A man came over to our table as we sat eating brunch. He wanted to let us know that he and his compatriots would be in a pub that afternoon telling traditional tales of selkies and adventurers, entertaining whoever turned up with old stories our ancestors had shared. It was a tempting invitation, but as is so often the case, other things needed doing more urgently than fireside fiction.
But stories told by the fire at night are really the ancestors of all of the other stories we tell, and the telling of those stories is important even when it isn’t urgent. We might not gather to hear someone speak so often anymore, but we read books and watch plays and films and listen to radio shows and podcasts and recite poetry and listen to songs, each with their own message wrapped up in a story, in a tale honed over time and with effort to pull you in and make you care.
When you’re getting to know someone new, it’s stories that you exchange: the time that you went on a solo adventure and came back with three hundred photos, only one of which had you in it, or the time you decided to go and see the old man of Hoy without realising there wouldn’t be anywhere to buy lunch, and stumbled home six hours later hungrier than ever before or since. Maybe the time that your cat managed to get itself stuck in the ceiling, and had to be coaxed down again through a light fitting. Whatever stories you pick, they tell the bigger story - the story of you, of who you are and were and are becoming. We’re all just characters in your story, and the facts are what you remember having happened, because those memories are what make you the person you are now, for better or worse.
Stories, then, are how we see ourselves and the relationships in our lives. As well as that, though, stories are how we share what we know or what we’ve learned; when journalists discover and investigate matters of interest to the public, they don’t produce reports or memos, they write stories, and those stories make you realise not just what’s going on, but why that’s important and why it should matter to you. The best teaching tells a story of how a conclusion was reached, because if we can understand the source and motivation of something we find ourselves much better placed to understand the thing itself.
It isn’t just about convincing people to agree with you. A story might give you comfort, might help you to understand yourself or your situation better or more easily than struggling through alone would. Reading about someone who has seen the same times, the same joy or loss or triumph or despair that is currently your lot might help you feel you can manage. If something has been done before, it can be done again, and we inform future strangers of our actions by confiding in them our stories, the tales of how we are or how we wish to be. It is writing, and the stories we can pass on through writing them down, that elevate us from the ranks of animals and lend meaning to the things we do.
We can fall into stories, place ourselves in their situations, live through the plot and consider the themes. We can find our minds changed, our moods altered and ourselves uplifted, better at being human because of the stories we read, or see, or are told by people we love. The power of a good story should not be underestimated.
Tell them stories. That’s what we didn’t know. All this time, and we never knew! But they need the truth. That’s what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, everything. Just tell them stories.
This is from the