The history of humankind is inextricably tied up with that of storytelling. From the earliest cave paintings, through the development of signed and spoken language to the written word and the development of social media, for as long as we have existed we have lived our lives through the telling of stories and through the seeking of them. We not only tell our own stories but we look for the ones that existed before or outside us. We look for the story of how the universe was created. We learn the historical stories of those who went before us. Every scientific discovery or technological advancement is the discovery of an old story or the creation of a new one. Stories, stories everywhere.
To be human is to be a storyteller.
Think about it. There are, of course, the obvious kinds of storytelling: reading a story to a child, writing a book or a poem or a blog. But there are also the less obvious, and perhaps more fundamental, kinds of storytelling which permeate our everyday lives. When you talk about your day with a friend or family member; when you recall and share a memory; when you talk to your doctor about what’s wrong; when you compose a tweet or an Instagram caption; even what you choose to wear or not wear, eat or not eat, do or not do adds a tiny story to the billions already flying around.
And these stories are powerful.
I’m going to go back to some of those more obvious kinds of storytelling for a moment. My favourite kind of storytelling, in fact. Books. I love to read. I love to turn the pages and be told a story by someone who might be on the other side of the world or a hundred years dead. Why? Two reasons: Firstly, I love the escape it offers me. Through the storytelling of hundreds of authors, I have flown on the back of a dragon; I have sat and wept by a river in the French Pyrenees; I have learnt to speak the name of the wind and called it to me; I have been to tea parties with mice; I have sat in a boat with a tiger; I have visited countries I would otherwise never have visited, met people I would otherwise never have met and have experienced things that I otherwise could not have experienced. Getting lost in a story has always been one of my favourite forms of self care because it somehow allows me to both take a step back from any intense emotions I might be feeling and also to feel them fully. There is a quote I love which encapsulates this:
We lose ourselves in books, we find ourselves there too.
Which brings me neatly to me second reason for loving books: the discovery of shared experience. Have you ever had a moment when you read something that you connect so wholly with that it brings tears to your eyes, or raises the hairs on your scalp, or just makes you pause and read it again because it’s like someone reached inside you and pulled out a thought or feeling or experience that you thought you were alone in? A moment when someone expresses so perfectly in words something you thought was impossible to express? A moment when you felt just a tiny bit less alone? That shared experience is so precious. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re reading a memoir or autobiography or an epic high fantasy novel, the fact that someone has put into words something that lives inside you creates a profound moment of connection. And suddenly you find yourself that little bit more in the world.
Those moments where we find ourselves in someone else’s story can, if we let it, act as a catalyst which enables us to tell our own stories. Because our stories are just as powerful. And just like it doesn’t have to be a novel or even a book that you find yourself in – it can be a random quote on Pinterest, a blog post from an acquaintance, a Tuesday afternoon tweet from a stranger on the internet – it doesn’t have to be in a book that you tell your story either.
There are so many benefits to sharing your stories. It can offer a real catharsis: whether you speak your story aloud, publish it in a blog or a book, or just write it down on a piece of paper which you subsequently tear into pieces and burn, the process of getting your story out of you and somehow into the world can offer an immense release. So often, the stories we tell ourselves become distorted and the things we are worrying about or that are causing us pain grow and warp out of all manageable proportion. And this makes us ill, unhappy, lost. I’m not for a moment claiming that telling that painful story out loud will magically shrink it to something inconsequential, but it just might make it feel more manageable. And even if it doesn’t, another great thing about telling your story is that it can help you find the right support. By telling your story you reach out and you might be surprised at the support that rallies round in response. It’s not always easy to do – in fact, it is often far from easy to do – but letting your story leave the confines of your mind could open up avenues of help and support that you hadn’t realised were there. There is also the definite possibility that by sharing your story you offer that moment of connection to someone else. Hearing other people’s stories – stories of struggle and recovery, relapse and healing – has been by far the most helpful thing in my own journey with anxiety, panic attacks and depression, and I am eternally grateful to those individuals for sharing their stories. Hearing about their bad times helped me feel less alone in mine. Hearing about their good times helped me feel hope when I thought there was none. Witnessing their openness helped me find the courage to tell my own story, and so find my own catharsis, my own support, and support others in turn.
In this way, all of our stories – the good bits, the bad bits, and the damnably ugly bits – weave together to become part of a larger story. One of community. One of love. One of hope. It is a beautiful thing. And whenever you’re ready, it’s waiting for your story.
Ways you can tell your story if you’re not sure where to start:
- Keep a journal or notebook for random thoughts or brain dumps. You can write in it daily or just whenever you need to release some stuff from your head. You do NOT have to show it to anyone unless you want to. You don’t even have to keep it. You can fill a page, rip it out and throw it away. Whatever works for you.
- Draw, paint, doodle – stories don’t have to be told in words. Before I know how to express what I was feeling through language I used images. Or sometimes just scribbling. Scribbling on a page until you tear through it is strangely therapeutic!
- Start a blog. The beauty of something like this is that it can be completely anonymous if you want. No-one you know in ‘real’ life needs to know it’s you writing unless you want them to. Equally, you can put your name to it and share it widely. Again, whatever works for you.
- Play with poetry. Poetry is a brilliant form of storytelling because there are no rules. Can’t string a sentence together but have plenty of random words bubbling around in that brain of yours? Put them on a page and turn them into a poem. It doesn’t have to rhyme. It doesn’t have to make sense. It can just be what it is.
- Explore story in other forms: dance, drama, music, exercise, mediation, gardening, DIY. Outside language, we can shape story in all sorts of ways. I love to dance. When I’m angry or upset and struggling to express it, there is nothing I love better than to take to the dance floor. Beating out the frustration under my tap shoes. Forgetting how out of control I feel of my situation because I can control my movement. This works through so many other activities as well: meditation to calm and shape the story in your mind; exercise to shape the story of your body; music or drama to externalise your story through art; gardening or DIY to create your story through making or tending something else.
- Write a fictional story…or even a book! If you’re feeling more ambitious then why the hell not write a book?! It doesn’t have to be memoir or autobiography. I have found that creating characters onto whom I can write some of my thoughts, feelings and experiences is hugely helpful in processing them. I’ve also found that creating other characters around them who respond to those thoughts, feelings and experiences helps me understand what isn’t helpful from other people and what is. It’s also fun!
However you choose to tell your story, let it be in the way and the time that is right for you. No-one can force you to tell it. No-one can tell it for you. It is yours. And it is beautiful.
Happy National Storytelling Week! What’s your favourite form of storytelling?