“It’s quite gobsmacking to think that a story could be told for 10,000 years.” Professor Nicholas Read
Storytelling is literally as old as time. And the people telling those stories were around long before historians. Nicholas Read studies indigenous Australian languages at the University of New England in Australia. In this fascinating article by Scientific American he says, “It’s almost unimaginable that people would transmit stories about things like islands that are currently underwater.” And that these have been recounted, “accurately across 400 generations.”
He thinks endangered indigenous languages are sources of, “factual knowledge across time depths far greater than previously imagined.” Incredibly some of these stories are 12,600 years old, recounting floods and seas that were 30 feet higher than today. Information conveyed through the power of speech alone. There’s no writing, no technology. No data capture.
Storytelling is in our DNA. In her BBC documentary ‘Almost Australian,’ Miriam Margolyes says, “Stories are, and always have been, a way of explaining life to people.” She thinks telling them and listening to them is a human need. “First Nation people have been telling stories for thousands of years. And their stories explain the world. Generation upon generation.”
And stories are everywhere. On our TVs, in the songs we listen to and in our newsfeeds. Robert McKee (often called the ‘Aristotle of our time’), has dedicated 30 years to helping screenwriters, novelists, directors and playwrights tell better stories. In his 1997 book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, he says stories, “fulfil a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living — not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.”
Storytelling is so prevalent that the word ‘story’ appeared 128 times in my Spoon-by-Spoon interviews. Stories help us to be heard. They help us make sense of our lives.
Tim shared his heart-warming story of how he and his partner got together during the lockdown. This is despite the fact they met once briefly at an event. In summary he said, “Long story short, she and I made a great connection, spent thousands of hours on the phone through lockdown. Now we’re a couple and I’m in her apartment in Basel right now.”
Orla, told a different type of story. About work and how it impacted her health and encouraged her to take a different path. “There were always stories of partners having heart attacks when they weren’t expecting it. And people collapsing on the stairs because they’d worked too hard.” She said these were normal stories that weren’t at all ‘strange’ to the people around her. But she felt differently and started to think, “This is madness. We’re killing ourselves. Why are we doing this? And for what? For money? Because there’s a really demanding arsehole on the end of the phone who wants to make more money tomorrow rather than next week?”
We use stories to help us understand our behaviour. John talked about how he felt compelled to take action, even though each time it made him nervous. “If you look at all the great myths, the great stories, whether it’s Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, it’s that moment in the story where the hero or heroine jumps. And you think, ‘Oh, they’re gonna die, they’re gonna die.’ But they don’t. And I think that’s the cycle I’m talking about.”
Sara used her father’s stories to guide a decision about work. “My parents came from a different country and they settled here in the 1970s. And they had a very difficult background, trying to provide for us and not really speaking the language. When my father passed away it made me think about his story. And how it was completely different to anyone else’s story.” She felt compelled to carry on his legacy — wanting the best for his children and wanting them to be happy. “I asked myself that question when I had to return to work. ‘Am I happy in what I’m doing?’ I could continue doing it, but not be happy. And I thought I had to get off the treadmill of just going to work because I felt I should.”
Storytelling is so powerful that it can transform our lives. People shared their stories in Walter’s Alcoholic Anonymous group, “People’s stories — they just resonated with how I was feeling inside. It’s that connection. They built a way out of holes a million times worse than mine.” They have now gone on to lead successful and happy lives. So for Walter it was,“inspiring if they could do it feeling just like I did inside. I wanted to follow that route.”
Milly talked about other peoples’ stories that really helped her, such as Buddhist Boot Camp and The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. “These are stories about people that were where I am now. I have found a completely different definition for my life. A humble, simple way of looking at things.”
Rory recounted stories he used to help others. As the first black man to be promoted to the board of his organisation he was asked to present at a diversity event. He was nervous and didn’t know what to say. But then it came to him. Just tell his story.
“I realised that I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to create anything, pretend to be anything.” So he talked about people who had influenced his life. “I told a series of stories that weren’t about race or ethnicity. They were about experiences in life and leadership and learning and growth.”
Adeola also wants to help others. I asked her how she felt about sharing her story with me. “I think it’s me offering something out there. Hopefully somebody will learn something from it, take something for their own journey. Because for me, it’s about human connection and telling my story.”
Just the small act of telling our own story to a stranger can make us feel better:
· Kathryn: “Yeah, it’s been cathartic just telling somebody the whole story.”
· Zee: “It’s comforting to know that somebody can see creativity in my story, when I don’t necessarily spot that in my day to day life.”
· Karen: “It’s nice to feel heard and that someone’s interested. And hearing your responses — that my story is not completely different to other people’s and that this is something other people struggle with.”
It’s good to know in these challenging times stories help us make sense of our lives. Even as grown-ups, stories can still be a comfort.
This is part of a series called Spoon-by-Spoon — a project I’m running interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. Each week I’ll share the themes — how they are getting back on track and the wisdom they are developing as they work their way through.
Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan