A Strong Thin Thread – Storytelling in the 21st Century


[dropcap]D[/dropcap]eep within our DNA, like Palaeolithic art etched into our inner being, lays the storyteller gene. Just like in infancy, the first stories were hand gestures and facial expressions. And now, after thousands of years, from pigment and charcoal to the iPhone, we are in our own hectic chapter of humanity, as not only storytellers, but editors and curators as well.

This image was originally posted to Flickr by normalityrelief at http://flickr.com/photos/42846332@N00/3224721382. cc-by-sa-2.0.

Storytelling is an ancient tool of persuasion. In The Arabian Nights, to avoid execution, the beautiful Scheherazade must tell the Sultan Shahryār a story worthy of her survival for 1000 consecutive nights. Parents telling nightly tales to restless children can relate. Persuasive storytelling is not just survival, or veiled self-interest. It wasn’t Mr. Darcy’s awkward declaration of love that won Elisabeth’s heart; it was his honest calculated letter. The forgotten merits of the self edit. Every night we go to bed and think, “if only I said That, This way instead!”

Persuasiveness is not always well intentioned. After a gory, decade long stalemate in Troy, the Greeks pretend to call it quits and leave a massive horse as an offering to the Gods. Emotionally moved, the Trojans wheel the horse in and with a smack on the forehead, we all know how that worked out for them. Hourly, we are bombarded by advertisements using the magic of storytelling to get their message into us. Stories seem like gifts, but like the Trojan horse, can be used as an agenda’s delivery system. It’s because we are hardwired to be emotionally receptive to stories when we hear or read them, regardless of their intentions. No, not every tree has a fruit-bearing snake, but as Nietzsche said “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” Buyer beware, and listener be learned.

[pullquote] Sisyphus groans with every six-second slapstick loop of hilarity on Vine.[/pullquote]

From the cave paintings in Lascaux, through thousands of years of oral tradition, to illuminated manuscript, the printing press, radio, television, Internet and finally social media, the medium has always been the message, and exciting new ways of telling stories are occurring on Twitter. With storytelling visionaries like Pulitzer winner Jennifer Egan (@egangoonsquad), Elliot Holt (@elliottholt) and New Yorker Fiction (@NYerfiction) crafting experimental tales, often using real time as an element. Twitter caters an active reader response, not far off from Rocky Horror Picture Show audiences throwing popcorn or shouting heartfelt obscenities.  This direct access is an entrepreneurs dream. Fiction aside, Haiku is 80 characters or less (@haikuwind).

Sisyphus groans with every six-second slapstick loop of hilarity on Vine. Our poor frustrated parents, locked within a snail’s shell, sending an email for the first time. We should pride ourselves in our rapid ability to adapt.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-72718-0001 / Zühlsdorf, Erich / CC-BY-SA
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-72718-0001 / Zühlsdorf, Erich / CC-BY-SA

Ghandl, the great blind poet of the Haida was the last of his kind by the end of the early 1900’s after half a century of colonialism and disease decimated their way of life. A young American anthropologist named John Swanton came to see if this mythic man was still alive and ended up staying for four years transcribing thousands upon thousands of lines spoken from Ghandl’s memory. The stories shift from hilarious to fantastical to frightening, and upon Swanton’s return to America, after an in depth analysis of the text, a shocking realization emerged, coded within Ghandl’s tales, were complex descriptions of astrological and agricultural cycles.

 Like John Swanton did in Haida Gwaii, 1904, we must actively seek and protect dying mediums. Write a letter or a postcard, and save the ones you get, memorize a children’s rhyme and whisper it to your niece or nephew after dinner, go to the theatre, play a cassette, replace the needle on your grandparent’s turntable, recite poetry with a friend over a bottle of wine, try out your grandmother’s cookie recipe. Put a few drinks into your uncle and get him telling family stories. The pace, the bombardment of information this century inflicts is only going to intensify. It devours what is left as obsolete.

Digging through my mother’s box of letters, I came across a yellowed page written in my great grandmothers cursive. Goosebumps came as a wave, and settled as hot emotion behind my cheeks. Her cursive was taut and glyphic, like calligraphy. It was a captured length of the thin strong thread that connects to each of us.

By: Max Marshall

Max Marshall is a songwriter, storyteller and folklorist located in St. Johns, Newfoundland. But Windsor, Ontario is and always will be his home.