Why Telling Stories is Important

Why Telling Stories is Important

Everyone tells stories.

While I was in Peru an orphan boy told me all the ways not to piss.

Lesson one: Don’t stand waist deep in the river if you’ve got to relieve yourself. That’s what the bathrooms are for. Parasites in the river will wait for little boys to wade out into the green water and take a leak. They’ve evolved to smell the urine, and that’s when they swim up into your intestines. The boy sets his a face in an expression of hard-earned solemnity, as worn by old men who want to forget all the bad things of life.

The boy, who was brought from Iquitos to the orphanage in Porto Alegria and likely saved from the many untold horrors of the sex trade, has goofy crooked teeth and smiles often when he’s not under the affected gravitas of telling stories that beggar belief.

Stories in Porto Alegria can be morbid and often reflect the fear/dependency relationship the locals have with the river.

You aren’t even safe letting loose off the side, the boy says. The worms are so mean they climb straight up your stream, if you give them the chance.

So the story goes. At night, I walked to the bathroom and spiders were all over the walls, large like clenched fists. They appreciated the coolness of the tile above the urinals. I took my chances with the river.

In Québec City I heard stories in French: About the majestic walls that eclipse Québec proper; about the enviromentally destructive plastic bags that had to be purchased at the grocer; about the province’s politically fraught relationship rooted in a history of cultural pride. My tongue wasn’t versatile enough to tell many stories back.

They tell stories in America’s flat places too. In my Midwestern home, there are stories about pieces of hay–thin as strands of hair–impaling telephone posts thanks to tornadoes’ furious torque.

There are cautionary tales about children who had to leave pieces of their tongues behind to free themselves from licking winter flagpoles.

There are myths about how swallowed gum will billow and coat the folds of your stomach then engulf everything else you try to peaceably digest.

Orson Welles told stories about attacking aliens on the radio which prompted hundreds of Americans to panic, in turn prompting Adolf Hitler to tell Germany stories about how democracy fosters fear and weakness.

In the middle ages priests thought the bubonic plague was brought on by demonic spirits, and lit protective circles of flames around themselves.

Plague-bearing mosquitoes ignited while passing through the fires, and the priests’ stories seemed vindicated. They weren’t true, but they were damn good stories.

My Stories.

I can tell stories too.

In first grade, another kid pushed my skull into the jagged wall behind the schoolyard during a game of Cowboys and Indians. I ran out into the parking lot holding my head as it painted a trail for school officials to follow.

The story I told our principal didn’t include that I was (against game rules) holding an Indian hostage: I thought that he would think I deserved my punishment, should have had my head bashed in.

I still tell myself stories about me being timid or unworthy or lost. You can’t believe everything you hear, especially when it comes from yourself.

I once tried to teach myself to play the violin. A beginner scraping horse hairs against steel is little better than nails abrading chalkboards.

One of my friends fell through our church’s rafters, all up to the knee in insulation, legs dangling above the sanctuary floor, while the rest of us pulled him back to safety. That same church burnt down a few years later, the morning after my sister was married there. Grass grows in the church’s lot now, out of the ashes, liturgies, and memories.

When I fell off my bike a month ago I was thrilled about the way my arms and hands bled, because it contradicted my unadventurous youth.

It confirmed recklessness: The gravel and debris that peppered and came to live in my skin allowed me to pretend words like ‘cocksure’ and ‘foolhardy’ could apply to my narrative.

It contradicted a harmful story I carried around (I’m not the kind of person who can be adventurous, take risks, do something stupid).

The old story mattered. The new story matters even more.

Why Your Stories Matter.

I love stories.

I love the way words roll around in our mouths and perforate the mind and assert themselves on the page/screen/tabula rosa of the mind.

I love that stories help us to trace the contour of unique minds, and of our own minds. I relish meeting those storytellers and mythweavers who force me to take violent glances at my unprotected reflection.

Stories are important because they can change people.

Platforms don’t change people. Words, dictionaries, and polemics don’t change people. Advertisements and pickup lines and rebukes don’t either. Stories change people.

The words matter. I learned the word “damn” from a Harry Potter book when I was ten (and learned what swearing was from the wideness of my friend’s eyes the next day). Now it’s in this blog post.

Words are tokens of what’s real. They represent stories.

My tungsten wedding ring is a physical token that houses too many stories to put into words.

All writing’s only a token of human experience–something that’s ultimately, inexpressible. Only able to be experienced behind each of our own faces.

Truly vital stories transcend their place and time. Good stories tell you something important. They talk to people and interact with their worldviews–the beliefs they’ve picked up along the way, the ones that color every story they hear. Good stories don’t apologize for themselves.

I think films, Kindles, campfire stories, whispered tales of sexual exploits and Bibles are not mutually exclusive, but rather, all possess a shared potency.

All good stories are bound by a common and inexhaustible thread. It goes by many names. Truth is one of them.

Good stories change people for the better.

You Have (Untold) Stories.

You might not be a great writer.

You might not be a raconteur, a master of the anecdote.

But you have some stories.

The secret is that no one is a true, inexhaustible master of the anecdote–but they might be a master of a good handful of them.

Even the greatest storytellers are in some specific ways quite bad. A great novel has some boring passages. Many great marketers have to fail dozens of campaigns for each monumental success.

Not every story is polished. Not all writing glows. But that’s never stopped the ones who create stories/ideas/narratives/lives that last.

Good storytellers actively add value to others’ lives, whether they’re telling stories about social justice of laundry detergent.

Good storytellers have an abiding fascination for people.

They pour themselves into things and are lonesome without a book, a movie, a person to bounce their words off of. Someone to exchange stories, to share experiences.

Good Storytellers are Artists.

So I smile at a young Peruvian boy and tell him he’s full of it. But he does have a great story.

So I jump into the river, even though piranhas verifiably live in South America and that fact is very, very scary.

Telling good, true stories is too important to pass up. What stories are you telling others about yourself?  What are you telling yourself?

What stories do you have (and YOU DO HAVE THEM) that are worth passing on?

Tell them.

[Image source: AmazonCARES via photopin cc]



  1. Andrew

    I’m glad for another outlet to access your writing! You should check out what Alisdair MacIntyre writes about stories in Ch. 15 of “After Virtue.” It stands on its own without having to read the rest of the book, and has shaped my own thinking about the centrality of narrative in structuring our identities.

  2. Pingback: i’m not a model and i never will be « kayleemarie

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