We carry stories with us. As a child, my nanny told me that if I looked at the mirror at night, I would see ghosts. Then she shared ghost stories, which cemented fear in my heart. I would spend the next several years sleep walking into the bathroom at night with my right hand averting my face, my eyes, from ghosts floating on the mirror. The myth shattered at eighteen. But, every night since then, I pause at the mirror before I sleep. Stories can intervene in myriad ways.
Storytelling has been enjoying a public renaissance; it’s a buzzword that makes me smile. Consultants are teaching CEOs how to embed business data and technical information in a good story to keep audiences from yawning. Ha, I know what my next job should be!
So what have we discovered about storytelling that my great great great great grandmother didn’t know? That when we read, listen to, or watch the right stories our brains light up with cortisol, which focuses our attention, and oxytocin, which causes us to care and connect. That the right stories follow Gustav Freytag’s analysis of dramatic structure, aka, the dramatic arc.1
Speaking on UCF’s On the Issues, author Chris Abani said, “Everything we need to know about ourselves is already contained in literature. Most of us writers today, we’re sort of clever plagiarists. If you think about[sic] in many ways, all of the holy books from the Bhagavad Gita to the Bible, have covered all the stories that need to be told.”2 It would seem there are no new plots just deviations from the originals.
Why then, since we know the science and art of storytelling, do we lean forward in our seats, with one hand frozen in the popcorn carton and lips parted in an O, the shape left by the straw we abandoned? Why do our hearts race as if Tom Cruise has ever died in a movie? Because a story is an unwritten promise by the storyteller that he’ll take you there and make you care, in the end.
If story mirrors life and life mirrors story, then our lives play out this way as well, scene after scene, chapter by chapter: a beginning, which comprises exposition and rising action, a middle where conflicts peak, and an ending with falling action and dénouement. Each story that captivates us leaves us wondering and longing and hoping that the end will be good, so we can interpret the omens of our lives favourably.
History is a compilation yesterday’s stories. The best stories from the past make me desire transcendence since my life is a search for my own story. If I find it, my storytelling becomes the vehicle to transport you into my world so you can experiment with the possibility that your world can shift to accommodate mine. Someone said that the test of a great story is what people remember about you when you stop talking. If you want me to learn something quickly, wrap it in a story.
P.s. What do you remember? No, don’t reread, for crying aloud, this is not an exam just an experiment without compensation! Please comment on what you remember. Or never mind . . .
©Timi Yeseibo 2014
- Zak, Paul J. How Stories Change the Brain. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_stories_change_brain, (accessed October 5, 2014).
- “On The Issue – Author Chris Abani,” YouTube video, 6:05, posted by “UCF,” January 27, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Eg4XmK4k6A
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