Humans are story-tellers. More important, humans are story-hearers. Stories define our understanding of life from our very earliest moments.
The spoken story comes first for us. It may be as simple as “How big is Baby? So big!” This classic familial game has all the hallmarks of a narrative. There is a subject (Baby). The subject has an internal struggle (to determine how big she is). In the end, after interminable suspense (to Baby at least), the tension is released (She is “so big.”) Homer could not have developed a more classic heroic journey.
From there the stories become personalized as we try to express them for others. We narrate our lives with excitement and awe, no detail too small to leave out. Ask a toddler to talk about her day in school and then count the number of times she says “And then,” stretching the tale out to encompass her whole experience..
As the stories are told and heard we have the inevitable desire to preserve them. The simplest and oldest means is with graphic representation; pictures on a cave wall are very similar to the crayon drawings in the kindergarten theme-book. Pictures evolve into pictographs and then into writing. “Go Dog Go” becomes “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” This in turn gives way to “A Wrinkle In Time,” to “Catcher In The Rye,” to “Look Homeward Angel” with thousands of stops and tangents along the way.
Even without the written word, the stories find ways to be heard. They may emerge as music or dance, as songs with or without words.
Stories will hide in the strangest of places. They lurk in anatomy textbooks in medical school, in investment prospectuses, even in historical documents – anywhere that an idea struggles to be understood by a human being. The surest way for us to make our meaning clear is to incorporate it in a recognizable narrative, even if that narrative does not begin “Once upon a time…,” but rather “When in the course of human events…”
The problem with being a story-hearer is that we sometimes forget to listen for the story. We may be too caught up in the form or format. If the words are complicated or in a language we don’t know, then we may not try to understand them. If they are too dry or even too ornate, they may not seem worth the effort. Finally, if they involve complex interpretation, such as the that of wordless art forms such as dance or music or art, we may simply not be able to find the story.
But even if we don’t fully understand, it is so important to keep listening. Remember that Baby has no idea what the word “big” means. She has only the vaguest sense of being “Baby.” It is with the nurturing repetition of the narrative that she begins to realize “Baby is me” and “Baby is so big.” When she masters this understanding, she can then move on to other abstractions like “Baby is growing,” “Baby has thoughts,” or “Baby has dreams.”
I feel that it is important as an artist to emphasize the story and the story-hearing. Twist the story around. Tell it backwards. Make up a language if needs be. But always strive to maintain the connection between the art and the story-hearer at the other end.