Carry the fire

Bobette Buster explores how storytelling has always been central to our culture

All we have had from our caveman campfire days until relatively recently (in historical terms) was the oral tradition. The wisdom of the ages has been handed down by the shamans, medicine men, or griots from tribal cultures the world over via folklore, fairytales, myths and legends. This is how each generation was psychologically prepared for their future — to be ready, to know that they would not only be able to survive, but that they would thrive amid life’s inevitable adversities.

It has been said that the Industrial Age ended after World War Two. Then, it was superseded by the Age of Information via the computer, the 1960s boom in Madison Avenue advertising (see the hit show Mad Men) and television. Then with the Internet boom of the 1990s, there followed in 2003 the viral explosion of social media. With it a new deceiving conceit arose: that anything worth knowing is available at our fingertips. This immediacy has, curiously, made people less curious about discovering the world, at least in any depth. Now, with 24/7 news cycles, hours spent tweeting or updating Facebook pages with daily minutia, and endless reality television shows, the full power of storytelling — its contextual beauty and majestic ability to move us — is on the wane.

What this means is that today’s children may know the facts but not the context in which things happen. As they are no longer being shaped by a storytelling world, they seem to lack the will to dig deeper, preferring to surf in the immediate.

I was struck by this recently when a graduate from one of America’s most elite schools asked me, ‘Was John Lennon in that group … don’t tell me … Wings?’

Or when a student at France’s top film programme, La Fémis, asked me offhandedly, ‘What was it that Jean-Luc Godard did that was so great?’

Or when I overheard a Detroit mother of three share a major revelation, without irony, ‘I just found out that George Washington was the Father of Our Country. I always wondered who that man was on the quarter.’ This, despite the fact that every year on the third Monday of February, the US has a national holiday to celebrate President’s Day in honour of Washington (and Lincoln’s) birthdays. When I was in school — and I daresay for the previous 200 years — on 22 February of each year, every school child learned the story of George Washington, that when he was a boy, he freely confessed to his father, ‘I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down that cherry tree.’ This story was like the air we breathed.

A recent ground-breaking study for children, ‘Do You Know?’ (created by psychologist Dr Marshall Duke of Emory University and his colleague, Dr Robyn Fivush) has discovered the single best predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness: Story. Apparently, the more a child knows his family’s ‘story’ — in other words, the better informed he is about his wider family and obstacles they have overcome in order to survive and thrive — the ‘stronger a child’s sense of control over his life, the higher his self-esteem’.

The issue is getting parents to sit down with their children and tell them their stories. Perhaps they never sat down with their own parents long enough to learn theirs.

However, all is not lost. It would appear that we are now entering a new age: the Age of Story (back to the campfire!), or rather, the era of Content Creation. That is, whoever owns the best story will win. So it is vital that we each learn to tell our story well, so that our stories become the best they can be. But first, we must respect the fact that no story can succeed without a proper understanding of ‘context’, that is the proper set-up of the story in order to frame its wisdom and clarify its emotions.

Norman Lear, creator of All in the Family (one of the most revered television series in US history), said, ‘We live in the most emotionally cluttered time in history.’ Stories provide clarity. They help us to know how to feel and how to understand the world around us. Without this context, the next generation will be rudderless and confused. So, yes, there is absolute power in mastering this.

Bobette Buster is a screenwriter, documentary producer, lecturer, and story consultant. She grew up in Kentucky, a region renowned for its great storytellers. As a student she produced an oral history of the area that is now archived at the Kentucky Museum. She then moved on to Hollywood to learn the business of script development, and now writes, produces and lectures at the major studios including Disney, Pixar and Twentieth Century Fox, and in top film programs all over the globe. Since 1992 she has been Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California’s Graduate School of Cinematic Arts where she created the first MFA program in Original Feature Film Development.

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