The power and responsibility of storytelling
I love stories, all kinds. I love the stories that a stranger tells you, unexpectedly*, I love volumes of short stories (every autumn I re-read Angela Carter's “The Bloody Chamber”, and I am currently reading collections by Liam Hogan and Erinna Mettler, both brilliant)
and I love old stories retold by brilliant tellers (like Vanessa Woolf)
The oral tradition of storytelling is having something of a revival. There are organsiation and groups who have been brilliantly championing it for years, I hope the fact that it is growing increasingly popular is exciting for them. Pre-dating the written word, this kind of story telling is as old as us homo sapiens, I imagine we would have used stories to understand the world around us, to comfort, excite, entertain and inspire each other.
In the oral tradition, each teller is free to intepret the story as she wishes, putting her own flesh on the bare bones of the tale, adding something, taking it away, like a recipe (stirred in a cauldron!). each teller makes her choices. or his choices.
So here's the thing.
The teller chooses.
Therefore they have a power and a responsibility.
Recently I listened to an incredible performer give a powerful and mesmerising version of an old classic. He was incredible. He was commanding and captivating,despite it being a long story. A familiar story which he made his own.
There were three children in the story. They grew up but kept their names: "the scientist" (a boy) , "the artist" (a boy), "the little wife" (a girl).
Yes, in the story, she was actually called “Little Wife".
All of those names pretty reductive, useful archetypes maybe, interesting to name someone by their occupation and predilictions rather than their given names. The mother of these three, who seemed to have no choice in getting married in the first place, says little, all we really find out about her is that she's a racist (steals a child because a blonde child mustn’t be kept by gypsies), she is shallow (goes on about clothes to her friends) and then dies in childbirth. She is Mother. Racist, shallow and then dead. As a woman who loves stories, who loved this story and admired the man who told it, I was troubled by this. I would rather be a “monster" than a “little wife”. I’d rather be a “scientist" or an “artist” than simply a “mother”. Not that I am disrespecting either wives or mothers, but interesting that the men were described by their jobs or missions or powers and the women by their relationship to others, not as characters in their own rights.
Does this matter? It is 'just a story'? Can we change it? If in the original the women don't do so well, aren't heroes, don't have any fun, don't get to speak? Yes we can, and yes we must. The power of storytelling is that it gives you the teller the chance to change the story. To tell something surprising, radical, revolutionary. I say this because I have absolute faith in the power of stories to change the world.
We are all at some point in the role of storyteller. As we tell a tale down the pub, when we write a post on Facebook, when we tap out a tweet. I think we should do this responsibly.
I have written stories myself, finding i have written a male protaganist or hero because that is what i’m used to, what we learn to expect. I’m telling a story tomorrow night at fabulous live lit night “Thats What she said” organised by for books sake. The story I am telling is about hope and kindness. The hero of this story has changed many, many times.. has been a man, a little girl, a little boy, even a fox, until i settled on an old woman who misbehaves and drinks gin against medical advice. Because it is more surprising and original to have a disruptive octagenarian heroine than, you know, the usual.She is lionhearted. She's unruly. She may take over. Wish me luck.
I’ve written more about stories for Action For Happiness here
There’s a great programme on Radio 4 worth checking out, for those of you interested in stories, magic, faith, all that stuff. It's about a pre-historic ivory carving of a lioness woman/lion man, discovered in germany in 1939 and considered to be around 40 000 years old. It is of a creature that never existed. It may have been passed from hand to hand fireside, as people told stories about it. Imagine that. Listen here
* Recently i spent an hour in the charming company of a total stranger (Valerie) who told me, after much gossip and giggling, that she had been in a film with Humphrey Bogart as a young girl...
So here’s my challenge to you.Speak with strangers when you are able to, enjoy being wrong in your assumptions about people, be a story hunter. Go on.The world is full of sheroes and heroes, waiting to tell you their stories. Get ready to listen.