During my 40 years in practice as a psychiatrist, I at times advocated for patients at the North Carolina State Legislature. On one occasion I accompanied a staff member of a rural mental health program to ask for funding. We gave the legislators a thick handout describing various kinds of mental health needs in the population of people we served.
My colleague, experienced in this arena, was not confident that the legislators would even read, let alone understand our data. So, he chose to tell them a story. He began, “I’d like to tell you a story about a boy. His name is Billy.” What followed was a description of a troubled twelve-year-old with many emotional and developmental needs. With a great deal of effort, we had been able to help him a lot.
No legislator nodded off during the story, and several leafed through the handout as the telling proceeded. The punchline was well delivered: we have many Billys that we need to help and we need more resources to do that. Our request was successful.
The above is but one use of the genius of storytelling. The storyteller is one of those oldest professions, the keeper of the culture before the written word and modern media were created. Ancient heroes, villains, wars, floods and more, all kept alive in oral tradition until words could be recorded on clay tablets and later various forms of paper.
We use storytelling to inspire, to sell, to persuade, to entertain, and to remember and be remembered. The fact that we now sometimes put it to print or record and preserve the voice electronically does not change the fact that at the core it is called storytelling.
There is a difference between reading a book and listening to a live storyteller. The differences are beyond this writing, but once you hear a master storyteller present his or her best, you will understand.
Those who aspire to write would do well to first listen.
I read. I write. I learn. I’m in a writing group and I have four published books. I’m still pretty sure I’m not Steinbeck, but my heart and soul have found their way back to where they should be.