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Storytelling Animals

I once had an adult writing student who had devoted her adolescent years to a journal.  She wrote tens of thousands of words.  Not an unusual scenario, except for one thing.  Her journal wasn’t a recording of her own life.  Instead she journaled through a character she had made up!

Where does this compulsion come from, the desire to step outside of our own skins and inhabit another’s? For what purpose are we storytelling animals?

I have heard many declarations about what distinguishes humans from the “lower” animals: for example language, tool making, bonding that can’t be explained away as genetic self-preservation.  Again and again, however, our presumed human superiority centered on that named skill is cast into doubt.

Wolves communicate with one another in remarkably complex and subtle ways.  So do dolphins. And what about the honeybee’s dance?  Ravens devise and use tools.  Primates do, as well. And how many stories have we heard about deep bonding between two creatures not even related by species let alone genetics?  My picture book A MAMA FOR OWEN, for instance, is the real-life story of an orphaned baby hippo adopted by an ancient male tortoise.

But storytelling?  We seem to stand alone in our use of and devotion to that skill.

What then is the purpose of story in human lives?

Distraction?  If we were to find our answer to that question solely in the stories appearing on our television screens, distraction would seem primary.  And there is certainly an element of looking away from our own lives when we immerse ourselves in story.  That’s as true about our fascination with gossip as it is in our longtime devotion to Shakespeare.  But there is surely more.

Our Puritan forebears forbad all fiction, saying it presented lies, though they based their lives on the “true” stories in the Bible.  And yet what they didn’t recognize—and what some evaluating children’s literature don’t understand even today—is that story, for all its artifice, is always based on truth.  It’s based on its creator’s truth which may be different than the truth of the reader, but the intent of every story is to convey a vision of the world as true.

ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN has been banned frequently and for a wide variety of reasons.  Once it was banned because Huck steals and lies, not a proper role model for the young.  Now it is banned for its used of the N-word despite the deep challenges it offers our views on race.  Perhaps more rightly it should have been banned for the last century and a quarter because it upends an entire belief system.  Huck knows because it is what he has been taught that he will go to hell for going against law and custom to help Jim escape.  And yet when he does this “sinful” thing, accepting what he assumes will be eternal punishment, we know he has done right.  Can you imagine a more powerful indictment of a society’s rock-solid teachings?

So story teaches truth.   At least it teaches a truth, and we are left, if we are thinking beings, to decide our own truth for ourselves.  Our Puritan forebears knew what they were talking about.  Fiction is a dangerous proposition.

But stories are not just a means of conveying ideas any more than they are merely distraction.  They do something else even more powerfully.  Stories, quite without our consent, create empathy.

They pull us in to live in another skin, another gender, another culture, even another time.

Separately and equally profoundly, they allow us to discover ourselves.

Now that function of story is truly subversive because it happens on so deep a level that it can’t be challenged.  Stories change our feelings about ourselves, about the world.

And yet we are drawn again and again into story’s powerful vortex. We are drawn because empathy is something our very souls demand.

And that, I believe, is precisely why we are storytelling animals.

A Head Full of Stories

I seem to have been born with my head full of stories. Manufacturing stories was one of the primary activities of my childhood. I didn’t write them down. What I conceived was too complex for that, far beyond anything I was capable of writing. Until I finally learned to type in high school, I found the physical act of writing painfully tedious. So I didn’t have any interest in putting my stories on paper, but they were my constant companions at home and at school. I remember getting a note on my report card under the section called “deportment” saying, “Marion dreams.” It was not a compliment.

When I played with my friends I made up stories for us to act out. When I played with the marbles kept safe in an old cigar box, the shooters were adults, the regular-sized marbles, children. My dolls came so alive in my stories that when I left my room I was convinced they took over and continued without me. (I used to shut my bedroom door, announcing loudly that I was leaving, then tiptoe back, springing in to catch them out of place. Unfortunately, they were always too fast for me.)

I looked forward to going to bed, because, as I waited for sleep to come, I returned to my latest story, playing it out in the dark.

Where does that obsession with story come from? No one else in my family seemed to care about stories at all. When I declared a literature major in college, my father, a chemist, asked with deep seriousness, “What is there to study about stories?”

I have a granddaughter whose brain works the same way mine does. When she was three years old she could make up the most amazing stories about real people, stories so complete with tiny, telling details that you couldn’t believe they weren’t real . . . but they weren’t. Whether the other pieces will come together to make her want to write those stories down instead of simply using them to amuse herself remains to be seen.

We humans call ourselves the “storytelling animal,” another one of those self definitions that is supposed to separate us from—and make us superior to—the animal world. Though I suspect if we could translate the honeybee’s dance we might be less impressed with the singularity of our powers: “It’s clover! A whole field of it! And to get there you fly to the old oak tree, turn 90 degrees north and head for . . .”

And it’s not just bees. Our two small dogs see the neighbor’s unconfined labs rush to investigate the boundaries of their private back yard, and they tell the labs a story of fierce possession, a story made possible by their own sturdy fence.

But when my dogs are setting up their racket or the bees are doing their complex dance do they intend more than the surface of their message? (“Stay away from my yard!” or “This is where the pollen is!”) I’m not certain. I only know that the magic of human stories lies in their resonance, their unspoken meaning, the way they carry so delicately our deepest understanding.

Meaning imbedded in stories touches us, teaches us, becomes a window through which we discover the world.

We may not be the only storytelling animals, but we are, I sincerely believe, the animals with the deepest gift.

And I can’t think of a better way to be born than with a head full of stories!