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  • Sara Jolena

When it is not just about "telling" stories

Updated: Jan 6, 2018

"You are not, actually, focused on re-telling stories," said Casey Donahue, an editor at The Moth, an organization dedicated to the "art and craft of storytelling," to me. We were sitting at Union Theological Seminary and she had just finished reading a draft of my thesis, which at that time was titled "Retelling the story of the Anthropocene Age." Or, as I told people who wanted a one-liner on what I was spending so much of my time working on and who didn't know what the Anthropocene Age was, "retelling the story of climate change."


I gulped. I wasn't? Earlier, longer versions of the thesis included a whole chapter on why retelling stories is a critical component of ethical engagement (which is something Seminarians think about a fair amount). In my thesis, I was re-positioning the "origin point" of climate change. Part of the argument is that where you start a story is a critical component of story telling.

I, like most humans, love listening to stories; by focusing on how we tell stories, I felt I was tapping into a universal human need. And I knew that "storytelling" was a "hot" topic. In the ecologically progressive, "we need to change mindsets" networks that I have partaken in since at least 2007, the phrase, "we need a new story," and "we need to change the story," had significantly grown, and not just in environmental circles. Businesses were seizing upon the power of storytelling in "content marketing" in 2012; more recently, "brand narrative" is getting a lot of traction. I was also watching friends gain success in the social change arena via storytelling (as evidenced not least by this article on the 5 secrets of storytelling in, of all places, Forbes magazine) and increased focus on the science of storytelling. And I was taking courses at the Columbia School of Journalism, and thinking a lot about storytelling. So I thought that focusing on storytelling in my thesis made sense. Except that Donahue was right.


"You are focusing on ReMembering," Casey said. The difference is subtle, to be sure. It is not that I wasn't re-telling a story: I was. It is that what I was doing was deeper than that.


With all the discussion about how we are "hard wired to tell stories," it is easy to forget that the stories we tell - an act we usually do with language and our mental processes - arise (in part) from our bodies. Our brains are not only hard-wired to tell stories, but the very metaphors we use arise from our somatic experience. This has been a critical component of the arguments made by indigenous scholar Steven Newcomb on why the Doctrine of Discovery has had such a defining impact on U.S. culture.


My experience, and part of what I was trying to argue in my thesis, was that the process of learning a different past was an embodied and a relational one. I was trying to get to the stuff from which our stories concerning the critical questions of our existence: where do we come from? where actually are we now? Who are we- especially in relationship to where are we? Our identities and our location are interwoven, although the shape and texture of the weave varies from person to person. The answers to those questions are found in collective memories about place, food, music, and the way we move our bodies. They are found in oral family histories rarely. They are also found in imprints of images, sounds, tastes, and a sense of how we fit into the vast network of life... and in the complex network of social hierarchies.


The term "ReMembering" focuses on the sensory dynamic: members (of some kind of body) are put back together. These can be member of an individual's past and members of our human-earth community. There is inherent subjectivity within any given "member." It is not just a tale that one - or even 20 - participants in the Course could tell. It is also relying upon a body to which we jointly belong: a body with multiple tales, not all of which are easily "told." Some are sensed. Sometimes when teaching, I will let us sit in silence together: not only because silences make for better stories (and they do!) but because we need to dwell together in silence sometimes in order to feel the still quiet movement within us, the movement that will shape our inner knowings, which does not need - indeed cannot - always be articulated.


I write this blog on my first day back to the house in which I spent most of my childhood for a visit. Every room in the house is filled with memories. Some of the memories are stories. Some are flashes - images, sounds, tastes. I could move some of the memories into many different stories. Our memories will inform what we do, where we stand, what (including how much) we eat, and how we relate. The macro stories we tell and the values they reflect (we are here out of duty; out of love; out of justice; out of social obligation) can shape how we put those memories together. But there are memories that I have greater access to now - many of which were already there - that shift the stories that I tell myself, and thus how I am relating to the table, the floor, the bird, the dog, my mom, cousins, and neighbors.


What does this mean for those of us for whom storytelling is at the core of what we do, be we journalists, filmmakers, teachers or entrepreneurs? It means that the beyond language process of reMembering is critical. And, ironically, through going through the process of remembering consciously, I and my students find it makes us better - certainly more aware - storytellers.


(The image in this blog is of me and some friends sitting around a campfire listening to stories and music in January, 2017)


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