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Photo courtesy of West End United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tennessee

The Rev. Michael E. Williams

Everyone is a storyteller


Michael E. Williams
May-June 2017

tips for telling a story
  1. Find a story. That should be easy since we live surrounded by stories. Think of something that happened to you today or think of a story you were told by a parent or grandparent. Or you might look at the Bible, a children's book or a book of folktales.
  2. Choose a story. The only good reason to tell a story is that it engages your mind, heart and spirit through the imagination. The story might make you laugh, or it might make you cry, but it moves you in some way.

  3. Outline the story. Who are the characters who populate the story? When and where does the story take place? What things appear in the story? What happens first, then next, then next, then last? Outline these in a way that will help you remember them.

  4. Rehearse the story. Go over the story in your imagination until you have the outline firmly in mind, then begin to tell it. You can simply tell it to yourself at first, then try telling it to one person, until you are confident to tell it to a group. Then just tell the story.

Everyone is a storyteller. I didn't say that everyone could be a storyteller; everyone already is a storyteller, whether he or she realizes and acknowledges it or not.

After 40 years of telling stories and helping other people tell stories, I have learned this one fact: From the first time a baby grunts and reaches for a cookie before he has finished his pureed green beans, he has begun to tell a story (albeit nonverbally) of choice and desire. When a parent asks a child what happened today at school and refuses to take "Nuthin!" for an answer, the child begins to frame her experience as a narrative. The astute parent knows that persistently asking the question, "Then what happened?" helps to drive the sequence of events that become the story of the day. Stories arise at bedtime when a parent or grandparent opens a book and reads aloud or turns off the light and creates a world of historical or completely imaginary characters and events, a world in which both teller and listener take part until one or the other falls asleep. Stories erupt around the dinner table with the words, "You won't believe what happened at work today." Or they emerge slowly, accompanied by "Did I ever tell you about the time ...?"

Life is a story

Human beings live in story like fish live in water. We literally experience our lives as a narrative – not as a series of random events but as a sequence of connected occasions and experiences stitched together in narrative form. In this way, our experiences take on coherence and meaning. We learn to understand the world, other people and God through a narrative lens. We also live surrounded by God like the very air we breathe, often invisible to us but absolutely necessary for life. This is why Paul can say to those gathered at the Temple of Athena that God is the one in which we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28) This is the reason that, when we speak of our experiences of God, we most often tell stories. Telling stories is not simply a way of framing our understanding of the world and the people around us but also the means by which we speak of our divine encounters as well.

Storytelling, along with music, dance and drama, is one of the most ancient arts that human beings practice in community. Most of the earliest stories we know about were told or sung or danced or enacted using some combination of all three. Stories allow us to tell others what happened in our lives while we were apart or before they were born, thus passing along our own history and the history of where we live. Stories help us express our feelings in all their depth and our thoughts in their complexity. In short, stories help make us human.

Creating relationships

Stories are not simply spoken words. In their essence, stories create a network of relationships. First, a story creates a relationship between the teller and those who hear the story. Anyone who has heard an excellent storyteller perform can attest to the rapport and intimacy between the teller and hearers. A story told aloud benefits from the physical presence of the teller, creating immediacy and closeness. It is not unusual for strangers to approach storytellers and speak to them as if they know each other, because the stranger has heard them tell their stories.



Second, a story creates a relationship between both tellers and hearers and the characters who populate the world of the story. My favorite novel of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird. Ever since I first encountered Scout, Jem, Boo, Atticus and the other citizens of Macomb, Alabama, when I was a teenager, they have lived inside me. In fact, I wanted to grow up to be Atticus Finch. No, I didn't want to practice law; instead, I wanted to be the kind of man that the fictional character Atticus embodied. Many of the biblical characters I first heard about as a child in Sunday school or worship are more familiar to me than the people with whom I attended elementary school, though I got to know both at roughly the same time in my life. These characters left an indelible mark on me that remains to this day.

Third, stories help us relate our outer world of daily experience to the inner world we often call "imagination" or "spirit" or "faith." Too often, the imagination has imposed upon it a bad reputation. We say, "It's just your imagination!" as a way to dismiss an idea as unimportant and disconnected with reality. But without a healthy imagination, we could not participate in the worlds of biblical stories or any other narratives, nor would we be able to imagine the world being other than it is. If we cannot imagine a better world, we have neither the vision nor the motivation to work toward it. Many cultures recognize that our inner world – our soul or spirit – actually shapes the way we perceive the "real world" because it provides the lens through which we experience "reality."

Fourth, the stories that leave a lasting impression on our lives do so because they relate us to that dimension of life we call "the holy, the sacred, the divine" or what we as Christians name "God." These don't have to be overtly religious stories or come from the Bible or another holy book, although those are good places to start. Stories hold mystery and meaning together, and therefore they hold the power to put us in touch with the divine. They help us move beyond our fears and fantasies. They give us courage and genuine hope grounded in the presence of the divine within us and around us.

The Rev. Michael E. Williams is a writer, storyteller and pastor in Nashville, Tennessee. This fall he will join the faculty of Martin Methodist College as writer/storyteller-in-residence. This article is excerpted and adapted from his latest book Spoken into Being: Divine Encounters through Story, which will be released in July 2017 from Upper Room Books.