It’s no secret to anyone, especially those who know me personally, that I’m a big fan of writing. Most of my life revolves around written words in one way or another: I spend most of my non-professional life working on my current work-in-progress. The rest of my free time I devote to reading fiction, researching various topics of interest (both for my WIP and personal development), and tending to blog posts on this website.
It wasn’t until I was watching Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak the other night that something fundamental clicked into place: While words are the chosen medium to exercise my craft, they do not in themselves make stories.
This is by no means a new phenomena. It’s a simple truth. It probably will not take too much effort to recall authors who forge words beautifully only to tell mediocre stories.
The fundamental truth of it has to do with a much deeper topic, one that I have been thinking about since reading Erin Morgenstern’s newest novel, The Starless Sea in which Morgenstern expertly tells a tale about stories with a strong thesis in mind: Stories are basically narratives of the human experience.
My own distinct experiences within the last year support this claim, and I have come to a few realizations of my own: Stories, more than all else, set us apart from other species. We tell stories to remember our histories not in terms of events but experiences. Through stories, we parse emotional responses. Stories are how we learn and grow; they are how we communicate.
But if this is all true, how do stories apply to our daily lives?
First and foremost, there are sprouts of stories in the traditional spots: In poetry, fiction, the visual and performative arts. All of these arts could be seen as a collective of human consciousness. I would go even further to say that nonfiction, articles, and journalism hold some aspects of storytelling; in fact, some of the best nonfiction material I have ever read are, indeed, structured as stories.
But there are non-traditional applications of the narrative as well. There was an interesting segment called Your Brain on Storytelling on NPR’s podcast Short Wave a few weeks ago which asserts that the human brain is hard-wired to absorb lessons through narrative. It further proposes that this is why the general public has a harder time with obtaining information on STEM — because usually topics such as maths, sciences, and technology are taught without the presence of a narrative, in one what one might call a “cold and calculating” manner. It concludes, finally, that while objectivity is imperative while dealing with data, there is space for both storytelling and objectivity. In other words, the data represents the objective facts while the narrative plays the part of telling the story of what happened and why it happened.
It turns out, also, that the stories we even tell ourselves matter. In an article that appeared on the TED Ideas website, Emily Esfahani Smith writes that stories are how we create coherency out of our lives, and coherent personal narratives lead to clarity. When we understand our stores, we become active protagonists and tend to invest in our lives.
But this recognition of stories as the fundamental building blocks of how humans see the world is only the tip of the iceberg. It begs the question, “What are stories?”
I don’t intend to answer that question in a mere blog post, especially since it would be presumptuous and entirely foolish of me to declare that I have all the answers. In fact, I would argue that there is no single, universal answer that would satisfy what constitutes a story, because stories are subjective.
So in a more realistic spirit, what I can answer is the more personal question, “What do stories mean to me?”
I will not lie. When I posed this question while outlining this very blog post, I was stumped. Sure, stories have always been important to me, but why?
It quickly became clear then that I have not done what Emily Esfahani Smith mentions is necessary: I never told myself a comprehensive narrative of my storytelling journey.
So I went through my own experience with stories sequentially to gain some clarity.
Let me just say this from the get go: I am incredibly privileged to be in a family of storytellers. My grandmother used to weave bedtime stories for both me and my sister all throughout our childhood. My mother’s love of fiction and poetry are rivaled only by my spouse’s voracity of books. My father knows how to tell profound stories through the lens of photography. My sister tells stories through her love of the visual arts. Even my found family is a group of creative individuals who I immensely enjoy spending time with.
But I also grew up under the long-reaching shadow of war and revolution — quintessential staples of the Iranians of my generation. Every Iranian person I have ever known has been affected by both of these events either directly or indirectly, and I have heard my fair share of personal accounts of these affairs.
Being surrounded by stories eventually led me to try my own hand at it at age seven, when I proudly wrote my first story to give to my first grade teacher for Teacher’s Day. And this is a story I would not have written, much less shared, if not for both my parents’ support and encouragement. In that way, they have always given me enough space to express my thoughts, to think them valid, and to feel safe enough to tell my story. I am grateful beyond words for this vital guidance they provided for me.
But it did not stop there.
Stewing in stories my whole life has not only made them important to me but been integral to my livelihood. I live, breathe, and think of stories, whether they are my own, someone else’s, made up, or memories. I turn to stories when I am in pain, when I am uncomfortable and lost, when I have doubts. For me, stories are not only helpful but make all the difference in distinguishing between living, truly living, and surviving.
I have since expanded my definition of storytelling. Besides working on my novel, I partake in two table-top role-playing games with close friends where we dabble in the art of collaborative storytelling. My spouse and I tend to tell stories together through written role-plays. I even enjoy occasionally dabbling in tarot readings. I am convinced, by the way, that the term “reading” here is not coincidental; tarot sequences tell stories, not of the future as pop culture would have us believe but of the current state of our being and our subconscious minds.
And last but not least, I hope to continue telling stories here and sharing them with others. Stories are after all only important if they are experienced with others.