Storytelling

Human beings are born storytellers. Quite literally – it’s in our DNA and may have been a driving force behind the construction of culture over the course of our evolution once language had come on the scene (and it is possible to think even before then, albeit in more limited ways). We use our stories to instruct, to inspire, to inform, to incline, induce, inculcate. Stories feed us when we are young and stay with us when we grow old, they shape how we view the world and each other, they shape how we approach our lives. Stories add a richness and a depth to human existence that is almost unimaginable in its grandeur and its sweep. Try to think what your life might be without stories; if you are anything like me you probably simply can’t.

Stories need storytellers, and we would be them if we can. The odds though are stacked against us, the way too steep, too hard. Who will read our scribbles? And if no one will then why bother? There are most certainly far better ways to spend one’s time then hunched over a keyboard in a dark room with the monitor’s blue light falling on the notebook where all your character ideas are kept, alone, hungry, and tired while cats wail in the alley outside. Yet there is that drive, that burn, and it will not go away. The story must be told, and the die must be cast, come what may.

We might be surprised. Some books resonate in deep ways with millions whose own cultural background may differ from the author’s but which may bend them towards the story nevertheless. Here is a touching example of one such book, whose deeply astonishing success the author was completely unaware of until shortly before her death. Irish/Irish-American writer Ethel Voynich’s 1897 The Gadfly was beloved by generations of Russians and Chinese while the novel remained (and remains) almost unheard of in the Anglophone world. Imagine that, being a bestseller in two countries whose people and languages are as different from your own as Russian and Chinese are from English (and each other). Martin Buber’s I and Thou similarly found fame first in translation (the English version, it was written in German), although it was fortunate for him that Soviet copyright laws did not prevent his receipt of any royalties. They wrote their books out of their hearts and plunged ahead with the process of publication, devoid of any and all guarantees and no doubt incredibly disappointed with the initial results. But what could they expect writing in the way/content they did, some might object. What can any of us expect regardless of the way we write or what we write about, goes the rejoinder. Placing something into the world is a messy and unpredictable affair at the best of times, and what a time it is we live in.

The story must be told. Voynich and Buber related to the conditions they found themselves in via pen and paper, and we do so through keyboards and word processing software (and maybe some of us with vintage typewriters – until the ribbon runs out and can’t be replaced). Not to write is a betrayal to ourselves, not to make our stories heard – by however many or few and for however long or short – is a betrayal to them. Writers write. And whether one chooses to publish or not makes very little difference, I think, to the larger picture of our lives and the sorts of people we are. Like it or not, if we are writers then we are storytellers in some fashion, and we stand in a very long tradition. That tradition has seen countless lives come and go, countless tales told and forgotten, countless hours spent in unforgiving and unrequited labors of love. Yet each link on the chain is connected to the next, and they all tumble down to us now. What will we do? What will we share? You tell me storyteller, I’m all ears.

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