Storytelling may be the most ancient art of all. Before we as a species even had language, before we smeared charcoal goop on the palms of our hands and pressed them against the cave wall, we told one another stories. I’ve written about this in a book entitled The Tyranny of Story, describing a scene where our cave-dwelling ancestors related the events of the day’s hunt while they sat around the fire that evening. In the morning the men had set off as a hunting party, leaving the old, the women and the children behind. Later that day they returned, carrying a large, now dead, formerly very dangerous beast; this while also carrying one of their own party, seriously injured. Another man limped behind the others, less seriously wounded.
Is there any way that those who remained behind didn’t want to hear exactly how it all happened? Who first saw the brute? Who struck the first blow? Who struck the killing blow? How were the men injured? I can’t imagine that, in those days before words, never mind a written language, the men of the hunting party didn’t act out the critical moments of the successful hunt, leaping about, gesturing, uttering grunts not so far removed from words; there with the others of their tribe watching, transfixed, while the fire cast exaggerated shadows of their ‘acting’ upon the cave walls. How else was theatre, that is to say storytelling born?
And so we’ve been at it, telling one another stories, for so long that it may well now be in our genes, as some sort of ancestral memory, making us all story experts, at least as members of the audience. We now don’t hesitate to pass judgment on any story. It’s one of those things—like the proper functioning of the public school system, or the correct treatment for the common cold—that we are all unquestioned authorities on.
Until the Internet, for most storytellers, the audience hardly expanded beyond those other members of the tribe seated around the fire. Once you chose a medium more complex than the air between you and a live audience, whether it was a newspaper, book, television show or movie, there were gatekeepers who held it as their job to judge whether your story was worthy of an expanded audience. It would, after all, cost money to print, publish, broadcast or project your story, other people’s money, and it was to be determined that your story would garner an audience sufficiently broad to return a profit upon the investment of those folks’ money, before you the wannabe storyteller were to be granted access to that larger audience.
It is perhaps the single best thing about the coming of the web that these gatekeepers can now be effectively circumvented. As Robert Tercek has observed in a 2011 TEDx talk, for decades now, “we’ve outsourced our storytelling to professionals.” We’ve had little choice in the matter; we’ve been obliged to allow professional storytellers in the book, television and movie industries to tell our stories for us. But no more. With the coming of the Internet, we’ve all been given the opportunity ‘to reclaim the power of the personal narrative.’
This is no small thing. Telling stories is how we try to lend meaning to our lives, how we attempt to make sense of the random chaos of experience, then pass along any insights we have gained in that attempt. As filmmaker Hal Hartley has said, “When people tell stories to one another, they really want to talk about the meaning of life.” I tell my students, when I can, to celebrate this opportunity, to seize it, to tell their own stories however and whenever they can, whether it be with animated drawings, words, video images or sounds.
Let me tell you too. Grab a camera, pick up your laptop, plug in a microphone. Tell a story, then share it, potentially, with me and millions of other people. Take advantage of the new, truly wonderful and interactive opportunity now available to us all to share our stories. If you do, you’ll be celebrating not only this new, marvelous opportunity; you’ll also be celebrating yourself. As you might expect, you’ll never feel better.