The one joy that has kept me going through life has been the fact that stories unite us. To see you as you listen to me now, as you have always listened to me, is to know this; what I can believe, you can believe. And the way we all see our story...that's what we own, no matter who we are and where we come from.
These words, coming from the final page of a wonderful novel, Ireland, by Frank Delaney, summarize perfectly what any of us who dare to call ourselves anything so prosaic as "storyteller" believe--that in the end, the stories matter most. Stories are what connect us, what truly make us human. A train of thought, gleaned from my studies years ago when I had dreams of becoming a primatologist, suggests that our early ancestors developed the capacity for language from the specialization resulting from tool use. Perhaps. Certainly, we've leapt forward in that tool-making ability, creating tools unimagined by those early humans wandering the plains, wielding spears for protection and food gathering. What of those times has survived, but amazing paintings placed inside the walls of ancient cave shelters? Paintings that have fueled our imaginations ever since; did those early hunters gather round fires, recounting their stories they shared, the ones that told who they were and from whence they came?
Over the past 15 years or thereabouts, life has directed me to tell stories, and encourage others to do the same. Those of us who "have it bad" likely started out charmed by the connection of hearing a story well told by another. It's a visceral sort of thing, a hunger deep in the soul that we have, that we've probably always had. Experiencing this, we seek to do the same thing ourselves, so we learn some stories, tell them, join storytelling guilds, and then tell some more stories.
Something happens along the way. I can't define it, I can't point to an exact moment of epiphany, but at some point, I realized there is far more to this whole "storytelling business." Maybe it was when I did a little "graduation ritual" for my 8th grade storytellers, who would be moving on to high school. I thought it was maybe a bit corny, these little tokens and the little laminated storyteller's licenses I gave them. Not so. The room full of kids was silent, and more appreciative in their response than I'd ever have expected. I know now, six years down the road, that many of those kids went on to share stories in some way, fueled by the fire of stories well told.
In an age of technology and hyper-speed, one where so many of our connections are electronically mediated--as this one is--we seek true connection, a slowing of the pace, a moment to reflect, a moment to feel true emotion. Storytellers and stories give us this place.
I know that now, and for that reason, I've strengthened my resolve to find ways to bring that back to my corner of the world, at least. Some of my efforts, though strong, have failed. Two years of research, trying to find statistical proof of the value of storytelling in raising standardized test scores, still failed to convince our superintendent of the value in creating a position of "district-wide storyteller." He thought it was a great idea. Unfortunately, the forces that be in the world of education dictate slashing positions rather than creating new ones.
Some have had success. My storytelling troupes have had a small impact, certainly on the kids who were members, but also beyond those kids. They shared their enthusiasm in various adult venues---librarian's conventions, storyteller's conferences--and from those connections, inspired others to take up their banner. My little second grade friends, who clamor for Mrs. Calvetti to come visit, proved just yesterday that a story they heard a year ago, they can remember. They can't remember how to add basic math facts yet, but the stories they can retell.
This much I do know...like the Storyteller in Mr. Delaney's wonderful tale, the stories are all we truly own. It is my hope that we keep the ownership of our own stories, rather than give them up to the mediated stories of our day. If you're reading this, take a moment when you connect next with another living, breathing soul to share a story. It could be a grand adventure of your youth or the sad tale of loss. Either way, if you can believe it--kernel of truth or nothing but--so too can your listener.
Mr Delaney's recent novel is not alone in celebrating this ancient hunger for story. Some of the following are for young readers, others for adults, but all celebrate as a central character, the Storyteller.
For younger readers--
The Storyteller's Beads, Jane Kurtz 1998
Shadow Spinner, Susan Fletcher 1998
The Ear, The Eye and The Arm, Nancy Farmer 1995, Newbery Honor Book
And the grown-ups--
Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie 1990
The Storyteller, Mario Vargas Llosa 1989
I'd love to learn of books you've read that celebrate the storyteller; please share them as a comment here.