dalton, also featured documentary film maker and University of CA, Berkeley journalism professor Jon Else, and Stanford University research associate Carrie Armel

As a power-of-stories example, Sachs cited those of presidential candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush a few years ago. Kerry’s story (you can read a little more about it in Story Wars) managed to come across with a focus on Kerry as a good guy plus some unfortunately dry-sounding proposed programs. Bush and the Republicans managed to project a loftier story about saving the world. Whether you think the world was saved – or endangered – by the Bush presidency, we know whose story won. Sachs quotes James Carville, in Story Wars, as saying the Republicans had a narrative, the Democrats a litany. Litanies don’t seem destined to rule the future.

Moving into the evening’s topic, Sachs spoke about the long and difficult struggle of scientist James Hansen, who spent decades developing data – an impressive list of irrefutable facts – on climate change. Beginning in the early 1980s, Hansen published and promoted his data, certain that people would hear the facts and understand the need for change. Instead, there was mass denial. Hansen has since moved from scientific data to activism – and to the telling of stories in every public arena he can use.

Panel moderator Dalton brought up the story (image) of the polar bear on disappearing ice floes that came to represent climate change. Because not many Americans connect with polar bears; like litanies, the story was easy to ignore.

Is the globe warming? Will switching back to Republican policies save the world? This might be a good time to start telling stories that illuminate truth.