Midweek Musing: storytelling is for us all

'Storytelling is for primary school children not university students' (from this article). MP David Davies' ignorance of storytelling as a fundamental element of human (well)being is precisely why we need positions like the advertised professor of storytelling at the University of South Wales.

Here is my response, from a storyteller who is both practitioner and scholar in the art of storytelling.

David Davies' view of storytelling as 'sitting around reading John and Janet books' is woefully ignorant of storytelling as both fundamental feature of human identity and communication, and of the craft of oral storytelling as a distinct performance art.

I see across the UK a rich culture of storytelling: it is disappointing that a servant of the country is unaware, and unappreciative, of that culture. Indeed, that richness is part of the reason I moved from Australia to the UK for my postgraduate research into the practice of biblical storytelling, with centres for and festivals of storytelling in many parts of the country.

The University of South Wales has a research centre devoted to storytelling. The George Ewart Evans Centre's storytelling researchers, teachers and practitioners are exploring the role of storytelling and story in healing, for example, in conjunction with medical practitioners and researchers. It is from the medical world that the Centre defends the centrality of story in human interaction, as both doctor and patient have a story to tell, may even be understood to be engaged together in working through the conflict or challenge element of a story to help the hero or heroine of the story (the patient) move towards their goal of health and wellbeing. (A story or narrative may be understood through analysis of its key elements: character, plot, setting, and conflict). (I attended a conference on story / narrative several years ago, at which practitioners from many disciplines told their stories of the gift story and storytelling was in their fields – read some of those stories here.)

Davies' suggestion that storytelling be left to the likes of Dickens and Rowling not only misunderstands storytelling, but undermines the value of Dickens and Rowling and their stories. What joy, community, healing and education have been brought about through the Harry Potter stories? Immeasurable. What understanding of a certain era of English life has been painted in the mirror Dickens holds up in his stories? Immeasurable.

To suggest that storytelling is for primary school children rather than university students first establishes a hierarchy in which younger children are somehow less than university students (an assertion I reject, but which would take another blog post to discuss), and second assumes that storytelling is something one grows out of as one matures. I think we might find, however, that it is story that helps us mature; story that helps the individual to know themselves, and the community to understand, observe, and shape their identity together as it evolves. What are our rituals of war and peace commemoration if not the telling of the story of courage, of loss, of hope for a better future? What are museums but installations telling the stories of migration, innovation, evolution, creation? What is the recounting of one's day with friends or family members but the telling of our own story and stories, seeking to find meaning within and through them, to connect, and in being heard, to be affirmed and nurtured towards wellbeing?

Therein lies the most profound gift of storytelling: its mutual encouragement of wellbeing. The teller gives a gift with their story, sharing wisdom and experience through which to make meaning, and the hearer receives this gift of story and encouragement. The hearer gives a gift with their listening, creating a welcoming space in which to hold the teller safe and affirm them as of immense value; what a gift the teller thus receives, nurture for their very being. (I say more about this in my TEDxAdelaide talk of 2013)

Something special happens in the live, embodied sharing of stories with each other. Books are wonderful portals for the imagination; movies and television too. But live, embodied, presence with each other, the voice, the emotion, the moment: this - this - is the connecting of humans with each other, the bringing of stories together to create another story, the story of this moment, here, when we were together, laughing, crying, afraid, amazed, inspired.

I tell the stories of Jesus fairly often: he was a teller of stories, too, with people gathered together, welcoming each other, sharing space and breath and moment. Why? Because in the stories they find themselves. In the stories, they encounter the Sacred Source of Life. In the stories is space to co-create the story and to thus discover meaning that will transform and lead to healing.

Storytelling is not 'just' anything. Not 'just' for one section of humanity. Not 'just' entertainment. Not 'just' airy-fairy nonsense from cuckoo land.

Storytelling is the very fibre of our human being. May the work of centres such as the George Ewart Evans centre at the University of South Wales continue to tell that story, so that we may know more fully, and may become, the best of who we are.


GlenB said…
You ate so passionate, Sarah, and rightly so. On a very basic level I figure when I engage in conversation with someone we share our stories. This is all we have and is so precious.

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