The power of story (and narrating our own life story)

I've recently started Robert Macfarlane's superb new book, Underland, where he reminds us that the verb "to discover" is to 'reveal by excavation', its roots meaning 'to descend and bring to the light'. And so it is with storytelling. 

Stories in our childhood

We can all recollect our favourite bedtime stories from when we were kids; the stories our parents read to us at night. The stories they shared, some of them funny, some of them less so, from their own past.

One of my older sisters read a story about a swashbuckling hero, I forget his name, but I think he wanted to find treasure. The key impression this left wasn’t the content of the story itself, but how my sister made me feel in the cosy repetition of it as I lay there late in the evening, tucked up tight beneath my duvet. And it didn’t matter how many times she repeated it; when she reached the passage about the hero entering a candlelit inn tucked in close to a cove, I felt what I can only describe now as a deep sense of comfort. I felt safe.

Dad had many stories to share; about poor Mr Winterbottom. An unfortunate, hapless man who taught at one of his primary schools in Eaton Square. Again, content wasn’t king. It was Dad’s mirthful laughter, how he creased up merely recollecting how Mr Winterbottom one day took him and the other unruly boys to the frozen Serpentine in Hyde Park and lost control of them, that I fondly remember now.

Stories bewitch us, they can fix us: if we’re lucky, they cast early spells.

Stories for time immemorial

Wasn’t it Aristotle who first sermonised on what makes a good story? That an effective story must have an element of catharsis to succeed. Storytelling has spanned millennia, succeeding well before anyone could conceive of written languages or scripted words.

Among the first recorded stories the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad by Homer still resound in legend and lore today; as do what are now known as Aesop’s Fables, which since they were recorded and written down, have survived since around 500 BC. The Epic of Gilgamesh spread from Mesopotamia to other parts of Europe and Asia after being carved on stone. The best storytellers have never lacked ingenuity.

These weren’t the first stories, of course.

The earliest storytellers

In a blog-post by Jennifer Van Pelt on the history of storytelling for Words Alive! a book which is highlighted that I must check out, “The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre” by Jack Zipes, states that humans have been telling stories since we had the ability to speak, and potentially through forms of sign language even before that.

The Chauvet cave in the Ardeche in France is one place to go in search for early storytellers: it is said their cave paintings depicted a volcanic eruption that occurred around 30,000 – 36,000 years ago. I’ve recently started Robert Macfarlane’s superb new book, Underland, where he reminds us that the verb “to discover” is to ‘reveal by excavation’, its roots meaning ‘to descend and bring to the light’. And so it is with storytelling.

In a remarkable early passage, Macfarlane writes that the earliest-known works of cave art in Europe can in fact be found on the walls of Spanish caves, taking “the form of painted ladders, dots and hand stencils…(dating) to around 65,000 years ago, some 20,000 years before Homo sapiens are believed to have first arrived in Europe from Africa. Neanderthal artists left these images.”

Van Pelt reminds us that later forms of visual storytelling can be found in Egyptian hieroglyphics from around 3,000 B.C., which mixed pictographic symbols and sounds in order to tell a story.

Why does any of this matter? Well, when anything endures this long not only does it captivate our imagination – we ask ourselves who these first storytellers were, whether they imagined their caveworks would be discovered 40,000 years later – but it also teaches us something precious about who we are as a species, what makes us unique from other mammals. We like to derive meaning from the events that unfold in our lives.

The meaning-making of storytelling

This past nine months have provided enough material for all of us to write the proverbial books we have in our locker, you know, the ones we all have bags of time to plot and write.

Many of us won’t write books, or physically record the events of our lives, even as global events have overwhelmed us and delivered new shocks. But we all have a story to tell, every single one of us. Whether it gets told is a different matter. As Maya Angelou wrote, lamenting how so many of us can leave these stories unwritten, and worse, unheard, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” We deserve to have our stories heard. They shouldn’t die with us.

I am lucky. Very lucky. Due to life circumstances, I do have the time to write. I have the resources to write. I am a middle class, white, cis man (albeit like everyone, I experience barriers and don’t think of myself as overly privileged). I also feel it’s important to me personally to own the subtler, lesser known aspects of my story; I am gay, (okay, most people who know me know that), I lost my Mum to cancer at an early age, I donated a kidney to my Dad, I have a mental health condition I don’t regularly disclose. And I am many things besides. This isn’t a pity party: I love 1970s disco and watching the film, Grease.

What I am driving at, though, is that I have the means to write and I know not everyone has this privilege. In a future, upcoming blogpost I want to share some plans I have to empower and facilitate others to at least share their stories, if not write them themselves.

And boy, have these past nine months helped me to find some meaning in my own life story.

I’ve had opportunities I could never have imagined a year or two ago – participating in writers’ retreats and courses, plus workshops with published authors, some of whom have gone on to offer tuition and feedback on my own work. It’s helped me to shape a more coherent narrative for my life so far, if not (quite yet) a workable manuscript ready enough to submit to agents.

Finding our plots

These opportunities with London Lit Lab and Curtis Brown Creative; and open competitions and writers’ platforms such as Spread the Word, Untitled Writing and The Literary Consultancy, have all made a lasting impression. That hard as it can be sometimes, storytelling is one of the most rewarding things we can do. It challenges us, sees us dive deep and excavate; it helps us to “mine the self” to borrow a quote of memoirist, Cathy Rentzenbrink. But in doing so, in narrating our story, we can reconcile competing truths.

Tough as this process can be, “the act of naming is the great and solemn consolation of mankind”, as Elias Canetti so eloquently put it in The Agony of Flies. We find telling our story, perhaps coming to terms with some daunting part of ourselves, eases as much as it first gives voice to pain. There’s a “rage for order” in the words of poet, Wallace Stevens. We want the raft of narrative to make sense of and come to terms with all that once seemed unordered, random, unfair.

And life writing in particular – memoir to use a more familiar word – can be especially therapeutic. Although many in the literary community dispute whether that is the function or chief purpose of memoir, since after all, it is also an art.

It has been therapeutic for me and continues to be. I experienced a tough start to the summer for various family reasons. Writing – in all its forms – dissolved some of the acid in the walls of my heart. A great tutor, writer Lily Dunn, has taught me the tenets of compelling memoir and one of the pieces of advice I most reflected on in her course was the idea that “in fiction plot is invented, in nonfiction it is discovered.” I’ve been lucky enough to be doing a lot of discovery this year.

I look forward to my next blog-post where I will be acting on Sue Williams Silverman’s words in her book, Fearless Confessions, “We scrutinise our lived lives in order to find our plots.” Through my upcoming life histories service, I want to help many more people discover their plots!

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