Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

The Call of Story

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 03•12

Jessica P. Morrell

Sometimes just being alive feels like raw flesh-vulnerable, responsive, irritable, in constant danger. Those are the times when I most need to sense my place among other people, to hear their stories and know they are mine as well. I badly need to be sure someone can hear me; I need to receive his answering cry. Sheldon Kopp

         No one knows exactly why our human ancestors began walking upright millions of years ago but it was likely linked to survival. However, we do know that this new way of walking and seeing the world had vast consequences for our species and the planet. We also know that when hominids first started walking, two essential things happened. The brain, which our ancestors began using for problem solving and complex tasks, became much larger relative to other species. And the birth canal became smaller. The result was that females began giving birth to smaller, less developed infants and these infants were much more vulnerable than other species. The infants needed to be fed and cling to their mothers for a longer time to survive. The result: our first language—‘motherese’ the timeless language of mothers and babies cooing to each other, communicating needs and responses. Or at least that’s one theory on the origin of language.

And from these exchanges (and our large brains) a more formal language developed, from which all sorts of wonders sprang forth, especially our instincts to create art and tell stories. These art and storytelling-making instincts had many uses for early communities, and were helped by the human’s ability to understand facial expressions.

The Pleistocene era, which ended about 10,000 years ago, is when Homo sapiens became recognizably human and spread throughout most parts of the planet and hunter-gatherer societies were formed. And most interesting, Homo sapiens were occupying the planet at the same time as saber tooth tigers, mammoths, giant sloths, birds of prey with a 25-foot wing span, and mastodons. It was also the last ice age and glaciers covered many areas and climate changes were profound.

And just think about it—if you passed on stories about the run-in with the mammoth or the saber tooth tiger, or speculated about a lightening strike from the thunderstorm the previous night, you were passing along valuable lessons in survival. And these survival stories became more elaborate and mythos evolved—the need to inspire through drama.

Storytelling also fostered community and dealt with common concerns. Love, loss, death, grief, adversity, adventure, justice, family were addressed through stories. The latest research claims that humans are innately wired to make art and tell stories and also enjoy art and stories. Children in all societies play make-believe, but learn the differences between the story world and the real world. So storytelling also grew out of play, because humans, along with some mammals and birds play during their relatively long and secure childhoods.

Over time, alphabets were devised by the ancient people living along the Mediterranean, by the Greeks who wanted the means to describe poetry, particularly the meter of poetry and thus added vowel sounds, and the Sumerians of long-ago Mesopotamia, now Iraq. Many of the first texts were printed on clay tablets, so this meant that news, ideas, and business transactions could be recorded or even travel in a region without relying on the messenger’s memory. While there were cave drawings and other means of communicating spanning back millenniums, when written language came into being it changed the world. Since its invention people have struggled to use these finite marks to create understanding and stories.

Because, after all, there has always been some form of storytelling The need to take ‘once upon a time’ and piece together a narrative. The need to make sense of death and war and greed. The need to translate the wonder and power of love. The need to understand a planet that sometimes quakes and shivers. Stories lend meaning to human existence.

And simply put, storytelling shaped humanity. Because stories were a creative form of problem solving, elevated the storyteller’s status, and storytellers became beloved in their groups. Effective storytelling taps into the reader’s or listener’s senses and longings, stirs his imagination, and embraces him in its spell. Yet something else is at work in reading and writing.

You see, people dream and live lives of stories. And in writing these stories you explore your bruised or open heart, examine your beliefs, understand your past, and come to grips with what it means to be human in our times. So writing also has great value for the self since it involves analysis, thoughtfulness, and creativity. In writing you are evoking all the senses and making concrete the fleeting. Writing taps our deepest feelings, helps us come face to face with our mistakes and regrets, passions and heartbreaks, and is a means to return all the gifts we’ve been given.

It’s remarkable when you think about it that those dark squiggles on a page can connect with readers and transport them to a faraway castle or evoke a mood or create understanding via a twelve-line poem. How words on a page can switch on a reader’s inner cinema and touch his or her emotions.

Some stories come from a sense of urgency, a desperate need to make sense of the senseless. Some stories are meant to simply entertain or get a laugh. And some of our best stories will come from that terrible place within of grief and loss and hopelessness. And yet not all writing is from the shadowland of our souls. We also write to savor love and beauty. We write because we’re collectors, scavengers, always noticing the ordinary and extraordinary, and in this process we connect to others and the world around us.

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