There was time when a setting sun meant a very different thing to us. We would turn and head for home at the sight of it. We would group together and light a fire. We tried to pass the time as best we could, ignoring what could be staying just beyond the reach of the flickering flame light. It must have been about then when some wily caveperson first stood up with the idea of telling their friends a story.
If I had to guess, it probably started out as them trying to talk about their day, only the day in question had been rather dull. They didn’t want to lose the crowd, so they threw in a fight or a beast for good measure. Maybe they waxed lyrical about some caveperson who had got them thinking about populating a little cave of their own one day. Perhaps they even got onto the subject of where the sun went it left them behind. Whoever that person was, no matter how hairy they were, got me writing. It’s pretty bizarre really.
Storytelling is such a fundamental part of who we are now that I don’t think we could really separate it from our lives. Stories are how we talk to each other. They’re how we relate. They're how we relax, either together or alone. Let’s face it, social media is just one long, never ending story we’re telling to our friends. True, some of the character arcs are pretty vague and there are repeating plot points and bad grammar all over the place, but it’s a story none the less.
For all of this, though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself as a storyteller. Not really. Not until recently, anyway. I’ve been happy to see myself as a writer. As in I go sit into a room and make stuff up. When it’s good, I show it to others. When it’s bad, I hide it on files I hope no one ever finds. I was fine with that until last November, when I was lucky enough to be a part of a book launch where there was a group of storytellers in attendance. Three people who got up and told stories and, if we’re being honest, I got a little obsessed with them for that night.
This was after a short Q and A where I’d probably talked a little too much. I was riding a small, cresting spike of adrenaline and having a drink when those three storytellers really started to fascinate me. They’d each gone for a look that felt it belonged in a story all of its own and they were telling some brilliant stories; but what got me was that they weren’t just reading their stories to us. They were performing them. Not that they were exactly acting them out either. In the same, they weren’t exactly doing comedy and preaching at us. It might have a been a little closer to magic really. They were conjuring those stories. They were bringing the fictions into the room with us. Which is exactly the aim of storytelling. They were telling us a story to trigger a response in what we find easiest to class as our heart. Or our soul. You know, that part of our brain that doesn’t want us to know exactly where it’s hiding.
I’ve never quite shaken the feeling from that night. Maybe it’s because I’ve not really seen it done or since. I’ve gone to comedy shows and the theatre, but this was something else. I keep meaning to sit down and see if it’s something I can do. Ask anyone who tolerates me on a regular basis and they’ll know I can talk when I want to. Plus, I love to weave a story when I get the chance. There must be some link between that compulsive energy and what those people were doing onstage. There must be some way of redirecting the writing into talking at people instead. Oh, the fun I could have them, telling people a tale fresh from of my head.
Actually, this reminds of something else. A couple of years ago, I was invited to a friend’s kid’s party. There were kids running about the place and making the adults feel old. Us adults, true to form, were clustering close to the food and the alcohol in order to bolster our apathy and cynicism. Well, apart from the adults who were designated child herders. They had their hands full without being offered a glass of Merlot.
I’d only been there a while when I was introduced to someone’s kid. He was about twelve or so, I think. He was walking and talking and not laughing at the sight of a balloon. That’s twelve, right? His parents told me he liked writing and then announced to their son that I was a writer. I knew I was in trouble when they made it sound impressive. Their offspring looked up at me, tilted his head and asked me to tell him one of my stories. I immediately felt like a failure. I couldn’t do it. You see, I don’t know my stories off by heart. I pull them out of my head like a bad itch and stitch them onto paper for other people to look at.
I tried to explain all this to him but the disappointment in his eyes still bugs me now. I found myself apologising to him more than once, but he really wasn’t impressed. He assumed (not unreasonably) that I should be able to tell a story without much prompting. It’s certainly more fuel for the fire now.
Writers are storytellers, when you cut deep enough into what we’re doing. Yes, okay, we might argue we’re going for something a little more nuanced when it comes to refining a draft and tightening up the language, but there’s also a certain kind of energy that transmits from a live reading that you don’t get on a page. It won’t be perfect, but that’s almost the point. That live element tells you it will be unique. Pieces of story might swap places. Or if a character proves to be popular with the audience, then the storyteller might play with that a bit more. There’s also that potential for failure which fuels anything you do in front of other people who aren’t you.
In many ways, I’m ashamed to admit it’s taken me this long to figure this out. It was watching Christopher Lee performing some of M.R. James’ work on TV that really got me in engaged in the classic ghost story. Then there was Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, which I absolutely fell in love with as a kid. I was about twelve or so. So, you know, I was walking and talking and able to see a balloon without smirking and, man, that show was perfection as far as I was concerned. The old folk tales. The music. The puppets. The beautiful inter-cutting of events in the story within and around the Storyteller’s fireside. I loved all of it. The episode where Hurt’s wonderfully timeless character ended up in the story might still be some of my favourite television.
For a long time, stories for me have only been about writing. Capturing them. Locking them down. It can be lonely work, mining your imagination for a story you’re only telling to yourself. It’s always nice when you clean one up, frame it nicely and put it out there for the world to see. Only it feels like storytelling has gotten a bit pushed out of the equation these days. If you look around shops or the internet, it’s become about sales and agents. It’s about promoting to the point of an egotistical collapse. It’s become superstar authors looking down on a demolition derby of expectations and aspirations they survived. A disaster race run within the concrete pit of bestseller lists and pre-order pile ups.
Self-publishing means we can all set up a stall in the library now. Which is great, as long as we didn’t come into the library in order to buy a bigger speedboat. Social media marketing campaigns mean you might sell more, but it almost means everyone can now shout about their stall for as long as they want and as loud as they want. Online stores are locking stories onto their specific shelves. Whilst the big dogs are always barking about what’s next, as they release book after book after book. All of them a bestseller before anyone beyond an editor has even read them. All of them only one signature away from becoming a movie. That doesn’t feel like the same sort of storytelling to me. It feels like a business I accidentally thought I needed to be a part of.
Perhaps we’ve all forgotten how this started, when we sat together as the light sank below the edge of the world and told stories to hold back the hungry night. It’s not a commodity. It’s not content. It’s pretty shaky ground to pitch a career on. In a world of prequels and reboots, perhaps it’s time we help storytelling get a little closer to our hearts again.
Personally, I think I’m going to try and figure out if I can tell a story without setting it down on a page for people to read. I have a sneaking suspicion that’s where some of the magic went to hide.