Holding the Center: Story and Community Part 1 – What is story?

(About this post) A few months ago, I received my graduate degree in Environmental Education. As part of this program, I wrote and presented a capstone. This presentation was a snapshot of what we had gotten out of our graduate experience, as well as a chance to present our personal vision of education. For me this became a chance to explore my own connection with story, learning, and how we each explore and understand the world through a unique and special lens.

Because my capstone inspired this project, I have decided to edit it and publish it on my blog. I will be posting it in sections, and providing links to the resources I found to be the most valuable as I researched and developed this piece.


 

“Man…is a storytelling animal. Wherever he goes, he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker buoys and trail signs of stories. He keeps on making them up. As long as there’s a story, it’s all right.” Graham Swift, Waterland

“Story is the center without the rest cannot hold” Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal

Growing up, my father would make up our bedtime stories. Sometimes we had the opportunity to choose the characters, and sometimes he would choose them. One of his favorite characters was Marco the Clown. He told so many different stories about Marco, and although I remember details of these stories vividly, I don’t know anymore if the details I remember came from one story or many. As part of my presentation, I shared an audio recording of my father telling one of these stories. The story he tells centers on a young girl named Emily (who at one point, he also calls Emma), who escapes her family home one night and gets a once in a lifetime chance to be a clown in a circus. He ends the story with the wonderful message that you never know where one moment can take you.

For me, hearing and sharing this story was important not just because I was hearing my father’s voice, or that I heard versions of it so often as a child, or that the clown my dad talked about in the story hung over my bed as a kid. (although, this is probably one of the reasons I may be the only person I know NOT freaked out by clowns). What made it special was that through this story I am connected to my father, to the feeling of being young, cared for and protected, and I can see a fictionalized version of myself through his eyes.

I invite each of you, before you continue reading this, to think about a story YOU remember vividly. It could be something that happened to you or someone you know. It could be a story you heard as a child, or one that you read in a book or watched on a screen. If you wish, you might even come up with a brief sketch of that story – if it helps, you can imagine that a movie of this story is being made – what would the title be? What would the tagline be? What would the poster look like?

Stories are fundamental to our experience of being human. They are inextricably woven into our beliefs, our faiths, our families, our cultures and our communities. They can be spoken, but they are also heard, seen, created and acted out by us all the time. Jonathan Gottschall says that “story is for a human as water is for fish – all-encompassing and not quite palpable.” Stories are not just part of our history, but they ARE our history. They were present 100,000 years ago: before writing and even before spoken language. Humans have evolved to use story as our primary tool for remembering, interpreting, learning about and experiencing the world.

Some aspects of this subject are so much a part of the human experience that it can feel unnecessary to examine it. However this is exactly the reason I think it is important to think about. Without an understanding of how stories shape us and how they underpin our thoughts, our interactions and our cultures, we cannot understand the role they play, we cannot learn to see and examine the stories that make up our lives or the lives of others. It is not until we understand how stories form us, both as individuals and as communities, into who we are today that we can begin the work of harnessing the power of story to become who we want to be.

But before we examine this further, I would like to begin by making sure that when we talk about story, we are all talking about the same thing. What is a story exactly? To start with, the following list gives us a few examples. This list comes from the work of Kendall Haven. NASA hired Haven to answer the question “why does no one know what we are doing?” and the result was the book Story Proof: the Science Behind the Startling Power of Story. The following list presents a series of actions and interactions that might or might not involve a story. As you read each of the following examples, I invite you to answer the question: “Is there a story being told here?”.

Moments that could involve stories:

  • Uncle Fred perches on a kitchen chair doing his impersonation of the president while he makes up silly policy initiatives
  • Your grandmother quietly tells you about eight generations’ worth of family history while she knits
  • You tell your spouse about your day
  • You tell a joke
  • You read an article in Time or Discover magazine
  • You read a stock report or a computer program instruction book
  • You read an essay your neighbor wants to submit to the Letters-to-the-editor section of the local paper
  • You read a recipe for venison stew
  • You read a short story in a collection of classical literature
  • You watch a comic video sent to you by a friend

What do you think? When I first read this list, I found myself struggling, not because I didn’t know when a story was present, but rather because even when I thought a story probably wasn’t present, I wanted it to be. And this seems to be the case for many of us. In general, even if we struggle to define story in words, we easily recognize when a story is present.

