Reclaiming The Art Of Storytelling

Last Sunday was my birthday.  In the days leading up to the grandly disinteresting occasion, I found myself musing idly on the purpose of birthdays.   Having moved past all of the rites of passage which lent meaning to my earlier birthdays, I wondered whether my advancement in age still held any significance.  When we get together with our family and friends on our “special day”, just what is it that we’re celebrating, I pondered?  Our continued existence?  The meaning we’ve gleaned from our experiences of life?  The times we’ve shared with those who enrich us in countless ways?  Our achievements and contributions to the world?  No, for I suspect that, like so many traditions, the birthday has become a hollow event, a pointless burst of narcissism which the invited celebrants often couldn’t care less about. 

I found myself suddenly consumed with the idea that this birthday of mine should mean something, not only to myself, but also to those I shared it with.  If my birthday was to be a celebration of my life, I thought, perhaps I should look backwards through my years to see what wisdom may lie there, what intriguing lessons, what entertaining tales.  I therefore embarked on a new project, excavating many of the stories of my past and compiling them together, attempting to paint a picture of my evolution through life which I could then share with others.  I hoped that this would lend meaning to what might otherwise be a meaningless affair simply marking the passage of one more year. 

Was this act merely narcissistic and self- indulgent?  No, I realized.  I was on to something here.  The stories I chose to share were as much about those I would share them with as about myself, and not only because they were featured in my tales.  The process of storytelling, I came to realize, binds both speaker and audience together, as the meaning in the words is transferred from one’s mind to the world outside.  It is a gift of one’s self to those who have helped to nurture that self: the family, the circle of friends, the community.  Branching out from my original focal point, I began writing a series of Mother’s Day tales as well, featuring my relationship with my mom, its twists and turns.  It was then that I realized what I was doing.  I was creating a family mythos of sorts, by dusting off our old stories from the shelves of my memory and sharing them anew. 

Through this process, I came to know how empowering it is to take back the active role of storyteller in my own life.  We do not require the “glass tit” to entertain us, and we don’t need professional entertainers to make up our mythos for us.  There is a place for pop culture’s mass entertainment, to be sure.  But what if there was also a place in our lives for our own stories… for our families and friends to share with us their true experiences of life, their discoveries and adventures, trials they have endured and the wondrous knowledge they have gained?  Might this not enrich all our lives now, as it did in ancient times?

I visualize a familial group, or perhaps a tribe, sitting around a campfire exchanging stories of the hunt, their travels on migration, the personal lore of their family history, the triumphs and challenges faced by their grandparents and by their children.  These people spoke of themselves and their own small world because that is what they knew, and tales of their tribal heroes became a part of myth.  I imagine that some of these myths of ancient warriors and brave deeds became what we today know as folklore, passed from mouth to ear for centuries, until the tale, and the wisdom it contained, became more than personal.  It became a tale that transcended the personal, rich with the very essence of humanity.  This tale was sung by traveling bards for many years before finally being transcribed on paper and preserved for centuries.

Storytelling hearkens back to those earlier times, when real, human achievement was more readily celebrated and shared.  It reminds us that there is meaning in our lives and resonance in our words.  We know more than any Hollywood- generated character.  We are real.  We are engaged, moment-by-moment, in the process of living.  Storytelling reminds us that we do not always need to be entertained.  Sometimes we only need to Be, and to let the story of our lives flow through us.

Soahki is a contributing writer for projectgroupthink.wordpress.com. Get instant updates for this blog via Twitter: PGTblog.

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4 Comments

Filed under Entertainment, social commentary

4 responses to “Reclaiming The Art Of Storytelling

  1. Po

    I do agree that birthdays become quite trite and meaningless, especially as we age. I like the idea of storytelling to sort of acknowledge and actively integrate those who have played a part over the history of your life. Unfortunately, while I appreciate a good story, I tend to suck at delivering them and prefer to let other, more animated and extroverted people do the talking.

  2. “We know more than any Hollywood- generated character.” Indeed.

    A celebration of you and everything that’s a part of you.

    On a lower level, I had a conversation with one of my aunts on my last birthday.

    Me: Birthdays are stupid. I could very well celebrate any other day and it would be just as special. Aging is such an unspectacular feat anyway.

    My Aunt: Birthdays are an excuse to celebrate. When you get older, you will find less and less things to celebrate and see the people you know and love less often.

    This sort of thinking would also justify holidays and any other similar event. Is the “day” itself important; no. But the social gathering that occurs is.

    I guess the transition is: Youth- Birthdays are awesome, Young Adult- Birthdays are pointless, Adult- Birthdays become an important social gathering.

  3. eelliso1

    Youth birthdays for me were absolutely horrible. No one ever came to my birthday parties and my grandparents were about the only people to remember it. That being said, my birthday is within a few short weeks. This post will certainly make me more contemplative about the entire ordeal.

  4. davidrsheehan

    Wow, so much to write in this comment. Where to start?

    First, the most blazingly silly thing I’ve heard from Jake – that aging is unspectacular. I’m sorry, but I flatly disagree. From the physiological, biological, societal, or psychological – any way you’d liek to slice it, the process of aging is completely and totally spectacular. From the ways our bodies and minds change to the ways we cope with those changes, aging is only unspectacular if you choose to not look at it. Of course, I doubt you meant that the process of aging is truly unspectacular, but rather the celebration of the process… but still.

    E – happy birthday ahead of time. I’ll likely forget, so I’m saying it ahead of time.

    Meaning of birthdays. The dry humor in me says it’s an opportunity for old married men to get a little something something.

    Beyond that, Jake (and his aunt) is absolutely right – it’s about gathering together with friends and families. Sociologically and anthropologically, this is an incredibly important function. The act of birthday celebration, like most other gathering celebrations is one that continues the long, human tradition of reciprocity and reciprocal gifting. More specifically, then we visit someone we know/are related to/are friends with, we’re gifting them with your presence, time, and material goods (if we bring them). This, in turn solidifies the ties that bound us (the same bounds that, concrete or idealistically, create societies through webs of reciprocal networks), and perpetuates the reciprocity relationship between the two parties.

    Soahki, great post and sorry I haven’t responded directly until now – I think what you have here is great. Both as a piece and as a point. Storytelling is this fascinating thing. The scholar in me wants to look at the act of storytelling as a liminal function in society and to study the placeholders that storytellers have consequently held. The historian in me wants to look at the different approaches to narratives (what’s important, what’s significant?). And the psychologist in me wonders why we’re so interested in stories (what makes us decide one is better than another; what makes us choose what we listen to, narrate, or ignore?).

    Obviously, I’m a little starved here for academic thinking, so I think I’ll cut myself short after one other quick, unrelated point:

    Po, I think Tom should be invited to be a PGT writer. He has interesting things to say and, if he edits what he writes (my only quibble with his stuff being that it makes the editor in me die a little when I read his writing), he’d be quite an addition here.

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