#68 So What Exactly is a Story?
Defining what makes a story and what makes us all storytellers (yes, even you)
I’ve said it many times, but I’m going to reinforce an idea that I’ve shared in this newsletter before: I think we’re all storytellers and we all create stories across mediums and areas of interest. It’s a fundamental part of the human experience. It’s why I write a newsletter about it and why so many creators talk about it as part of what they’re trying to do. It’s why I try to teach my clients and students about how to be impactful storytellers and share their unique stories with the world. Part of my mission is to get people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as creative (though I feel strongly as well that we all are) to see how they tell and share stories to connect in their lives all the time and show them how to do it effectively.
In last week’s monthly feature interview of Storytellers I Admire, artist Jen Aitken asked me a question that has stayed with me over the ensuing days. I can’t get it out of my head in fact. The question, as most great questions do, opened me up to things I had been considering in my subconscious but hadn’t yet fully realized.
The question? She asked near the end of an interview where she challenged the idea of storytelling living across mediums, “What do you think stands to be gained by calling multiple things that we don't consider stories, stories?”
Here was my response, in case you haven’t read the interview (you really should go back to it if you haven’t especially if you’re an artist, it’s fantastic): “Good question. It's partly because I think stories are so important that they can't just live in the realm of the writer or the speech, you know? They have to live further out than that one world because they matter so much to the human experience. I think that's where it starts from…
…In that context, I'm not thinking about stories as [just] the books we all read, or even the shows we all watch, but it's also the experiences we have and the meaning that we create around them. So, for example, 9/11 is an experience that happened, but then there were so many stories around it and there's been art that's been created, all these different things and interpretations [of that experience] and I think leaving it [exclusively] in the world of the writer or the speaker doesn’t leave enough space for this thing that is so important. Like, our brains make stories….
…That's what we do. There's no way for us to have meaning as human beings if we don't. This is neuroscience, if we don't create stories, if you don't start to create narratives and put things together in some sort of [story] we lose that sense of order for ourselves. So yeah. That's why…
…And it's also, I think, partly what my own experience has been. I started out as only a writer and I've done so many additional things since then and I think in all those things I've been a storyteller while not always writing.”
I feel really strongly about this one.
Salespeople are storytellers, engineers are storytellers, architects are storytellers, parents are storytellers as they work with their children to make sense of the world. Our tools and mediums may be different, but we all tell stories. What brings these disparate and diverse stories together and connect them is that we’re all trying to make sense of things and communicate them back to the world in a way that makes sense to us. It’s fundamentally communication. But the sharing of the story is only the beginning. Because that’s when things get interesting as people receive them and have an experience in their minds, bodies, hearts, or just in the moment as a result of your shared story. They interpret it, take it away and hold onto it. They may also share it or share the experience of it with others, but it starts to build a link between you the teller and them the audience and people experiencing your story.
So for me a story is something you share—a form of communication that creates an experience for the receiver and helps create meaning and build connections between and among people, cultures, and societies. They matter. Your story, your art, your sense of the world that you choose to share back in the ways the make sense to you as a business owner, or creator, or marketer, it matters. And no one else can tell it the way you can.
It’s a form of magic.
So for me a story is something you share—a form of communication that creates an experience for the receiver and helps create meaning and build connections between and among people, cultures, and societies.
Earlier in that same interview I told Jen that in many ways narrative creates story so the two are intertwined and often interchangeable for some. But that doesn’t mean the narrative has to be oral or literary, it can come together in the flow of the experience of an object (or sculpture in Jen’s case), or in composition of an ad in the case of a marketer, or in just a look you give your best friend in a moment of hilarity.
Here’s what I said to Jen about the notion of narrative (I’ve also written about it in the newsletter in the past as having many forms): “There's no story without a narrative, but that's only in the literary, language-based sense of story. But for me, my understanding of story and the way I'm more and more starting to define and understand it is around the experience and understanding that comes from that experience, which is why when I think about art and when I think about your art specifically, I think about the experience I have with the pieces from the moment I encounter it, to moving around it, trying to gain a sense of understanding and defining what I'm getting from it. That for me is an experience of a story. And for me, you're the person who created it. So you're the teller of that story. Even though you might've infused something or some sort of meaning into it that I’m not picking up, I'm going to experience something entirely different. Because I have different contexts, I'm looking at it from a different perspective.”
In that experience shared, yet different—the exchange of ideas and meaning, the sense of communication with or without language—is the magic of storytelling and what makes a story a story. It’s what makes you a storyteller.
I’d love for you to think about your life and your work and your passions through the lens of how you share stories and communicate ideas through what you’re doing. Let me know in the comments if you agree OR if you have another take on it. I’d love to hear it and learn from it.
Also, if you haven’t already:
A Story Well Told
I love poetry. There’s a rigour to its creation that I admire (and could NEVER replicate). It changes how I think about the world and reinforces why I love working with words in all the work I do. The Good Trade blog collected “17 Poems About Friendship that Transcend Social Distance” that I think live far beyond the confines of the pandemic and make me think of friends old and new as I read them. Let me know if any of them resonate with you. And if you have a poem you love and would like to share, please reply to this email and send it over or share with the class and leave a link to it in the comments.