What's in a Story? #2

By Lena Slanisky

Published: 2020-04-14

“The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.” — Muriel Rukeyser, The Speed of Darkness

Stories bring people together in the most universal ways and the most minuscule. They are both finite and infinite, going on forever in finished form.

A story meets an end in a way life does not: planned, plotted, and punctuated. Stories also live on forever in a way life does not. This is why stories have the power to connect us. They are unique to us as humans. We alone are telling them. But they transcend our individual lives and lifespans. We put them out into eternity, out into the universe of which we are inextricably a part. We have from the beginning of time. And we will until the end of us.

Think of a time your heart jumped, maybe cheeks red, as you drank the words of a novel in through your eyes, gulping, shocked that some private inner thought or feeling had just been laid bare on the page.

“It may have been the light at 5:36 on a June evening or it may have been the smell of dust combined with sprinkler water or the sound of the neighbour kid screaming I’ll kill you but suddenly it was like I was dying, the way I missed her. Like I was swooning, like I was going to fall over and pass out. It was like being shot in the back. It was such a surprise, but not a very good one. And then it went away. The way it does. But it exhausted me, like a seizure.” – Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness

This is the power of a story.

It allows you to communicate and so to connect. With anyone. And anyone can be a storyteller. The world is full of them, from poets to painters, tech CEOs to teachers. Through pictures or words, movement or sound, a story can pull someone from strangerhood to friendship, from passerby to audience member, from skeptic to believer, just by sparking a connection.

That connection is based on a shared understanding, a shared narrative. Alone we have experienced something, together. The act of actualizing it through storytelling makes it cease to be a lonely experience and instead, a human one.

Some stories do this through universal truths, uniting us under a million twinkling stars. Others zoom into the hangnail on your left hand and leave you wondering if the author was inside your head all along. It doesn’t matter if we’re being reminded of our infinitesimal existence or empathizing with individual pain. To see yourself in a story is to feel represented, your own story made real.

The crux of this kind of powerful storytelling is one essential thing: honesty.

When a writer (or musician, or any kind of storyteller) decides they are going to be honest, so honest it’s almost uncomfortable, the truest of connections becomes possible. We create to connect with others, we consume to connect with others. Honesty sparks connection.

Unadulterated, undiluted truth can be felt from a mile away. Its impact is unforgettable.

Sometimes the truth can cradle you in its hand, and meet you right where you are, making you feel like you are right where you are meant to be.

Sometimes the truth hurts, but that certainly doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said. Sure, more bees with honey, but connection isn’t always sparked by sweetness and light. Sometimes we connect — sometimes we need each other — because of that absence of light. Thank god for those stories, songs, services that remind us to do more, be better. Those storytellers that aren’t afraid to tell us the truth.

Honest, authentic storytellers have the power to unite the world over, as they have done throughout human history, presenting fearlessness in the face of the infinite. It is their willingness to be bold and proclaim some authentic truth that allows us to feel seen, heard.

Whatever that minuscule, somehow mystical moment in a story is, whether it’s a feeling, observation, or idea, it has the ability to snatch a witness right by the tightness in their chest. Just where the butterflies flutter. And they will not soon forget what it felt like in that moment to be truly understood.


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