Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Storytelling is not just entertainment. It's a fundamental part of being human

You are not alone, writes Christine Hennebury. Telling stories helps build community when we need it most

It's not just entertainment. Telling stories is a fundamental part of being human

Stories help us to understand information and each other, writes contributor Christine Hennebury, making the information memorable. (Illustration by Katie Rowe/CBC )

I have always been a storyteller of sorts but until I stepped to the front of the room at the St. John's Storytelling Circle more than 10 years ago, I had no idea how important stories were to my life.

I used to think of stories as those edited narratives that get shared in a structured way: spoken into a microphone, written into books, shown in movies and plays — a carefully considered arc of character, plot and entertainment.

From that perspective, they were something I could choose when and how to consume. As I learned more about stories and storytelling, though, I realized they are far more than mere entertainment.

I do tell and listen to those stories with a clear narrative arc, of course, but my time as a storyteller has made me aware of how stories are woven throughout our lives, in almost every context.

While not everyone is comfortable taking to the stage and telling their tale into the microphone, we all have opportunities to share stories with the world. (Illustration by Katie Rowe/CBC)

We all share stories. Of family, work, and of our experiences. We refer to myths, folklore, and characters from TV shows to explain things to ourselves and to others. We construct internal narratives to help us make sense of the world.

Storytelling is a fundamental part of being human. Stories let us share information in a way that creates an emotional connection.

They help us to understand that information and each other, and it makes the information memorable.

Because stories create an emotional connection, we can gain a deeper understanding of other people's experiences.

That not only helps us to understand their lives but allows us to take the lessons they have learned and apply it to our own.

The act of storytelling

Storyteller and writer Gary Green says sharing stories of people's experiences is not only valuable for promoting understanding — it can help us remember important information that can guide our future actions.

Storytelling continues to be relevant right now and will continue to be relevant for as long as humans feel the need to tell each other stories.- Sharon King-Campbell

"When someone says, 'Guys, don't eat the red berries,' and somebody comes along and finds red berries and says, 'Now, what did Grandpa say? Did he say, eat the berries or did he say don't eat the berries?' But if Grandpa told me a story once about the little girl who ate the red berries then I know I'm not eating the red berries."

It doesn't matter whether the warning about not eating the berries is for cultural reasons or for safety reasons; by encoding the information in a story, people will remember it.

Of course, stories are much more than a vehicle for warnings. The act of storytelling, a person sharing a story with a listener, is a very basic human connection and it reminds us of how we are part of something enduring, something much bigger than ourselves.

Both old and new

If you haven't been to a storytelling event lately, you might think of storytelling as old-fashioned, or something they did "back in the day" — but the sense of community that storytelling creates is as vital now as it ever was.

"I think it's an old form, but that in no way makes it outdated," says storyteller and theatre artist Sharon King-Campbell.

"Storytelling continues to be relevant right now and will continue to be relevant for as long as humans feel the need to tell each other stories."

King-Campbell believes storytellers can make good use of the pared-down nature of storytelling and speak to a bigger picture of humanity.

"Storytelling is simple, it's a simple art form, and as a result, it's pervasive and continues to be extremely effective," said King-Campbell.

"Storytellers can talk about big things and sort of enduring trends."

'While we don't all share the same experiences, we do all share a similar array of emotions, fears and hopes,' writes Hennebury. (Illustration by Katie Rowe/CBC)

That big picture of humanity is part of what draws storyteller and improviser Alex Mason to telling stories.

"I tell a lot of stories of old myths, ancient tales," Mason said.

"It's always interesting to see how very old stories are still relevant today. People are much the same now than they were 1,800 years ago. We have very different lives … but people, I think, are ultimately the same as when people were sitting around campfires telling stories and being entertained."

Creating a communal experience

While we can share stories in many different forms these days, there's still a lot to be said for gathering together to hear someone weave a tale. The interaction between teller and listener creates something unique for both.

"As the Scottish travellers say, 'The story is told eye to eye, mind to mind and heart to heart.' It's about that personal relationship that you try to develop with your audience., be that one person or 100 people," said Green.

"You draw them in and make people feel that they're welcome into the story because you know the listeners have a role to play. The listener isn't a passive person just sitting there; they're creating along with the teller."

Catherine Wright — a storyteller, multidisciplinary artist, and the current president of the St. John's Storytelling Festival — says she enjoys the relationship between storytellers and their listeners.

"I love how storytelling is very much about direct communication, where you're there in a room with someone, you're having an experience in that moment where you're listening to the teller or you're telling and people are listening," she said.

"There's just something very vulnerable, honest and mind-engaging, imagination-engaging, about the whole experience."

The communal experience of storytelling can extend beyond the event (and the story) itself — because the empathy that stories create carries over into the community as a whole.

Building community

While we don't all share the same experiences, we do all share a similar array of emotions, fears and hopes.

When those emotions, fears and hopes are presented to us as part of a personal story, a folktale or a myth, they create a connection between the listener, the characters and the teller. That connection, the one that recognizes the ways that we're the same and promotes understanding despite our differences, is the foundation of building stronger communities.

King-Campbell agrees. "Stories are the best way I know to connect to other people. I have focused my whole professional life around the concepts that connecting to other people makes the world better."

Wright sees that connection as one of the key benefits of stories and storytelling.

Hennebury recommends harnessing the 'power of story' to help build connections and understanding between yourself and others. (Illustration by Katie Rowe/CBC)

"Storytelling is such a great vehicle for people to feel connections and to recognize themselves in other people's experiences," Wright said.

"And to also recognize, 'OK, that's not how I feel' or 'that's not the way I live,' but to gain greater insight into someone else's life and build more understanding."

Share your story, listen to theirs

Whether sharing a story involves conveying important information, creating a communal experience, or building community connections, a story's most important function is to remind us that we are not alone in the world.

Stories with a lesson or a reminder show us that someone has had this very problem before.

Stories of other people's experiences, real or fictional, help us to see that everyone has feelings, fear and hopes — and that everyone is trying to do their best to make their way in the world.

Despite our differences, the connections we make through stories give us the great relief of saying, "Oh, I'm not the only one who feels this way."

While not everyone is comfortable taking to the stage and telling their tale into the microphone, we all have opportunities to share stories with the world.

Perhaps your personal stories are too tender to share but there may be a myth, folktale, or a legend that lets you get close enough to connect with someone else. If you find yourself unable to understand someone else's motivations, perhaps listening to their story — or the stories of people like them — can help.

You can harness the power of story to help you build connections and understanding between yourself and others and be part of strengthening our communities.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Christine Hennebury is a writer and creative coach in St. John's.