Are we sitting comfortably?
From the look of the set up you might have thought it was a stand-up comedy night, with round tables before a low stage and a solitary microphone on a stand. Or maybe one of those intimate performances with a singer-songwriter draped over a barstool.
Although it looked like an underwhelming turn-out for a gig, it was in fact a live storytelling event in the backroom of a Northern Quarter pub. The event is called Spark, and we were there as strangers to recount episodes from out lives.
I had thought that I'd just listen to other people tell their stories, but it was actually a an open-mic on the theme of embarrassment. Since there weren't many listeners in attendance, I went up and told one as well. I’ve read poems before, but never told a story unscripted and unprepared on a stage.
We are experiencing a resurgence in the art of storytelling, no doubt related to recent podcast phenomenon of the past decade. The Moth Radio Hour is one of the most well-established storytelling podcasts, which has a similar set of "rules" as Spark: stories must be true, they must be your own stories, and they must be told without notes.
You get the impression, however, that storytellers on The Moth have been doing this for a long time, and been polishing their stories for maximum effect. Nevertheless, it makes for a great bedtime listen.
Another emerging trend in contemporary storytelling is in the domains of marketing, advertising, and branding, which have to some extent hijacked storytelling and submitted it to the will of consumer ideology. Across LinkedIn and marketing agencies, there are numerous courses and experts who will help you tell a story that sells your product or your service.
They have tapped into this interest because storytelling may be the most fundamental human pastime. I'd even bet that job of storyteller has been around longer than the proverbially oldest profession. We remember a story better than we remember facts, even if the facts are simpler than the story. Stories engage our emotional being and draw out our empathy. In the age of rampant neo-liberal capitalism, even this time-honoured tradition has been monetised.
Stories represent a search for meaning, beyond their limited use in stories-as-branding. These are the ways that we make sense of our lives. We look back on everything we have experienced and the events of our pasts and we weave them together into coherence, into a plot. We want to find some kind of significant pattern.
Think of conspiracy theories. Many of them appeal not because of their apparent validity, but because they give explanations for seemingly random events. In a way, we like to believe that the world is controlled by a secretive world order. At least then it's controlled by something, somewhere, even if we don't exactly know what. We don't like the uncertainty of things. We don't like the accident of Dianna's death or the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370.
Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories is a consistent mistake in the way we think, called the proportionality bias. According to this cognitive bias, we tend to believe that a major events must have a major cause. So if a high profile individual is killed, there is a suspicion that it can't have been an accident, because: big shocking event = big shocking explanation. We take comfort in overarching narratives or predetermined plans, as these explain the seeming chaos of the world, especially its most tragic and mysterious happenings.
In the past we had the grand narratives of Christendom or Communism. These are stories in the sense that they make sense of what has happened before, explain why the world looks this way, and projects what will happen in the future. For Christianity it's the story of salvation, in Communism it's the class-struggle and liberation of the masses.
These days, of course, we have other narratives, or no narrative at all. The story we hear most frequently (and most insidiously) is that of consumption. It may not sound like a story of itself, but it is a way of explaining the purpose of life and the nature of the world: as we progress through the story, we are to accumulate more things, and better things.
Much of recent cultural production, dominated by postmodernism like a sneering older sibling who's read too much Nietzsche, has left us in many ways without a story. Whereas before people had clear ideas about heaven and utopia and a sense of where this is all going, we find ourselves left in something of a story-less void, as John Mark Comer and Mark Sayers discuss on This Cultural Moment.
Despite our hardened secularism, we are nevertheless storied creatures. We look constantly for the stories around us and in our own lives. Ultimately, it is a way of imbuing life with meaning, a way of saying that there is more to life. That's why Ruth and I write for the website, why I write poems and essays.
At the Spark event in Manchester the stories aren't recorded for podcast, so you just tell your story and then it disappears, like smoke. You don't have to worry about it being recorded for posterity, and there's a spoken pact among us that you don't go repeating the tales you hear. We've become friends, after all.
There is an art to the rehearsed and balanced retellings from the likes of The Moth. But at a local, unrehearsed, unpolished event like Spark you get a sense that we aren’t storytellers so much as people with stories.
It reminds us that story is about sharing in the strange, the funny and the sad of every day lives, the things we can all relate to and some of the things that we can’t. Stories are at the heart of what it means to be human.
Even if you yourself would never go to a live storytelling event or consider yourself a “story person”, stories permeate all societies and cultures. At heart, a story is a search for meaning in the events of our lives and a way of explaining the world to us.
Altough most of us haven’t told unscripted stories on a stage before in the fashion of The Moth or Spark, we are all constantly telling stories, however mundane or poorly regaled. We share and offer and repeat because we believe that they contribute something to a conversation. Life isn’t just about the events that happen, but retelling the events that happen. We are storied beings.
Stories don’t have to be perfectly told, and we shouldn’t let them be taken over by the agents of story-as-branding. Story doesn’t require a purpose, doesn’t need to make money, or be celebrated; the value is in the telling.
You can find out about upcoming Spark events on the Facebook page.