Celebrating the power of stories

It’s a phrase I’d gotten used to hearing – and grown attached to – wherever I went in the South Pacific. It summarised the psyche of island nations and their people, their way of life down to the atomic structure of their means of interaction.

“Tell me a story,” Flavian had asked me, as we surrounded ourselves in the company of his wife and daughter, for some twentieth time on the day. The day, earlier which, I’d stumbled upon a weathered sign at the bottom of a dirt stairwell citing “handicraft for sale” – my curiosity yanked me from my purposeless saunter on remote Malekula Island and brought me to the handicraft man’s hut.

There, I found Flavian scurrying back and forth his trove of wood-craved artwork, presenting each with delicateness as eager as he could appeal to his prospecting customer. But it was the man himself I’d grown fond of – his friendliness, hospitality, frolicking with an adorable daughter – and, even after I’d courteously declined any purchases, we sat down and talked. Unreservedly he asked the then-stranger a favour: help check his visa application form for his upcoming visit to Australia.

I complied, gladly. Thus was struck one of my most treasured friendships I had during my stint in Vanuatu.

Storytelling, as implied by Flavian and many others in Vanuatu and Fiji, is in-essence the most basic of basic conveyance of daily happenings that, sheerly by words, invokes the rawest of human emotions. To them, it’s our equivalent of “how’s your day” or “what have you been getting up to” – plus the entertainment and philosophical value.

My chance encounter with Flavian is itself a story – perhaps one of my best.

Which made me review the definition of the ‘story’. Just how powerful, for a word so diluted by presumptions of fictional grandeur, are stories in not just travel writing, but also in our lives?

Stories compel observations

Often it isn’t that our everyday lives aren’t compelling enough for a good story – it’s just we’re not observing hard enough.

From overhearing a conversation from a mediocre bus ride home to visiting a local’s home on a South Pacific island, the world is teeming with anecdotes that have crossed and will cross your path, to be claimed as yours – if only you can find it. Raise your awareness of your surroundings by a fraction and you’ll find interesting dialogues, actions and behaviour – just as serendipitous as the resulting story itself.

That said, do keep an eye on the traffic.

Stories teach and empower – others and yourself

Hence the phrase “moral of the story”: in every good story there’s always a lesson.

The true exercise in storytelling is that stories implore us to analyse happenings, mundane or extraordinary, and seek the meanings in it we can relate to and enhance our lives with. The ‘message’ in a story isn’t necessarily hidden; it’s merely interpreted to varying degrees depending on who’s interpreting it.

Naturally, how much your audience can make out of your stories is dependent on how much you, the storyteller, understand your own tale.

Stories make us laugh, cry, love, despise, rage

In other words, emotional. Or, better iterated with its antonyms, not apathetic and indifferent.

After all, a neutral, emotionless event simply cannot survive the constant, ruthless erasion of the memory bank.

Take Creation, for instance (certainly not because I found myself watching it in the middle of writing this blog post). The film tells the story of Charles Darwin at the time of his writing On the Origins of Species; set in the period of mourning and struggle to cope with his eldest daughter Annie’s death, the narrative of Darwin’s endeavour in finishing his book is frequently inserted with Darwin’s own narration of his encounters.

Even if the story of the Beagle crew’s hilarious failure to ‘civilise’ tribal children mirrored the theory of evolution’s defiance against religion, the poking-fun of Christianity and its absurdity is twice as poignant; even if the story of Jenny the orangutan, who the character Darwin grew close to only to have died soon after, is an apparent metaphor of Annie’s demise, it still managed to nearly draw my tears twice.

The film wasn’t just about a man and his revolutionary ideas; it’s about a man on his emotional journey. Never mind being told Darwin wrote a book – better to be shown how he wrote it with laughter and tears.

And a good story does just that.

Stories provide self-fulfilment

As a departing gift, Flavian gave me one of his handcrafted – gruesome may it sound – cannibal clubs. It now rests within my own trove of trophies I’ve collected on my travels, each in-turn a reminder of travel memories I’ve gathered in story form.

They also remind me, both objects and stories, why I travel.

That’s because my stories have recorded my observations, stimulated my emotions and taught me something – and driven me to want more. The constant urge of curiosity is growing ever stronger, because I just can’t bloody miss whatever stories that lie behind the battered signs.

Experiences build you as a person, but it’s stories you perceive that define you, through your own interpretations and reactions.

We’re all storytellers in our own right, and the first member of our audiences will always be ourselves. A good story allows readers and listeners to get to grasp of the storyteller – you’ll always be the first to get to know the author of a tale: yourself.

And that to me, my fellow storytellers, is self-fulfilment.

And once you’ve convinced yourself that travelling is your destiny and sense of fulfilment, what’s stopping you from wielding the power of stories to persuade others to travel themselves?

Story Short is my latest series on The Travelling Editor: excerpts and accounts of my encounters on the road in celebration of the power of stories. Please visit and share with me some of my best stories, relive my own emotional journeys and hopefully be inspired to embark on story quests of your own!

To learn more about storytelling, do check out my good friend and fellow travel blogger Mike Sowden’s latest e-booklet, Storytelling – or How to Make People Care about Anythingwhich contains excellent tips, case studies and wise-old wisdom on storytelling, in particular travel writing.

Disclaimer: that is indeed Nicole‘s hand in the featured picture. We were having lunch in our favourite Korean restaurant. But that’s a different story…

Comments

  1. “Often it isn’t that our everyday lives aren’t compelling enough for a good story – it’s just we’re not observing hard enough.”

    SO true. I couldn’t have said it any better myself. I took a really great class at uni focused on literary journalism, and our professor began the first day by asking each of us in the class to tell him something interesting. A lot of us struggled when put on the spot, but throughout the week, whenever we shared anything in class about ourselves, our observations, etc., he’d point to us and say, “See? THAT was interesting.” It made me think a lot about storytelling.

    • That’s quite a teaching method – really powerful too! Storytelling really isn’t an elaborate effort of trying to find eventfulness in life – it’s finding something worth telling in a life of eventfulness.

  2. Haha I think I know that Korean restaurant…

    Interesting perspective. I do agree that we’re all storytellers in some way. It comes with human nature. Before the era of writing, stories were passed down, told from generation to generation. This digital world we live in only seems to muddle peoples creativity in that regard.

  3. Great story about stories! They play such an important part in history and memory, and telling or writing quality stories is a wonderful skill to have (or hone!).

  4. Does this mean I can call myself a hand and arm model now?

  5. Thanks for the plug, sir. :)

    I very much agree that stories are for evoking an emotional response, and people who belittle that are missing the whole point about humans acting like humans. We’re left brain and right brain animals 24/7, and the way we remember and learn stuff is by using our whole brain. Take feelings out of the receiving of information, and we struggle to retain it. Which is where stories come in. I call them “SEO for the human brain” because they’re the most powerful way we can process information in both directions – it’s like we’re just designed like that, hard-coded.

    Here’s a really amazing example of that in action:

    http://xkcd.com/936/

    Four random words connected with a story, and you have the most powerfully secure password you can come up with that you need to spend *almost zero effort* remembering.

  6. I love reading posts/essays like this, because it proves that there will always be a place in the world for writers. Bravo, my friend!

    • Aww, thank you Abby! I agree: musings like these prove that the fundamentals for storytelling – and consequently writing – still stand. And keep us passionate about our work :D

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  1. […] paid quite a sum for, wiggling in my own explorations alongside pre-determined activities. Many of my best stories from the South Pacific – and indeed overall – are from the two weeks in Vanuatu, touring or not […]

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