A Good Story

Why do stories matter?

I will tell you something about stories,

[he said]

They aren’t just entertainment.

Don’t be fooled.

They’re all we have, you see.

all we have to fight off

illness and death.

 

You don’t have anything

if you don’t have the stories.

 

— from “Ceremony,” by Leslie Marmon Silko

 

It goes like this: we start out with basic information setting up the background: who the major characters are, where in the world they’re at, what their problem is. A few things happen that grow the main character, preparing her for the moment she will have to confront her problem head-on. Then we get to it, the breaking point when the main character can’t go back and will never be the same again. A few more minor events happen to tie up loose ends. Then, we reach some final scene that makes us feel OK about moving on with our lives, because the character is going to be alright, or if she’s not, we at least know why.

So it is with stories in the Western world. In fact, there are only seven (or six, or nine, depending on who you’re talking to,) basic plotlines throughout literature, giving shape to how we understand the narratives we tell each other and the narratives of our own lives.

“The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the first known written story, dates back to 2100 B.C. Before that, people told stories orally, since maybe 10,000 years ago. All these years later, through the printing press, camera, television, internet and social media, we’re still telling stories. What is it about story that draws us in and fascinates us?

 

The storyteller

Dr. Sharon Bebout Carr, professional storyteller, grew up in a coal-mining family in Morgan Field, Kentucky. She first became interested in stories “growing up on [her] daddy’s knee.” He would come home from work and tell her and her siblings stories from the mines, as well as read to them from the works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Kipling. This helped Bebout Carr develop a love for language from an early age.

While earning her PhD in performance studies, Bebout Carr researched the community she grew up in, interviewing male and female coal miners and turning these stories into the play “Walking on Our Knees.” It was produced at Southeast Missouri State University, where Bebout Carr taught speech and theater for 13 years. After her father passed away from black lung and its complications, she turned this play into a one-person show told through a series of stories titled “The Kitchen Table.”

“Often when you see about coal miners in the news or wherever, they’re statistics,” Bebout Carr says. “They’re not faces, they’re not people, and I want them to be people. So that matters.”

Every person, Bebout Carr says, is naturally a storyteller — it’s what we do in our day-to-day lives. The private stories we tell ourselves shape who we are, she says, which is why it is so important we don’t tell ourselves the wrong stories, lest these versions be something we fight our whole lives.

“A good story establishes a relationship between the storyteller and the audience that makes it feel important to be in there,” Bebout Carr says. “It pulls people in, and it reminds them of things in their lives that might touch.”

While Bebout Carr is telling her stories to audiences, she says she hopes people are “writing their own stories in their head.” Sometimes these are counter-stories, which cause people to react negatively to Bebout Carr’s stories. She says when this happens, it’s important to remember the person is coming from someplace else, an alternate life experience that has caused them to think and react this way.   

Stories connect us to the people who came before us and to the people around us, reminding us we belong to something bigger than ourselves, Bebout Carr says. It is about the transmission of values, lessons and knowledge.

“Storytelling is about community building and community maintenance,” she says. “Before we had writing or anything else, we had very little but each other; that’s the way we comforted and educated and passed on the things that mattered. … How can a person be expected to be able to take on perspective of others, to understand that their feelings extend outside of themselves if those connections aren’t made?”

Certain stories hold the power to fascinate us as a society.

“They’ve got something that tap into our biggest dreams or our biggest fears,” Bebout Carr says.

Like any good storyteller, she pauses.

“And when that’s there, they’re irresistible.”

 

Stories are more important to us than eating.

It’s what a study found in 2017, according to Jeffrey Kluger’s TIME article “How Telling Stories Makes Us Human.” In this study published in Nature Communications, anthropologist Daniel Smith of University College London and his team focused on two communities within the Agta community, a hunter-gatherer population in the Philippines’ Isabela province. In one study, 291 people in 18 camps were asked to name a maximum of five people in their own community with whom they would be happy to live, according to Kluger.

What the researchers found was telling: “Of the 857 people who were named, those who had been designated as good storytellers in the previous experiment were nearly twice as likely to be chosen as those who weren’t,” Kluger writes.

Kluger observes storytellers were even chosen more than people who had “equally good reputations for hunting, fishing and foraging.” It goes against Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but the study found: people wanted to be around people who could entertain, teach and heal through stories, more than they wanted to be around people who could provide for their physical needs.

In another experiment, the researchers found the higher the number of good storytellers in a village, the more generous the people in that community were in sharing currency that could secure them food. Additionally, good storytellers had .53 more living children than people who were not considered good storytellers in these camps, because they were the recipients of rice more often than non-storytellers, and more likely to have a partner.

