Storytelling is universal; and ancient. Every society and culture from the beginning of
time has a tradition of storytelling.
Although Africa is rich with stories and the tradition of storytelling, there isn’t much of a culture of documenting these stories in written form, or otherwise. Stories tell us about our roots, they offer concepts and give direction. They instil moral values, teach us lessons, preserve culture and allow us to remember history. They make us think and feel. They inspire action and spark ideas. Storytelling isn’t art, all art is storytelling. From the lyrics of a rap song to the fine movements of a ballet dancer or the brush strokes on a painting – all of art sets out to say something. To tell a story.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Storytelling predates the written word. Ancient storytellers were important people – they were the keepers of culture, of legend, of history. Each one was different, some choosing to tell only the facts, others embellished the facts and added in character; still others used parables or metaphors to disseminate complex ideas. Other than keeping an account of the past for example, storytellers also created explanations for natural phenomena – such as what lightning was or why drought occurred. Many myths have been created in this way, using the art of storytelling to impart lessons and share concepts. Some of the greatest stories ever told revolve around death, birth and love. Perhaps this is because these three concepts are common among any and all cultures around the world, and have been throughout history. Think of the nativity story about the birth of Jesus; Romeo and Juliet – arguably the greatest love story of all time; or the story of Hachiko, the remarkably loyal dog to his deceased owner.
Religion and spirituality centre greatly on the concept of death and what happens to us once we die – we’ll go to heaven or hell, be reincarnated, or rest peacefully in the ground. Whichever story we resonate with will decide how we chose to see the world.
INSIDE THE STORY
So, what makes a great story? We know the best stories are told over and over again and are usually about concepts we’re able to relate to on some level. A good story will always include some basic ingredients; the sequence, the suspense and the roller-coaster.
Think of the Lion King. A sequence of events builds up around a young lion cub that is destined to be king. Suspense builds when Mufasa dies and Scar convinces Simba to run away from his home. Will Simba return? What will happen to his pride? Will Scar be king? In the story there’s a roller-coaster of good times and bad times. After Mufasa dies, Simba meets Timon and Pumbaa. He has to go home to confront Scar but then wins and becomes the king he was always meant to be. Stories are often about the battle between good and evil. A good story will offer up different perspectives, which may change the way you feel about the outcome. Every story, however, is tinged with the storyteller’s viewpoint – an angle that illustrates the point they want to make.
Quite often, a story can be more telling of the story teller, than of the story teller’s point of view. But there are other types of stories that just offer up a snapshot, a slice of a greater story. Take this bit of flash fiction for example; “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn”. With just six words, an entire story unfolds in your mind. Books, films and series almost always begin in the middle of something. They comment on a piece of the character’s lives, even as they integrate the elements of a greater story. A painting or photograph will tell a story of a moment, allowing the viewer to fill in the rest.
A picture of a person standing alone on a dusty road could elicit feelings of fear and loneliness or of freedom and joy. What oneperson loves in a piece of art could be entirely different to what someone else loves – it’s perception that gives you the details to complete the story. The oral storyteller may no longer be seen as vastly important, but you could argue that television and film can be viewed in a similar way – news, documentaries and movies all continue to impart concepts, opinions, facts and lessons.
Of course, there are daily stories told – the ones you tell your friends, family and colleagues. There are old stories still passed down from generation to generation that are never written down – such as where your grandparents met or the history of your own family.
WHAT’S YOUR STORY?
Today, the myriad platforms available to record and keep our own stories has enabled each one of us to become story tellers; keepers of culture, of legend, of history. A simple Google search can reveal a great deal about a person, and if you’re connected through social media you have access to every facet of a person’s story; from LinkedIn telling the story of our careers, to Facebook telling the world what we get up to after hours, what we look like and what relationships we have with our friends and family. Note that future employers now make full use of social media to fully check out potential employees.
Each of our lives contain a sequence; a series of events that have lead up to this point and each of us have endured rollercoasters of good and bad times, rife with suspense. Our stories are sometimes not only our own and often cross paths with the stories of others.
Perhaps we are more than stories. Perhapswe’re each a library of tales, adventures, lessons and ideas waiting to be shared. While not all stories have silver linings or happy endings, it’s so important that we keep sharing them, with new friends, old friends, family and loved ones. So, what’s your story? storytelling
FOOTNOTES AND BACK STORIES
A simple question asked of a new acquaintance is an invitation to tell a story. ‘Where do you live’, what do you do for a living’, ‘how long have you been in this city’, and so on. We learn about and from each other by relaying stories.
Psychologically, each person lives within an internal story – the way in which their life is interpreted through their particular perspective, gives a different angle on a story. To quote a line from the movie ‘Her’, ‘The past is just a story we tell ourselves’. It may sound like a simple statement, but it’s not far off the mark.
Perception plays a huge role in the way we recognize ourselves and impacts the way we present ourselves to the world. If you were told as a child that you would never amount to anything, it may have given you a drive to over-achieve. Even if you have over-achieved, you are likely to still have feelings of not being quite good enough.
This will colour your view of the world and of your place in it. The same goes for people we meet – we use what cues we are given, from their style of dress to the circumstances surrounding the meeting. If you meet someone at an art gallery, you might perceive them to be cultured. If you met that same person at a strip club, your initial assessment of them may be rather different.
If you are introduced to someone you’ve been told is exceptionally intelligent, you will unconsciously look for (and find) signs of intelligence in them. You’re likely to sit up a little straighter, and concentrate harder on the conversation so you are able to keep up with their superior intellect.
Because you’ve behaved in this way, they might leave your company believing you to be more intelligent than you believe yourself to be. So, too, if you are introduced to someone who you’ve been told is a criminal, you may pull your wallet and phone closer to you and behave in an untrusting manner. Whether or not they are actually a criminal, they may be left with an impression that you’re a bit ‘shifty’. If a story is unbelievable to someone, it’s merely because their perspective doesn’t relate to that set of circumstance, or thought process. The question is then, what ‘story’ are you presenting to the world? Is it authentically you, or a mere slice of the greater you?