The Magic and Relevance of Stories.

The Magic and Relevance of Stories: why they matter more than ever.

It seems fitting this Easter weekend to focus on stories, given we are commemorating one of the most famous stories of Western culture – the crucifixion – the death of Jesus. Whether you regard it as fact or fiction, it essentially a story (note how fixionsounds), one that has stood the test of time, and one that is simple but profound. A sacrifice for others, for the greater good. Lots of emotion, lots of suffering, lots of depth. But importantly a story that is told and re-told over the last 2000 odd years. Like the myths of the ancients, stories of Gods and heroes, monsters and quests, stories that have been told around fire-sides for aeons.

I grew up with stories – being read to, reading voraciously, loving certain things on the telly and movies too, which we now recognise clearly as belonging to the broad church that is story-telling. I went onto evolve that love of stories and writing – if not actually orally telling them – into my life. I trade in stories – it is my work, my hobby: my passion and it started at home, when I was very young. I grew up on Pooh and Paddington, the Magic Pudding, Anne of Green Gables, Katie Did, Little Women. Indeed, I wanted to be Jo. After all, I had the same sort of nonsense name – too long, too many syllables but usefully shortened to a boy’s name.

Mum used to tell me stories of the Tudor monarchs as we washed up before Bellbird was on the ABC at 6:40 every evening, just before the news. Now I didn’t care about the news but I loved Bellbird (about which I had long discussions with my Nan) and Mum’s stories enkindled a love and passion for history that took me through HSC and almost into university, and remains with me still. The first story of mine that reached an audience was an historical story set at the court of Elizabeth 1, based on time-travel staring myself and my then boyfriend. My English teacher, (Diane Patricia Peacock) God love her, took it upon herself to read it out loud, in instalments, to the rest of the class. I was allowed to absent myself from the event, so hived off to the sewing rooms where I explored my other great love, sewing, and made my first pair of stretch shiny jersey bikinis. But I have remained a writer and a lover of that period of time. If you love the Tudors, you must read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Halland Bringing up the Bodies– brilliant.

As a person of a certain age and a teacher, we deplore the diminishing reading activity of the young – most notably the teenage young. The stats on how much they fall away from reading when they hit secondary school is worrying and damaging to their success (and enjoyment) in English. Yes, reading does all sorts of wonderful things to the mind, the vocab, written and verbal expression; the empathy one develops.

But stories – reading, viewing or telling remain currency. Even if the young aren’t so aware of it. We all tell stories every day. It isn’t just Homer around the fire at the end of battle telling tales of the heroic and God-like, it is us too. We tell stories to make sense of our world, to know who we are.

How many of you sit around the dinner table at the end of the day and share your day? Not as many as should, and this, as we know, leads to problems with diet and obesity, with problems with socialisation, with the inability to interact effectively with others, to be able to socialise. How do you know about those close to you if you don’t talk, if you don’t share the stories of your day, of your life? These stories let us share our lives, be they simple accounts of the events of the day, or a funny incident well told. We learn about what is important, if there is a problem, if there is something to be celebrated.

When we tell stories we shape our experiences to make sense of them – we leave things out, we emphasize certain aspects, we show ourselves in different lights, sometimes we are the fool, sometimes we are the hero. We shape our experiences to suit our audience, to suit our purposes, to test the waters. We watch their faces, gauge their reactions and adjust our telling. And so we learn how to interact with people – how to communicate. We learn about others. And so telling stories is as important as reading stories.

Last year when I asked my year 13s what had been the high-light of their year several of them made much of my stories, my asides – especially the one about how I (along with select members of my family) had drowned a protected species with some glee after catching it in a possum trap, the same evil creature who had brutally and ruthlessly killed nearly all of our chickens and then started in on the turkeys too. My class laughed about how that was not what I had meant (where was their connection to A Streetcar Named Desire,Carol Ann Duffy’s amazing collections – Feminine Gospels?) and then had great fun tracking the connections from what we were meant to be talking about to drowning a protected species. It reminded us all that stories are everywhere and connections take us to odd, bizarre and sometimes amazing places.

We learn to tell stories from others. From books being read to us and stories being told to us. So as parents we must not forgo the responsibility and huge pleasure of reading to our children. And, more than ever, of reading ourselves, so they see us read and ape what we do and become readers, not just passive receivers of all sorts of messages. Stories are important because of the human factor. Stories are about characters – people usually – doing human things, regardless of the time or place. Stories of fictional people matter just as much as stories of real people. All imagined characters have a connection to someone’s real life, to the experience of the writer, even if not directly to her/him. Those experiences connect with us, explain things, help us solve problems, give us examples of how to prevail; help us to know ourselves and others better.

I am very pleased that all three of my children remain readers, despite their busy lives and interests that don’t necessarily allow for the, now, luxury of reading. I always buy books for my boy for Christmas and birthdays. Recently both girls were reading Animal Farm,while I was teaching it. We all had interesting conversations about the wickedness of those pigs and the wretched ending of poor old Boxer. See, stories connect us too. Do you wonder why book clubs are so popular? People like to share stories and to share their experience of stories.

You shouldn’t be surprised by the timelessness of Shakespeare, you shouldn’t wonder why he remains performed across the world and a staple on school curriculums. His stories are rammed full of human frailties, our weaknesses as humans, as well as our better parts. Witness Macbeth and his ambition over-whelming him; Lady Macbeth’s love that drives her to plan and execute murder of a king; Iago who is burned by jealousy and wreaks havoc on those around him; King Lear who is so full of himself that he doesn’t see where love and loyalty are until it is too late; or Petruchio and Kate who really know how to mess with each other’s heads in the pursuit of love; and wouldn’t we all love to feel the intensity of the madness of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic love?

We love the Myths and Legends of old too for the same reason: so much tragedy, so many fools doing dangerous and fatal things – for love, for honour, for revenge. It’s good to read stories from other cultures too, it reminds us how much we have in common – so many stories echo each other – Pandora opening that silly box, defying her husband and ruining the world is just Eve taking the apple and being thrown out of Eden. The Phoenix can be found across the world of mythical beasts and there’s always a Dragon somewhere too; be it a dangerous Western dragon or a lucky Eastern one.

We are all story-tellers, every day we tell a story about something to do with ourselves. If we watch TV we watch stories. Even if we play computer games we are involved in stories. Young people may not read books as much anymore, or even go to the movies like they did, but they are involved in stories. We need to make sure they are involved in the right sort of stories, are accessing stories that help them make the right decisions about their lives and are not attracted by the dark stories out there that can so easily tempt them and take them to a violent and terrible future – one without stories of striving and struggle, of triumph and success.

Whatever you do make sure you are telling good stories, you are reading to your children, you are sharing good books with young minds. It matters, it really does. In these dark days of fake news and false facts one of the best places to find the truth and make good connections is in fiction, even if it is your own. (Images from Private Collection)

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