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Why Do We Tell Stories?

During a recent visit to my parent’s house in Denver, I opened a chest that contained a whole bunch of my elementary school work, a lot of little league trophies, and some drawings of pigs wearing glasses.

But best of all was the first short story I ever wrote.

The story occupies the bottom half of a sheet of paper. The top half has a terrifying illustration by yours truly.

A scared-looking bald man with a square head, square torso, square legs, square fingers, square feet, and two wide, wild eyes is walking in the foreground. A geometrically unsound castle looms beyond. Before I describe the rest of the picture, here is the story itself:

The man walked down the road. There was lots of lightning. What’s in that castle!!! A snake bit his foot and the man screamed. LIGHTNING!!!

Then a vulture swooped down and pulled his arm off and flew away and nobody ever saw that man again. THE END.

The snake that is biting the man’s foot looks kind of like the snake from Pitfall for the Atari 2600.

The vulture is  a big pair of wings and a beak with two angry eyebrows. There is a square arm hanging from its beak.

I was simultaneously delighted beyond words and a bit disturbed. Who was that kid? He was the kid who would “grow up” to write The Face In The Window and every penny dreadful piece of pulp he could ever get his hands on. But he was also the kid who wanted Fern from Charlotte’s Web to be his girlfriend.

As far back as Ms. Poindexter’s first grade class in Farmington New Mexico, I was writing stories. Why? Who knows…

Maybe you’re a storyteller yourself. Maybe you just know someone like me who seems to see everything as a reason to tell a story.

Why do people tell stories? Why do we tell stories?


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  • cinderkeys June 25, 2010, 12:59 am

    Too tired right now to come up with a coherent response of my own, so I’ll point to someone more articulate:

    Why We Tell Stories by Lisel Mueller

  • Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave June 25, 2010, 4:44 am

    When I was a little girl, it seemed to be my side of the “conversation” with all the books and stories I read. When I took graduate courses in childhood psychology, I was told it was an “emotionally ‘safe’ outlet for emotional disturbances.” When I sat in early education workshops I was told it was “a facilitator for the development of language fluency.” When I began to have my own children, it was a way to give them permission to write stories themselves.
    At this point, I’m back to my first reasoning, (of course informed by all the other influences). Writing stories is just my side of the conversation–where I am freer under the guise of fiction to tell my dreams.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 10:32 am

      Do you actively encourage your children to write stories?

  • Lisa June 25, 2010, 8:17 am

    I think stories are our 7th sense. Like bats sending out sonar and navigating by what comes back. We are constantly “making sense” of the world and telling that sense to each other, adjusting and telling it again. It’s how we keep our bearings.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 10:33 am

      From now on, every time someone tells me a story, I will be thinking about bats:)

  • ami June 25, 2010, 9:15 am

    We tell stories to make sense of things, yes.

    And – for those of us who hesitate to share ‘too much’ – telling stories is a safe way to share ‘just enough’.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 10:34 am

      Very insightful Ami. Are you on one of the “hesitates to share ‘too much’ crowd?”

  • Niel June 25, 2010, 10:36 am

    Because it’s a way to share with others!

    An awesome way.

  • Jonathan June 25, 2010, 11:20 am

    I think we tell stories to communicate – at first it is very subconscious, as we are drawn to stories that express our inner workings. Later, it becomes a conscious communication tool that can be used for expressive/creative purposes, or more marketing/advertising.

    We tell them because they have an impact, period. If they didn’t, we would stop tomorrow.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 10:31 am

      Thanks Jonathan. I agree with everything you’ve said.

  • Heather June 25, 2010, 12:45 pm

    I wrote stories out of boredom, and do get the stuff in my head out of my head for awhile. I liked the description of the pictures! I remember Pitfall! It was one of my all-time fave Atari games! ALLIGATORS! I loved the alligators! Sometimes it was fun just to make the guy swing on the rope over the alligators. So the snake bit his foot and the guy yells LIGHTNING. . . Niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice! And unexpected! I still write little stories, and it’s still to get stuff out of my head for a little while. Hey, it’s either that or ceaseless kettlebells and jogging. Either way, man. . . whatever works, right? 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 10:35 am

      Pitfall = greatest thing ever. I was the only kid on our block who started out by going left instead of right, which made it much harder, as you may remember.

      • Heather June 27, 2010, 4:37 pm

        Yes it DID! But that was part of why we did it, was to raise the challenge! My brother always made it way farther than me! That was such an awesome game!

  • Daisy June 25, 2010, 1:33 pm

    I took part in a storytelling workshop as part of my Masters Degree program. Many of the projects I created for the program have been long lost to the recycling and shredder. However, storytelling is a skill (a talent?) I’ve used frequently. My blog, my teaching, my family… storytelling, whether in the written or oral traditions, keeps our experiences alive.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 10:30 am

      I think it’s a talent and a skill. What was your master’s in?

  • Jenn June 25, 2010, 3:31 pm

    I’ve been asking myself the same thing periodically over the last few years. I simply think it’s our attempt to understand the human condition. Whatever that means. You’re right it seems to start at a very young age. In my mom’s basement there is a picture and story of mine like the one your describe except the picture at the top has a girl riding a mouse. The story is about being 1 inch tall. Just yesterday my 10 year old son and his friend spent three hours making a Lego stop motion film about a man who wants a deal at a gas station. They called it “City Mayhem”.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 10:29 am

      City Mayhem sounds spectacular. If they’d like to debut it here on WSL, please send me the file. I’d love to use it for the creativity series.

