Our new Chief Article Writer Daisy Leigh-Phippard shares her thoughts on story telling.
Once upon a time, we used to tell each other stories in the dark. Around a campfire that was underwhelming dim compared to the ones we saw in American films, or by the lamplight huddled under our duvets before bed, we’d sit and listen to stories. As we’ve gotten older stories are no longer spoken to us, and have started being shown in other ways: films. Where the action is just as important as the dialogue and artwork and photography tells whole stories without saying anything. But we don’t talk and listen like we used to. Maybe we share a few anecdotes over coffee, but it’s not quite the same. As interesting as interpreting a wordless story is, I wonder what our culture would be like if we stopped and verbally told stories to each other more often.
I did a project over the summer filming and interviewing a group of artists. At the end of each interview, I asked them to tell me a story. It was somewhat of a throwaway question, something to distract them from their self-consciousness by engaging in something that comes naturally to all of us, even if we hate the camera of public speaking. But it had surprisingly rewarding results. One person told me about a teapot she was given to make a sculpture from. It was a teapot that the owner had been drinking from when the radio announced that Britain had declared war on Germany in 1939. Imagine all the fear that must have brought, I was told. Everything that that meant. How British it was to solve it by having a cup of tea.
Someone retold to me a fairytale of a young girl that rescued birds from cages in the woods that transformed into women that had been trapped by a cruel old king. I learnt about a couple who had gone to great efforts to make their own clothes for their first date, buying the fabric and sewing it themselves in the days before online ordering. They had turned up in an exactly matching dress and blazer. Despite my plans to get the artists out of their own heads, I found myself outside of my own as well. I was immediately absorbed just by listening to someone verbally tell me a story. Something I hadn’t really experienced in a long time.
Oral storytelling is arguably the oldest form of storytelling itself past cave paintings. Back before we had recorded history, we know travelling storytellers went between communities reciting their tales as well as news from across the land. It’s a medium that’s uniquely intimate, where the teller is flexible to change elements of the story depending on the audience’s reaction. The closest thing we commonly have these days would be plays or performance poetry and comedy, but even then performers are often afraid to go off the tracks and improvise which was the key part of oral storytelling.
Ever wondered why every time you hear a fairytale it’s slightly different? They were initially spread through word-of-mouth. Literally. People would forget parts and make it up, or change it because they thought of something better. It’s like Chinese Whispers through time, and it’s part of the reason it’s such an intimate tradition. Listeners were part of the creative process either when the teller altered the story based on their reactions, or when they went and retold it to someone in a new way themselves. Of course, this meant that the story being told was limited to the perspective of the person telling it, but before the general population could read or write, before we had cameras and coloured pencils, this was how we had access to stories.
Now I’m not against visual storytelling. Telling a story in a single frame and with no words at all is a craft, and by many accounts harder. How do you unite visual and sound elements to explain something to the audience without spoon-feeding them? Where do you draw the line between being explicit and letting people discover the story for themselves? By extension, the audience is just as involved in the creative process: they interpret it themselves and make their own meaning. The same painting means a different thing to everyone who looks at it.
But I’m still sad to see that we don’t celebrate stories that don’t need anything but words like we did when we were children or all the way back in ancient times. A lot of the people I know haven’t heard the fairytales or mythology that I love because they went straight into movie-watching or music, and somewhere in the middle skimmed over the stage of just sitting and listening. As creative storytellers, I think it’s an invaluable experience to be told a story that changes and evolves around you, the listener. It’s one of the things that helps you learn how to shape stories yourself, so I wonder what it would be like if it wasn’t something just left to childhood, and if we kept telling each other stories in the dark even when we have electric lights and Netflix.
Words by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Illustrations by Sarah Gomes Munro (Instagram // @gomunro)