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What is the Essence of Storytelling?

5th Apr 2021
What is the Essence of Storytelling?

Mercat Tours International Storyteller Margaret offers a touching insight to what storytelling means to her.

Within the clans of the ancient Gaelic world, one of the most important figures was the Seanachaidh, the keeper of the stories.

In a pre-literate world, stories were not written down, but kept orally. The story keepers kept the history of the clan and of events they had participated in simply by memorising them and telling them over and over again. They knew the family genealogies and they knew the anecdotes. Without them, a clan had no past. They were vital to the sense of identity of each group who identified with the clan, itself a Gaelic word meaning family.

Some years ago, I was on tour with a group searching their forebears. They had, with my help, done the research and they had come to see for themselves exactly where their ancestors had come from. They did not have a Seanachaidh. They had written archives, but the purpose of the records was the same – retain the identity and the stories.

I asked the group why this was so important. They were proud to be Americans, so why did this Scottish connection matter? The answer took a while in coming, but when it did, it was a variation on the desire to have a sense of belonging more than two generations back.

Why had their grandparents told the stories they had told? Who were they called after? What had their namesake done? Who was he or she? What had they looked at before they left Scotland?

The sense of storytelling

The need for one’s past to be validated and real is common to both the ancients and the modern. To look on a loch or a hillside the generations before you have known is immensely powerful in the definition of oneself.

I remember my niece when she was very young. Rosie did not want stories read to her by her grandmothers. She wanted them to tell her stories of her mum and dad. What was dad like at school? Did he misbehave? Which chair did he like to sit in? The torrent of questions went on. The reality of these stories was far more important to this little girl than was fantasy and fiction.

Now in her thirties, I asked her if she could remember why she had wanted these stories. Her answer was, ‘I just loved imagining my parents as kids.’ Then it was, ‘Imagining all the mischief they got up to. It made them feel more human.’ Her grandmothers, both still living in the houses where her parents had been brought up, had become the Seanachaidhs of her parents.

She wanted their stories of when her parents had been her age, as she could grasp that reality. It was particularly powerful as she could sit in the rooms, and run in the gardens where the stories had taken place. When she was a little older I could show her the family tree, but that was far less important than who her dad had been as a little boy.

Is that not the sense of storytelling? It makes sense of our world. It connects our experience to that of others. It determines our place in it – who we are, where we have come from. Soap opera rests on exactly this – human stories that happen to all of us, unlike the fantasy world of so much of Hollywood.

So what does storytelling mean to me?

Well into my golden years, I still love a story. With people I am close to I will say, ‘Tell me about such and such’ and what I am looking for is the detail of the feelings, the atmosphere, not the bald non-fiction facts. I wrap their words round me like a warm blanket.

When I research people from history, I want to know what motivated them. That is what makes them human, and are points of contact across centuries. I am part of the universe as were they. Storytelling is the most powerful expression of our feelings, our ideas and of what in the end makes the shared experience of being human.

With a good story inside us we feel good, and when we are the Seanachaidhs we are giving this to others. We see in their eyes the connections we are making, and the pleasure they are drawing from it: the emotional links, the sense of anticipation, the comfort (or indeed discomfort) with the resolution.

Story telling is a wonderful gift to both give and to receive. Stuck for a birthday present to give me? Please just tell me a story!

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