It’s true in our own culture, too: we value people who tell us stories. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for producers and directors in May 2017 (the latest data) was $71,620, and the median annual wage for writers and authors was $61,820. We don’t have to look far to know our society obsesses over actors and actresses, giving them attention, the best designer products and access to anyone they want to date. And although celebrities are not intrinsically better people than anyone else, if given the choice, many people would choose to be in the same room as an actor or actress over a non-storytelling, “normal” person.

Turns out the ability to tell stories well can win you a whole lot of status in any society.

 

A snapshot

of one definition of magic: me with my lanky, long and wet little girl hair with half a banana in my hand, snuggled into one of those tight-fitting, matching pajama sets of the ’90s, my head on the cool, smooth skin of my mom’s shoulder so I could feel her voice inside of her, as she used her reading voice and made the characters’ voices, too. My little brother on the other side of her, all of us on the little couch.

It was comfort. It was ritual. It was rhythm, every night before bed. It provided a ceremonial close to the day, a routine that gave the world shape and form, that anchored my little life amidst all the things a child doesn’t yet know, tethered it to my mother’s and my brother’s, and to the stories of the world outside our home. It was one way my mother showed me she loved me, that words can be used to bring us closer and that stories are worthy of our time. That I am worthy of someone’s time.

 

Stories create experience.

It’s what we’re after when we watch a movie, read a novel or participate in the relatively new cultural phenomenon of the Netflix binge. It’s what we get when we play a video game, hear a storyteller, listen to a song on the radio.

According to an August 2018 study by market-research group Nielsen in “People Spend Most of Their Waking Hours Staring at Screens” by Quentin Fotrell, American adults spend more than 11 hours per day watching, reading, listening to or simply interacting with media, including television, radio, desktop computer screens, tablet devices, video games and apps on smartphones. Thus, advertisers capitalize upon the ability to tell a story that creates an emotional tie to a product.

In “Our Economic Future Depends on Storytellers,” Ben Ho, Vassar College associate professor of behavioral economics, calls the new American economy a “story economy,” noting that instead of choosing to purchase big brands, Americans now consistently seek out independent makers who create products themselves. Look no further than Etsy, the craft beer trend and the “shop local” movement for proof of this.

What is it that drives consumers to seek out these producers? It’s the story of how and why and where they do what they do. It is, essentially, the marketing of the maker’s personality. And the ones who win are those who know how to craft a compelling story about their cause and then tell that story through the visual medium of their products, website and storefront. The most successful tell a story that invites people in and makes them want to be a part of something bigger.

It’s what we all want: to belong. And it’s part of what stories do.

 

From the classroom

Walk into Stacy Stapleton’s second-grade classroom at Jefferson Elementary School in Cape Girardeau, and you’ll be greeted by black-and-white photos of Einstein, Gandhi and Mother Teresa, among others, lining one wall. Photos from Stapleton’s own travels adorn her desk. Jazz music plays invitingly. It feels like a place where the whole world is ready and waiting to teach you.

“Literacy is everything,” says Stapleton, who was the 2017-2018 Teacher of the Year for Cape Public Schools. She reads aloud to her students for 10 to 20 minutes each day. The time, she says, helps students sit and listen, make connections to their own lives and hear what fluent reading sounds like. It also introduces vocabulary and experiences to students, allows them to travel, and models reading for pleasure, hopefully creating lifetime readers.  

“It builds a little community. It’s family time,” Stapleton says.

She says reading aloud, especially chapter books like “The Tale of Despereaux,” by Kate DiCamillo, fosters a sense of teamwork among herself and her students.

“You enjoyed something together, you travelled through this together,” she says. “When you’re 7, this is insurmountable, a book like this. And then to get through it … it’s an accomplishment, and we enjoyed it, too.”

It’s something Nala Smith, fourth-grader at Jefferson Elementary School in Cape Girardeau, also enjoys. She says she reads often and that reading and math are her favorite subjects. For fun, she enjoys going to her friends’ houses and telling stories about “how their lives are going.” She and her friends write these stories down and share them with each other.

“Words can tell the truth and have more fun in them,” she says. A story matters “because it can tell all about how you’re feeling and how the world’s feeling and tell you how to feel and make people happier.”

 

A final thought

Stories matter because receiving a story from someone is receiving their self. It is giving them the power to change the way you think, the way you perceive the world, giving them the power to have access to your emotions.

Stories matter because telling someone a story is a gift of self. It is an opening of oneself to vulnerability, a giving over of the power to reject you, your perceptions and experiences, the way you process the world and the things you find important. It is also an act of opening yourself to be received.

Storytelling unites us and makes us kinder. It is an act of giving and receiving; it reminds us that it takes both.

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