As actors, musicians and storytellers, the Living Arts Corporation has performed in over 500 schools throughout the nation.
Long ago, when my young son learned that I had returned to graduate school to study acting, he said to me, “Jinx, why are you going to school? You already tell the best stories.” There was no point arguing with the child, for at the enchanted age of five he firmly perceived his mother as a goddess. Yet, I did not ignore my son’s question and realized that returning to graduate school was triggered by my love of storytelling and my need to understand it more deeply.
I have always been a storyteller of sorts and I consume stories, like popcorn in a movie theater.
I believe in the importance of exercising our memories, personally and collectively. It is the stuff of Story. The greater and deeper our memory of the past, the wider our vision of the future becomes. The fuller our memory becomes, the more integrated we are as humans, and the more free. This process takes structure and discipline and frequently boldness. We can learn to use our memory and learn to free ourselves from social amnesia. We can do this as individuals, nations and cultures. Storytelling ought to be radical, not in the political connotation, but in its basic meaning: radix: root. Going back to our roots is essential to Story, but this does not mean dwelling in the past; anamnesis (against amnesia) is an open passage to the future; without memory, the future does not exist.
Elie Wiesel once said, “People become the stories they hear and the stories they tell.” When we tell our stories, we give our struggles a name and a face and we invite the listeners into our lives. Oddly, we assume that constructing a narrative of one’s life is a universal process. After all, they are the stories of our lives. Yet a surprising number of people don’t have a lucid story, something that hangs together, makes sense and has some internal constancy to it. The story may have important portions missing or the narrative is fragmented and muddled. Sometimes, the story is self-condemnatory and imbalanced. Sometimes, it is based on projected blame and created to rewrite one’s history, instead of discovering authentic meaning from one’s experiences. At worst, we create our story to become a false myth used to exploit and gain advantage over others.
To construct a story of our lives is to make meaning of it. To compose memory, emotion and internal experience, as well as autobiographical facts into a story helps us become who we are. Anyone who hangs around children recognizes that storytelling begins early and becomes autobiographical spontaneously. Children include details of family life without prompting.
The power of telling your story allows you to transform the foreign into the familiar—making the unspeakable, speakable. Your narrative (and yours alone) can bring you awareness, closure and open new windows.
Natalie Goldberg, author of Old Friend from Far Away, writes: “Personal story is taking personal experience and turning it inside out. We surrender our most precious understanding, so others can feel what we felt and become enlarged. This means that when we write, speak or perform, we give up ourselves. We craft and tell our stories, not to immortalize, but to surrender ourselves. It is our one great act of generosity.”
We exchange our stories between bar stools, park benches, blog posts and bed pillows. We perform them on stages, band stands and dance floors. We paint them, write them, carve them, dance them, sing them, photograph them and strum them. Stories define us- and redefine us, over and over again.
“Stories are powerful: They give meaning and context to what would otherwise be a collection of easily forgettable facts. Stories invoke the imagination so that listeners begin to own them almost as much as the teller. In fact, there’s a growing body of research that points to the power of narrative not just as a way to engage people, but as the only way to change deeply entrenched views.” (Author)ity: The Importance of Storytelling – Simon Kelly, 2008
Change is inherent in Story, and for this reason alone it is a worthy task for each of us to ponder our personal stories. Digging, recognizing and crafting our personal narratives enables us to recognize the hero or heroine within ourselves. Each life echoes the mythic hero’s journey and our obstacles, emotions, struggles and transformations enter the realm of the gods. And oh, hanging out with the gods is a fine pastime, by the way.
Find your story. Share it. Make it a capital ‘S’. And what will you gain? The ability to see beyond it.
Neil Gaiman, the popular English author of fiction, comic books, graphic novels, theatre and films said it succinctly in his 2012 commencement address at the University of the Arts.
“The one thing you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. The moment that you feel that just possibly you are walking down the street naked…that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right…And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”
Grab your story by the throat. Shake it, rattle it and turn it inside out. Claim your story, whoever you are and wherever you live. Own it, and make the world more interesting for your being here. – Jinx Davis