The Art Of Storying Telling

Emily Elderfield studies modern languages--which is all fine and fun until she remembers one of those languages is Russian. Distraction techniques include baking, writing and chasing after dogs on Market Street. Avid admirer of the sea. Hates ketchup.


The old adage about humans’ need to tell stories is hardly a revelation, but as I sat around a bonfire the other week listening to people I didn’t know tell stories I’d never heard, I felt like there was something more profound around us. It wasn’t just the fact that these people were good writers, or good performers, even. I’m fairly sure they could have been reciting a recipe for sponge cake and I still would’ve felt pulled in. So why is it that the art of sharing stories, of becoming part of a collective audience, has become such a mesmerising part of human nature?

History provides us with countless examples of our ancestors’ need to turn the world around them into art. The Lascaux Cave paintings, made more than 15,000 years ago, were discovered last century by some kids on an overly adventurous dog walk. They mostly depict wild animals, though there are a few engravings of mythological creatures (either that, or there were some very funky-looking horses roaming around ancient France). Even back then, sans parchment or quill, our forefathers were so compelled to make some lasting memory of what they were witnessing that they painted the rocks around them. The impetus in modern society is no less present: people turn blank walls into graffitied effigies, the most mundane of news articles into speculative blog posts, the merest hint of anything fearful into a full-blown urban legend. 

However, this need extends beyond mere creativity; sure, we’ve all sat around a campfire telling ghost stories or picked up a book and whiled away a few hours, but I’d argue that our storytelling instinct serves a much more evolutionary purpose. Stories unite us. They give us a mirror to look in to and say ‘Ah yes, I recognise that too’. They give us a common thread to cling to on this roller-coaster of existence that we found ourselves on; they ground us.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been moved by hearing a story – be it literary, a news segment, even a well-spun anecdote. Even though it really doesn’t take much to make me cry, I think the thing that gets to me has nothing to do with the actual words being communicated. There’s something beautifully vulnerable about standing up in front of a group of people and saying ‘Here, have these words, have this part of my being’. It feels like a shout into the void, with the hope that just maybe, 15,000 years down the road, someone will be there to listen.