Storytelling existed long before the printed page came into existence. The earliest known discovery dates back to around 14,000 B.C. to the Lascaux Caves in the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France. The story drawn on the walls of a cave in pictures depicted the hunting practices and rituals in the area. The first printed word story was the epic of Gilgamesh carved on stone pillars thousands of years later in 700 B.C.
Of course oral storytelling has been a central part of human cultures for thousands of years, but dating it exactly, like dating when humans first began to speak, is impossible because words leave no trace in the archaeological record. Over time stories have been used to preserve cultures across generations, to teach social norms and transmit knowledge, to create community cohesion, and to entertain. Storytellers were the healers, the spiritual guides, leaders, keepers of culture, entertainers or jesters, and they transmitted their tales in the form of songs, poetry, orations and chants.
In some senses humans are stories because we are made up of the narrative constructs of our lives. Stories are how we are remembered, and how we remember others. A narrative is a powerful tool, and lives can literally be changed by them. Remember the books that influenced you as a child and moulded the way you think today? Stories give children access to their rich imaginations and deep fantasy lives and build emotional literacy. They help us to make sense of our world as well as challenge us to think about the world beyond our own narrow limits.
For writers who subject themselves to the monkish like isolation required to create stories, writing is an activity that takes us deep within ourselves and draws us out all at the same time. An idea is often seeded by something that happens in the world around us, but when I look at what I have written retrospectively I usually wonder where it came from.
While I edit I have been thinking quite a bit about the difference between the written and oral forms of storytelling, because I use reading my work out loud to help with editing. Reading out loud allows me to hear the cadence, pacing and rhythm of my work. It puts my writing on display in a way that the written word does not.
An editor I know recently suggested I actually get someone else to read my work back to me as part of the editing process. She says how you hear your work is different again coming from another person and the exercise can help to further improve it. Getting someone else to read your work is particularly useful for grammar as it makes your realise that commas are far from meaningless markers. They cause a pause, or a breathe in vocalisation that you would not always pick up in silent reading. Punctuation alters the tone of the words they punctuate by indicating a change of idea, an increase in detail, or a change of speaker. Used incorrectly punctuation can confuse the reader, and when we confuse readers we throw them out of our stories.
I have been listening to a few audio books recently – and I do love an audiobook. They mean I read more because I can listen to them gardening, driving, walking, or when my eyes are too tired for the page. Though you do have to be wary of listening when you go to bed, because whilst it’s a lovely reminder of being read to sleep as a kid, there’s the risk of missing half the tale if you start snoring and the book keeps playing.
Well narrated audio books are an immersive experience that pulls you into the story when the reader infuses it with emotion. They can manipulate the pace by reading faster or slower, and vary tone and pitch for different characters to bring them to three dimensional life. You can’t skim an audiobook the way you can the printed word and in listening you can focus on the bricks of detail to notice how the writer has constructed the story. You can hear how they grab your attention and draw you deeper in, or do something that pushes you away, such as using large slabs of narrative that create distance.
I’ve been listening to Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton this week. It was named book of the year at the Australian book industry award and won audiobook of the year as well as a string of other acclamations. The story is based on Dalton’s own childhood growing up in a suburban Brisbane housing commission amongst drug dealers and criminals. Dalton’s use of dialogue is often hilarious, and his prose is evocative. He uses colorful details and wordplay to describe the minutiae of life and the deepest inner thoughts of Eli, drawing out the young narrators surreal imagination and philosophical meanderings. I’m only about half way though the audiobook but suspect I may want to turn around the read the written version as well when I’ve finished to see what I can learn there.
Main image: DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague