Unlike its cousins Literature and Song, Storytelling has not yet received much in the way of critical attention. Artist, educator, and humanitarian Laura Simms does her part to remedy this by weaving together her personal experiences as a storyteller with reflections on this art form and fairy tales themselves in Our Secret Territory: The Essence of Storytelling (Sentient Publications, 2011).
The very definition of storytelling makes this a difficult task. By its nature, stories exist in the moment and are a result of a collaboration between the teller and the listener. You can write down a story, but it becomes something different when you do. To read a story is an entirely different experience than to hear it told.
This attribute is also what makes storytelling such a powerful tool in compassionate problem solving. As the story is created in the act of its unfolding, the listener is able to draw from the generalities to take what they need in order to deal with their own specific situation.
For example, Simms was given the task of telling a story to a group of troubled young girls. She had an inkling that jealousy was a root cause of some of their acting out and called upon an appropriate tale. Through it, the girls were able to get an objective view of their situation and their own actions. It also gave them the opportunity to see the possibility of a positive outcome. In the presence of story, community is created, making it an incredibly powerful tool for linking individuals together to enact social change.
As our culture moves ever more quickly to a state of constant and instantaneous communication, we seldom make time for or find the value in endeavors, such as oral storytelling, that meander. But this art form, present in every culture through all time, has survived the ages for a reason. It provides crucial moments of human connection, which brings us to a state of empathy.
Simms shares the story of meeting her adopted son, Ishmael Beah, a storyteller in his own right and author of the heart-wrenching memoir of a former child soldier, A Long Way Gone. It was through story that they he was able to cope with the atrocities of his childhood and to begin to heal. It was through story that they were able to find a common ground and to begin to build a relationship based on love and trust.
While it may seem anachronistic for one to have storytelling as a vocation, Simms demonstrates how storytelling has and should continue to endure and why it is a cultural element that we should all embrace. It is nothing less than a key part of our very humanity.