Sarah Winman on Storytelling

Sarah Winman on Storytelling

We have an inherent need for someone to bear witness to our experience of life. From the moment we can communicate, we wish to tell others of our adventures; of our hopes, our losses and our triumphs. We seek a mirror so that we know we are not alone, not the only ones suffering.

Reading is a solitary activity. In an oral culture (pre-literacy) the listening to and the telling of stories was a collective pursuit: part of man’s history for 65,000 years. Traditionally, it happened in families and communities. That’s how people learnt about where they came from; the qualities handed down – the good and the not so good – stories as compass points, to guide towards a different journey; to heal.

Today, families and communities are fragmented. Homes are smaller, older parents rarely come to live with their children; the whole dynamic has changed. And yet the need for storytelling is greater than ever. The increase in genealogy sites reveals this, for people have an innate desire to find out where they have come from, who their ancestors were; seeking out the thread of difference or similarity.

Life, today, is rushed. You need time to tell a good story. Time for the atmosphere to settle, for ears and hearts to open; that’s the richness of it, the theatre of it, the togetherness. That’s why funerals and wakes are often so memorable. We still give time to the dead. We say our goodbyes on the backs of stories and song.

My dear friend, the writer, Cate Kennedy, recently spent time in Vanuatu. She told me that the lingua franca of Vanuatu is Bislama – a transcription, pretty much, of an oral language. In Bislama the word for chatting is storian: to story. So you go round to someone’s house for a cup of tea and to story with them. That’s beautiful.