I love stories. Fairy tales, folk tales, romances, stories about people, animals, spirits, trees. They become part of me, and are part of the way I approach life. I learn through stories, true stories about other people’s lives, or about other places. I explore ideas through stories, my own imagination combining with something deeper, alive, characters I have created with their own ideas and viewpoints that bring insight to me.
History is captured in stories, and I am learning how many myths are based on true stories that have stood the test of time. Great stories, like the floods relating to the end of Atlantis, or the comings of different races, and simple stories used for teaching. Stories about elementals such as fairies and mermaids, and stories that contain our own racial histories. Those stories not written down are being lost, yet at the same time, in the past few centuries there are people collecting them and preserving them in forms suitable for our times. Charles Perrault, Brothers Grimm, WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, Joseph Jacobs, Jack Zipes, to name but a few. Those stories which are needed will survive in our books and computer systems and our collective consciousness. And yet, what about our own stories, the ones told by the fireside in winter or when they are needed? The ones that tell us and our children about who we are?
There seem to me to be two forms of storytelling, the spoken and the written, and they are different. The best autobiographies nearly always seem to be ghost-written, capturing the easy flow from a born raconteur and bringing to it the organisation of writing that builds form, linking the events to each other and to greater truths about place and time. Either skill alone lacks the fullness of the experience that both together can bring. But the ghost writer would be nothing without the raconteur, the person who can tell an interesting story about their life or other’s lives, and tell it appropriately, movingly, coherently.
I was struck reading ‘The Wind Is My Mother’ by Bear Heart and Molly Larkin, how the elders of the community taught through stories, always having an appropriate tale to tell in order to guide the younger ones. They were experienced in the telling, and the younger members of the tribe learned to listen. It started very young:
“When elders came to visit, it almost always meant that, unless they lived nearby, they’d spend the night and go on the next day. At bedtime, the family made a palette for the children in the same room with the elders, and it was done for a reason. Understanding human nature, they knew that children like to eavesdrop. Knowing we were listening when we were supposed to have been asleep, the grown-ups told one another the legends of our tribe. They already knew the stories – they were telling them for our benefit. If we’d thought about it, it should have seemed odd for old people to be telling stories to one another. If they’d said to us, “I want you to listen to this story,” we’d probably get bored, maybe forget about it, so in a way they were great psychologists…”
In such ways were the history and teachings of the tribe passed down through the generations.
However this is not the way I was brought up; the stories I heard over and over were mostly out of books. Some stories were told about personal experiences, such as my parent’s childhoods, but they did not generally go further back than this. Until I did some research into family history I knew the birth place of only one of my grandparents, and none of my great grandparents. I should maybe be glad there were no great family or community or tribal disasters that became legends to be passed on through the family, but there was little history either.
Lisa F. Tardiff commented recently on ‘Rattling The Bones’ blog:
“Most students I meet today will ask me: “Can you recommend a book for me to read”. They don’t have the time nor do they want to give their time away to “listening to me and my story.” Knowledge in the 21st century needs to be written!”
She may be right, and it feels like a sad state of affairs if the pendulum has swung so far towards writing that we can no longer listen to a story being told. However, when I have tried listening to the many elders I meet when out with M and the pushchair, I have realised storytelling is such a lost art that many of them do not have the ability to tell a coherent story. They have had little practice in the telling, or frequently in the listening. On one recent occasion, a man started telling me about his recent health problems and visit to hospital, then morphed into some story about a doctor who was a paedophile. Clearly his mind associations were different to mine, and it wasn’t a story that I needed to hear or had any relevance to him or me. Years ago I had an uncle who would tell us stories about the places he had been, and the people he had spoken to, yet somehow they never quite came alive for me. I was never left wanting to know more. In both cases, the storytellers were not either masters at their art, nor in tune with their audience. So I return to books, letting the right ones come to me at the appropriate times, where the stories contain grains of wisdom, and where they resonate with my own experiences to form part of my heritage.
But I am left wondering, is it possible for me to learn to tell stories: made up, or family history, or great legends, myths and fairytales; or should I simply hone my writing skills so that the stories can be read by future generations? Is it possible to find that balance in our modern lives, where both skills are valued? I hope so.