For me, I find many of these statements to obviously include story, such as the statement “You tell a spouse about your day”. However, for other items I found myself spending some time trying to figure out how it COULD be a story. For example, the recipe for venison stew. I found myself wondering what it was written on. Who wrote it? Why venison? Because this is something a lot of people don’t often eat, who went out and hunted the deer? And yet, the simple statement “You read a recipe for venison stew” doesn’t directly involve any of the answers to my questions.

This list was originally designed to show that we as humans know what story is without a definition. However, I think it shows something deeper as well. Much like seeing the face of the man on the moon, we want to see story in everything – even when we read about something simple and straightforward like a recipe, a receipt or a how-to book, we want so much to understand the story surrounding it that we start to see it as a story in itself.

So I again raise the question: what is story? The following are some definitions I found as I researched this subject.

“The telling of stories, like singing and praying, would seem to be an almost ceremonial act, an ancient and necessary mode of speech that tends the early rootedness of human language” – David Abram

“Story is a detailed, character-based narration of a character’s struggles to overcome obstacles and reach an important goal” – Kendall Haven

“Just about any story – comic, tragic, romantic – is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desires” – Jonathan Gottschall

“Story is the organizing principle for human action” – Michele Crossley

“What is story? A series of events that are linked together through time which have developments and outcomes, and most importantly, these interconnected events have meaning (for the storyteller)” – Alice Morgan

“Stories are a form of magical transportation” – Hannah Faith Notess

“(Story) defines people. It tells us what is laudable and what is contemptible. It subtly and constantly encourages us to be decent instead of decadent” – Jonathan Gottschall

“Stories tell us not only who we are, but who we have been and who we can be” – Julian Rappaport

“Stories are holy and nutritious and crucial. Stories change lives; stories save lives. … They crack open hearts, they open minds.” – Brian Doyle

I cannot personally give you a single definition of story. All of the definitions above carry something true and important, but none of them encapsulate the entire human experience of story. However, what these quotes do is highlight some important commonalities or universal themes.

In general, when we talk about story, we talk about a narrative that has a main character, a protagonist whose journey is the through line of the story. This character is identifiable and relatable, with flaws and strengths, able to make mistakes. They have goals and motives. The story itself tends to be about how the protagonist achieves their goal by overcoming a challenge, obstacle or difficulty. Finally, the story has a point, a meaning, a reason for being told, and a lesson to be learned. This lesson is incredibly important. Stories communicate morality – in most of our stories, people who do the culturally moral thing are rewarded, while those who harm are punished, or at the very least, judged by the narrator.

If you chose a story you remember vividly, or if you want to think of a story now, I invite you to try to map your own story to the features of story described above. Who is the protagonist? Is their journey physical or mental? What details and identifiable moments in the story make it memorable for you?

But even with these definitions, we are still missing one very important part of story, that of the teller. How are these stories communicated? Who is the storyteller? Why is a story being told? When I say the word storyteller, many of you might envision someone sitting in a group, telling a story to those around them. And it is true, stories are often recounted in groups. Today, these groups are often in the millions, as we gather together to watch movies, to watch TV shows. Maybe you pictured an author, writing alone in their study, writing a story we will one day read in a newspaper or a book. Our love of books and fiction is a love of story, a fascinating and important one.

However, the stories I am interested in talking about are not these stories. What I want to look at are the stories that subconsciously shape our thought processes, our actions, our friendships, our choices and our communities. These stories are not the polished tales we see and hear in books and movies. They are the invisible strands that hold our human community together. Stories are our roots. In a forest community, trees cannot exist without creating partnerships with fungal structures in the soil below them. These invisible strands connect a tree to nutrients, water and give them necessary information about their environments and potential threats. For us, stories serve a similar purpose. Stories give us strength, they are how we interact with and define our surrounding environments. Stories ground us. Stories sustain us.

Great Resources for Further Exploration:

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

Story Proof: the Science Behind the Startling Power of Story by Kendall Haven

 


 

Thanks for reading part one of Holding the Center: Story and Community. Please come back next week to read the second installment, titled “The Importance of Multiple Personal Stories”.

 

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