      • Jenn June 26, 2010, 11:40 am

        That would be way cool of you and would simply thrill my son, Nathanael. 🙂

        • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 11:47 am

          I’m serious. whenever, ifever, send it through the contact form. Please!

  • K.sol June 25, 2010, 3:54 pm

    We tell stories
    – to make people laugh
    – to inspire them to feel what we feel
    – to convince ourselves that we are real
    – to convince ourselves that our lives matter
    – to remind us of our connectedness to other people

  • Patty - Why Not Start Now? June 25, 2010, 5:36 pm

    We’re hardwired to tell (and hear) stories. So we tell them because we must. We have no other option. And life is really one big, long narrative.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 10:23 am

      It would be pretty boring if stories vanished, wouldn’t it?

  • Logan Christopher June 25, 2010, 8:20 pm

    I went through my old school work recently too. Very comical stuff including a story book complete with illustrations of ‘Fluff Puff’ who came out of the ocean to fight pollution. Fluff Puff was a blue furry ball with big black eyes, shoes and hands. WTF?!? I do not remember this creation of mine.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 10:22 am

      Fluff Puff? Awesome! Send him down to the Gulf.

  • Tresna June 26, 2010, 12:26 am

    I write and tell stories so I can feel around the edges of an idea of a problem. Writing about people, places and objects helps me to get an insight in to myself that I don’t get otherwise.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 10:15 am

      That’s a beautiful description, “feeling around the edges of a problem.” I’ve said that I often don’t know what I think about something until I try to write it down.

  • Laura Cococcia June 26, 2010, 6:31 am

    Because there’s a type of growth in telling others what you have expereinced – and for the listener, there’s growth hearing about another experience – stories can be their own sort of personal classroom. Awesome post friend and thanks for the guest post on TJCC – love it. As always.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 10:14 am

      Thanks Laura, it was fun to write. More details on Fern to follow.

  • Steve Meidinger June 26, 2010, 9:19 am

    Dude, love the Pitfall snake. That sure does conjure up some childhood memories.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 10:13 am

      It’s hard not to love it. I can still hear the jumping noise when I jump over a pit.

  • Square-Peg Karen June 26, 2010, 10:44 am

    Oh, what commenter Lisa said about stories being our 7th sense – YES! A giant YES to what everyone said, actually – I’m loving this discussion!!

    But Josh, I think it’d be fun (or maybe scary – lol) to really look into the meanings in the stories we wrote as kids — or that our kids wrote.

    I’m remembering that my son had an ongoing story-series with characters named Hoho and Tete (??), two VERY naughty siblings who caused terror and mahem – and always got away with it. hmm…

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 11:51 am

      Hoho and Tete. So awesome. My sister had an imaginary friend named Mrs. Fat Licky.

  • Ana June 26, 2010, 11:04 am

    Very interesting discussion 🙂

    I’m still really young so I still write that kinds of things sometimes…
    I think people have different reasons for writing. I mostly write fantasy stories. I write them when I feel life is boring and would be much more fun with all that fantasy. Also as a way to express my thoughts on things (I make my ideas pass somehow on the stories).

    I have a really wild imagination so, even if I don’t write the stories, I pass my time telling them to myself in my head and sometimes even start from the middle of a book or a movie I read/ saw.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 11:50 am

      Ana, one of my major goals for myself is to keep writing off-the-wall, nonsensical stuff, as long as I love it. And I’m determined to keep loving it. Exhibit A: The Knot: http://worldsstrongestlibrarian.com/5725/now-available-the-knot-my-first-novel-and-the-greatest-thing-ever/

      The strangest thing I’ve ever written, until part two comes out:)

      • Ana June 26, 2010, 12:04 pm

        I get what you mean and I agree.

        I’m sorry, explained my idea wrongly. What I meant is that, sometimes as the people grow older they change their way of writting (because our writting is based in so many things…) but I still really didn’t have the time to, yet 🙂

        It’s a shame I can’t buy your book but I hope you keep writting nonsensical stuff! 🙂

  • Randy Hauer June 26, 2010, 11:12 am

    Life is a story. When you meet someone, you “tell” yourself, right? Imagine having no language. Can you even imagine having no language? How would you say or tell yourself (or even have a self) without language? We are our narratives and everything and everyone in our lives is created by the narrative too. Do you love your wife (or husband) for example, or do you love your narrative about that person? Is there a practical difference? What happens when the people in your life stop adhering to your narrative about them? (So and so is acting crazy…right? Our stories are so powerful we conflate our narratives with reality…in practical terms they are reality.)

    A great little book which was required reading when I went to Toy Design School in the early 90s: “The Folk Stories of Children” by Brian Sutton-Smith. Published in 1981, it illustrates how we develop as story tellers.

  • Square-Peg Karen June 26, 2010, 11:31 am

    eh – spell check, schmell check — I’m just glad for the book name you shared – and the narrative stuff you wrote!

  • Tomas June 27, 2010, 9:08 am

    Maybe we tell stories because deep down we want to make an impression on someone?