By Steve Daut
Father Joe, then director of St. Louis Center in Chelsea, Michigan, once told me that when he was working with Mother Theresa distributing food to the poor, he became frustrated since the need always outstripped the supplies. “It was like throwing pebbles in the ocean,” he said. “It would never result in filling all of the need.” Mother Theresa replied, “Father Joe, we are not here for results, but for joyous connection.”
Joyous connection is the very stuff of story. The rise of social media, the popularity of The Moth, TED Talks, and StoryCorps, all point to the importance of story in our daily lives. Story connects us to our shared history. Personal stories of life today are cathartic for the teller, and studies show that the brain relaxes when it makes a coherent narrative out of something chaotic. They can be healing for the teller and audience alike, but story has a much broader historical significance as well. It not only helps us to understand earlier events, but also to understand the hopes, beliefs, and dreams of those who lived through those events. Story is a gift of joyous connection sent to us from times past.
Story has driven the human experience in various forms during the entire sweep of recorded history. The Lascaux Cave in Southwestern France contains nearly 600 paintings and 1,400 engravings, dating back 17,000 years. These paintings tell stories of the natural word and of the hunt, as well as deeper stories of fantastical creatures and other products of human imagination. The earliest surviving tales are recorded in five epic poems about Gilgamesh, a Sumerian potentate who ruled around 2,500 B.C. Virtually every nation has developed a rich storytelling tradition that gets passed along from generation to generation. Some traditions developed independently, others were transported orally from one culture to another, and often there are themes that can be traced from story to story throughout the world.
So what is it that makes storytelling so important to us as human beings? Although psychologists agree that storytelling is central to the human experience, we can’t claim to understand exactly what it is that story does for us. What I can tell you is that when I’m telling a story, it’s a completely immersive experience for me. I lose myself in the narrator and the characters, and I feel myself becoming connected to the audience in a way that is truly a meditative experience.
The audience, on the other hand, only becomes connected to the story when the storyteller sets ego aside and gives the story as a gift to the audience. The gift a teller gives is permission to let the audience become immersed in the story and let it carry them into the story itself. A well-crafted and well-delivered story allows the listener to feel the pain and triumph of the characters. When you connect with the characters and the action of the story, you are really connecting your life to the lives of others. You begin to understand in a visceral way that others have the same experiences and feelings that you have, and that understanding strengthens the connective tissue between all of us. You may not be able to relate to the specific physical elements of the story, but if it is well crafted, the story will still speak to you.
How does that happen? How do stories connect to us? Every memorable story has two basic parts: one is the physical setting, actions, and results of the story; the other is the universal story embedded in those physical elements. For example, take the story of Robin Hood. The physical story is about a band of men who live in the forest and, led by the main character of the story, they steal from the rich and give to the poor. The Sheriff of Nottingham and his minions have obtained their riches by imposing taxes on people who can barely afford to feed and clothe themselves. The universal story is about seeking justice when those who have much take from those who have little. When we cheer Robin Hood for besting the Sheriff, we are really cheering the triumph of the little guy overcoming oppression by the powerful. It’s a timeless story, built on the push and pull of what we value, and it has the power to heal society.
The universal theme of the oppressed versus their oppressors shows up in many stories that have endured through the ages. Cinderella overcame her evil stepmother and stepsisters with the help of a fairy godmother and a handsome prince. Aided by a good witch and the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions beat the Wicked Witch of the West by simply believing in themselves. We all want to believe that we can overcome our troubles with the help of a friend, or simply by believing in ourselves. Stories give us hope that we can make our lives better than they are.
In addition to stories about conflict, about us versus them, some of the most compelling stories are about fighting the demons within ourselves. As an example, there is a parable from Lithuania about a man who was given a preview of heaven and hell. Hell was seen as a huge banquet hall with the most wonderful food, and the condemned souls sat at the tables with utensils strapped to their hands. But the utensil handles were so long that the souls could not get the food to their mouths. They were condemned to seeing and smelling the most wonderful food for all eternity, but still starving because they could not feed themselves. Heaven was seen to be exactly the same scene—same humanity, same tools—but the souls had discovered that they could use the utensils to feed each other. Stories like this can help us understand how to become a community in service to each other.
In fact, there is more than one storytelling community in Ann Arbor. These include The Moth, which has its own following and its own style. You can throw your name in the hat and if it is drawn, you tell a five-minute true personal story that fits within the theme for the week. Stories range from hilarious to heart-wrenching and they are given scores by volunteer judges from the audience. With StoryCorps, you reserve recording time at one of their studios. Although the closest studio is in Chicago, they also send around a mobile recording studio in an Airstream trailer, and you can watch for times when it will be in the area. Ann Arbor historian, and tour guide, Patti Smith periodically organizes a show she calls HERsay, which includes various types of performance focused around women’s issues. All three of these venues are focused on sharing contemporary personal stories in an authentic and compelling way.
The Ann Arbor Storytellers Guild (AASG) is a group of people who enjoy telling and listening to stories of all kinds, not only true personal stories, but also tall tales, folk tales, and stories from literature. They offer numerous opportunities to listen and tell each month, and the stories and tellers are chosen in advance rather than by lottery. One of the monthly events is currently held at Crazy Wisdom on the second Thursday in September, December, March, and June. The AASG also offers coaching sessions and workshops for its members.
Whether you are new to storytelling or an old pro, there is a place for you to get involved. We all have a story to tell, and in Ann Arbor, there is a place, and a community of storytellers, waiting to welcome you.
Steve Daut is the President of the Ann Arbor Storytellers Guild. To learn more about the guild, becoming a member, or public events visit them on the web at annarborstorytelling.org/AASG/newhome.htm.