Tuesday, 5 July 2016

We all have stories

I learned to tell stories on a farm in South Africa. There was nothing better to the five-year-old Carleton than joining the barefoot village children on the earthen floor of a mud hut. Old Xhosa women would spin us marvellous tales of river serpents, brave warriors, and white-painted, clay-clad women who returned from the dead. My favourite was always the Tokoloshe, a mischievous, small, hairy man who would sneak into naughty children’s bedrooms to bite off their toes.
I absorbed the craft of stories from these Xhosa ladies; the pull of suspense, the impact of vivid imagery, and the all-important need to suspend disbelief. There was no book learning, but learning nonetheless, in the deep organic sense of stories told in voice and rhythm. Learning in the way of things told and remembered.

Story telling is tightly woven into our DNA. The oldest surviving literary work “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” was inscribed on clay tablets more than 3,000 years ago in Babylonia. It is thought to have been based on five even older epic poems of which fragments have been found dating back to around 2100 BC.  The modern discovery of the epic is in itself a story, and so stories beget further stories.

There is scientific evidence to suggest that storytelling is an innate need in human beings. Back in the 1940’s Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel conducted an experiment in which they showed subjects a short film featuring geometric shapes moving around the screen. Subjects were asked to describe what they saw. Only one subject saw two-dimensional shapes, everyone else described a story based on what they had seen. For Heider this was the beginning of a psychosocial theory of narrative and attribution that would become his life’s work. The film clip itself is just over a minute and yet people can create detailed narratives around it. What do you see?

We all love to tell stories. We share anything from our personal stories, to news, to the juiciest fiction. Did you hear what happened at the office? Isn’t it terrible about Aunt Sarah? The sunset over the mountains was amazing. It is our way of sharing our common humanity, of ascribing deeper meaning to life.
Some of us tell our stories by speaking to our friends, some as internal dialogue, and some of us write them down. I’m part of the latter group and lately I’ve been experimenting with this blog. How are you telling your stories?

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