Participants sharing stories at the North Dakota Council on the Arts Statewide Convening, March 20, 2019. Photo Credit: Poppy Mills, ND Department of Transportation

I am Not a Storyteller

Unless I am babysitting for my adorable nieces, I recoil when asked for a story. I am not a storyteller. But, like you, I have many stories to share.

I know many people feel this way. They may be humble, shy, deferential, or non-performative. Professionally, you may be a novelist, a screenwriter, performance folklorist, or a singer/songwriter. But in real life, you may not fancy yourself a storyteller, either.

You are a human being seeking to connect with another human being. You are a passionate person who wants to be understood. You are compassionate, curious, and capable of inviting others to be heard.

And people like to be heard. Even people who self-profess that they are not storytellers. Even people who think stories are only for children, and even then only at bedtime.

Everyone has a story to share. Especially the non-storytellers. We’re just not thinking of our complex, exuberant, maddening, and sad experiences as stories. We’re too busy to spend our time articulating the myriad of antagonists and daily onslaught of turning points. We haven’t had the time, or motivation, to search for inherent lessons or morals in our experiences. It’s simply sundry stuff that happened, that had to happen, that was going to happen anyway.

But if we remember it, it has meaning. And if it is meaningful to us, it may very well be meaningful to someone else. The emotion that “glued” the memory into our brain will be evident when the memory is shared.

We all want to make meaning out of the complexity of our lives, and the lives of those around us. Often that requires recalling events out loud and having a witness to that recollection.

We may not be storytellers. But we can be witnesses. We can ask people to share their recollections, rather than their opinions or conclusions. We can listen as they find and make meaning from those experiences.

Last month in North Dakota, a woman told me that for years, she implored her grandfather to tell her stories about his life, and their family’s past. He continually brushed her off, insisting, “I don’t have any stories.” One Easter Sunday, he shared the family’s history of homesteading and establishing a ranch that has operated for four generations. “Grandpa, that’s a story!,” she exclaimed. “Oh, that?”, he said, surprised. And he has proceeded, from then on, to share personal and family lore.

For many reasons, it’s important that our stories are shared. Besides making meaning and sense out of complexity, sharing and listening to stories makes implicit knowledge explicit; stories can render what is ambiguous tangible; stories can transmit values in a clear and memorable way; and stories invite engagement. (And these are only some of the reasons.)

I am not a storyteller. And chances are, you don’t consider yourself one either. But we’ve all had both universal and extraordinary experiences. We crave the feeling of connectivity that results both sharing and hearing these experiences. We all have great stories to share. We just need someone to listen.