I’ve been asked to present at a gathering of storytellers later this month, and I don’t really know what to share. But wondering about it prompted me to collect my thoughts about stories: what they are, what they mean, and why we create them.
Fiction can convey a psychological or emotional truth which is lost in a mere recitation of facts. By taking the senselessness of life and shaping it into a narrative which makes sense, which has internal order and cohesion life’s random events do not, stories do more than present facts. Stories tell us what those facts mean—to the author, to the reader, to each other, and our societies.
Stories bring us comfort beyond simple entertainment or fantasy fulfillment. Stories take us to a place where humans control the timing and sequence of events, determine who populates the world where those events take place, and decide what is the point of everything. Stories are a place where life does not happen to us, but where we happen to life.
The power to shape action, character, the environment, and history itself does more than relieve the suffering life inflicts upon us in careless, random fashion. This power also inspires us. It suggests we can impose our will upon the realities we confront. It makes us wonder if we are not so powerless as we often feel. Stories fan a spark of belief that we have power over our destinies, that we might shape our lives like heroes and conquer seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Storytelling is not limited to fiction. We make stories of our own lives, and the lives of others. We take observations, perceptions, and perspectives, and we turn them into tales we believe to be true or real. But these tales are as subjective as fiction, open to multiple interpretations, and completely dependent on who tells the story. Two different observers can disagree on the facts of an event or character, and what meaning we draw from interpreting those facts tells as much about ourselves as it does about anything objective.
We could propose that all stories are fictions—whether based on actual events or fantasies—for every story is a creation of the storyteller. Every story has a bias, an agenda with roots in the storyteller’s culture, time, environment, and uniquely personal experience. Understanding stories in this way reveals that humans do not have one truth, but many truths—and perhaps as many lies, for not all agendas are honest.
As storytellers, we should consider our subjectivity. What is the truth we want readers to perceive, and why do we want that? What ends do our stories serve? If we are to be honest with our readers and listeners, we must first be honest with ourselves and understand our own intent. We make our stories most compelling when we use them to present multiple perspectives or arguments and let readers draw their own conclusions— even when we want them to draw a specific one.
Is the power to create stories what makes us uniquely human? Even that proposition serves an agenda: a belief that humans are different from other animals and set apart. Does the honeybee tell a story about finding nectar when she dances for the hive? Does the lioness tell a story when she teaches her cubs to hunt? Do chimpanzees have a story when they bury their dead? Does the crow know a story when she stays behind the flock to be at the side of a sick or wounded crow? Maybe we are wrong to label all animal behaviors as instinct, to dismiss the transmission of information within a community or from generation to generation as merely the result of some internal pre-programming.
Maybe if we look deeper and with more compassion, we will find stories everywhere, even in our inhuman companions who share this world with us. Maybe we will discover we simply don’t speak the language of those stories, or they are told in ways so alien to our way of thinking that we fail to recognize them for what they are.
Maybe stories are everywhere, surrounding us with truths we have yet to consider, and we only need to learn how to listen.