“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
― Philip Pullman
One of the most extraordinary gifts of human consciousness is the gift of imagination. It’s something we don’t foster or value much in adulthood, not the way we do in children, though it’s a necessary tool of every storyteller from author to actor, teacher to scientist, musician to historian.
Because really, when it comes down to it, we’re all storytellers. And our imagination allows us to connect not only with fictional narratives, but with the stories of our own life and the lives of others, the stories of humankind.
Most kids love playing pretend, imagining that they’re something or someone else, and I was no different. With friends and alone, I spent hours of my childhood pretending things. I was a very powerful (but not evil) witch, an investigative reporter, a time traveler, a superhero and a restaurateur. I loved it. I didn’t have to worry about convincing anyone else of anything or play by any rules except that of my own imagination. I could lose myself in a different world.
“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.”
― Isak Dinesen
“Tell me a story!” has to be one of the oldest cries of children since our ancestors developed language. The stories my dad and I told together when I was growing up were wonderful. At least we both remember them that way, though if we wrote them down they probably wouldn’t make much sense. But we had a fantastic time making them up.
When I asked my dad for a story and he began to tell it, I wasn’t a passive listener. I liked to join in, help decide what was going to happen or even take over completely. It’s a memory we both cherish. Our stories tended to be sagas, they wouldn’t end in one sitting but had chapters, continuing on and on until we started a new one. We also taped some improvised “plays” called Fairy Tale Court. In one, Sleeping Beauty sued the prince for kissing her against her permission. We played several parts; I was the cranky old judge and my dad the goofy bailiff, while my Sleeping Beauty has the breathy voice of Marilyn Monroe. I still have that precious tape.
My mom introduced me to the written stories that have shaped my life. We read “The Secret Garden” and “Anne of Green Gables” together, two of the books I love best in the world. L.M. Montgomery went on to become one of my favorite authors. My mom handed me my first Georgette Heyer, “Behold, Here’s Poison,” my first Elizabeth Peters, Patricia Wentworth and Elizabeth Cadell. She told me to read “The Pink House” by Nelia Gardner White, full of delicate beauty and meaning. These are the authors that made me a reader and a writer, and I still collect and savor their books.
“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”
― Madeleine L’Engle
Without my parents’ different ways of encouraging me to engage my imagination, without all those hours of pretend in the backyard and school plays I acted in, would I still be a writer? I don’t know. But I’d definitely still be a storyteller. We all tell stories about ourselves―funny ones and tragic ones, stories about growing up and getting older, adventures and mishaps and lucky breaks. Every family has its store of anecdotes, every culture shares collective histories about our communities, nations and peoples. We place high value on religious chronicles, folktales, myths and fairy tales. We make movies and TV shows, write books and comics, inventing heroes and villains and everyone in between. We read the news, we pass along good gossip and scandals. Our narratives help us relate and connect to each other, inspire us, teach us, entertain us.
A story can create a powerful magic for good or bad, lift us up or push us down, tear us apart or bring us together, tie us to the past or give us new hope for the future, depending on how we tell it. When we give the negative free rein, our stories can limit us into set beliefs about ourselves or others, creating hatred and tension and distrust, fostering self-doubt, keeping us prisoners of old pain. And when we’re able to let go and tell a story of love, healing, kindness, forgiveness, compassion and strength, we can do incredible things.
“You are the storyteller of your own life, and you can create your own legend, or not.”
― Isabel Allende
We need to create stories, it’s part of who we are. There are always new stories waiting to unfold within us, whether fictional tales about fantastic places or stories about our own lives. It’s up to us to choose the way we tell them, the way we pass the stories on to those who follow after us.
And every day, I can’t wait to see―or tell―what happens next.
“The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories.”
― C.G. Jung