We are the stories that we tell and it is the stories we share which unite us. This was the seed of an idea planted by a day with author, artist, musician and story teller Boori Pryor. Understanding the power that our stories have allows us to better value their role in our lives, to see them as more than recounts of the past or imaginings of the future. Stories should be viewed as the powerful agents that they are with the force to shape who we are as much as we shape them.
Boori is a teller of stories. He engages his audience immediately with his warmth and humour, bringing even the most reluctant listener into his stories with apparent ease. The stories he tells are grounded in reality, the everyday minutia of the mundane but on top of this he layers sweet servings of imagination. Tales of family interactions, of brother and sister rivalries, of a strict mother who sides with her daughters, of a boy with a love of exploring the bush form the foundation of Boori’s stories. Add to this a frightening ‘boogey man’ hiding in the shadows, a snake planted in a sister’s pyjamas and a fly so large it was cleared to land at the local airport and you have stories that ignite the imagination. These are the stories of Boori’s life and of his culture. He weaves effortlessly into his telling snapshots of his people, his connection to place and the timelessness of Australia’s first people. He brings his people’s language alive and places words and ideas onto the tongues and minds of his audience. Powerfully he shares that his stories are not about Aboriginal culture but about all people, that in sharing his stories he helps us understand who WE are more than who ‘they’ are.
We forget how important our stories are. We consign stories to books and to films. Stories are the constructs of authors and we are their consumers or so it is easy to believe. In thinking this we give too much importance to formalised literature and undervalue the stories of us; the ones which make us and that we make in our processes of sense-making as we engage with the world. Everything and everyone has a story, most have many. Seeing the world not as a collection of events and objects but as a convoluted entanglement of stories interacting with each other and shaping reality can be at once terrifying and liberating. In a time where technology seems to be driving a wedge between people and becoming an agent for change independent from us, valuing the power of our stories can be a most humanising and humbling experience.
The one constant is change. Modern society holds tightly to this mantra and in this way we construct a belief that change is inevitable and self-fulfilling. But change is a construct of the stories that we tell and its success relies upon how these stories are interpreted. An article by Ford, Ford and D’Amelio reminds us of the danger of imagining that a change we desire is an object independent of the stories by which it is constructed. 'In so doing, he or she enacts a world that appears as an insightful awareness of reality, rather than a product of his or her own authorship’. (Ford et al 2008) We are observers of the world and our observations are shaped by our interactions with our environment but our perception is equally a construct and the product of our perception are the stories that we tell. Change or the need for change is but one of the stories that we tell and the validity of it is bound to its story. So too is consistency.
Problems are what we face when we find our stories do not fit. Faced with new information, ideas, events and interactions we may find that our stories do not fit or that we need to construct a new story. Such scenarios require us to think, to use what we know in new ways and to construct a new story that fits with the reality we are encountering for the first time or in new ways. Cognitive psychologists may call this schema formation but the concept of a story serves our purposes well. If as Piaget states 'Intelligence is what you use when you don't know what to do’ then it can be seen that intelligence is the capacity to create a new story that adequately explains a new perception. Our intelligence could be seen as a measure of the stories we are able to effectively use, our capacity to construct new stories to serve our needs and importantly our capacity to adequately share those stories.
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Stories take on a life of their own. For those who seek truth as an ideal separate and pure from manipulation and interpretation both ideas are frightening and yet somehow it seems inescapable that we as cognisant beings are shaped by our stories. Boori is a masterful teller of stories, but his stories make him at least as much as he makes them. In the art of the story teller this truth is revealed and laid transparent before us but it is a truth for us all. Our goal needs to be to listen to the stories we tell and that our lives are woven into and in doing so glimpse who we are and what has made us. As teachers we have the opportunity to guide our students as they understand and shape the stories of their lives while showing them that their stories form part of a much larger one, to invoke Whitman and show that the powerful play goes on that they may contribute a verse.
By Nigel Coutts
Ford, J et al (2008) Resistance to change: The rest of the story. Academy of Management Review, 33 (2), 362-377.