So you might be thinking “Hey, this is all well and good, but I don’t have any stories!”
It’s a common way to feel. We want to write stories, but think our lives have been too boring to share. We want to get our storytelling on but the trouble is, nothing interesting has ever happened to us, so why would anyone care?
I’ve been there. I’ve lived a pretty normal life, no front page tragedies to survive, no obscure medical conditions, no world-beating achievements, no extreme jobs and no hob-nobbing with the rich and famous. Why would anyone want to listen to my life stories when they can read the adventures of celebrity over-achievers instead?
It’s easy to think this way. It goes hand in hand with a celebrity obsessed culture that leaves the rest of us feeling worthless and insignificant. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Finding your stories is a good way to remember that you exist. We all have stories, lots of stories, and they are the stories people want to hear.
First things first, let’s redefine the way we think about life stories and what a story actually is. Life stories are about the experience of being a human being. Some people’s autobiographies are a way for us to learn more about an extreme experience they went through and we haven’t, but the majority are filled with stories from normal, common or garden, everyday, real life. I know because I have read a ton. Even celebrity memoirs aren’t stuffed cover to cover with outlandish moments that we could never experience for ourselves. No, they are made up of the small stuff; what happened to the author growing up, how they felt meeting a hero, the death of a relative, how they coped during a break up, what family life is like… everyday human experiences because they are just people, like you and me.
Remember that celebrities don’t have their autobiographies published because they are living extraordinary lives, but because household names can sell books. We want to learn a bit more about these people because we feel we know them a little already. We keep seeing their faces and names. It’s worth remembering this stuff when you’re feeling valueless and story-less. It’s not you, it’s neoliberal capitalism.
The key thing that makes a story, a story, and allows us to relate to the storyteller, isn’t even the events that happened but the reflections they have about it all. What did they learn, feel, discover…? Storytelling isn’t live therapy: by the time a story is told, it has already been resolved and something has been learned. Living the story has changed the storyteller in some way and the story itself means that they are ready to tell us how, and in what ways.
The value of life stories isn’t how ‘high octane’ the events, but the meaning they hold for you. Yes, we can learn from the most uncommon and unusual experiences of other people, but these probably aren’t even the stories that speak to us the most. Life stories are about the quirky details that make us who we are. They are unique yet relatable, familiar yet surprising, universal yet idiosyncratic. If David Mitchell can tell a story about cooking lobsters, you jolly well can too.
It may be that your experience of the normal, mundane, everyday aspects of life is very different from other people’s. Maybe you have something to share about gender, or autism, or memory, or life as a small person or a unique ability or, or, or, or…anything! Whatever is normal to you, may not be normal to everyone else – but it’s going to be relatable in some way because we are all human beings.
You don’t have to be a celebrity to tell a good story and you don’t have to come with an ‘ism’ either. All our stories can go a long way to improving on the multitude of bad stories surrounding us that are just so wrong. (The ones that make us scream “that’s not how it is, you morons!”). But get this… All of our personal stories can be radical because we are storytelling our way to a better understanding of human life.
How fame works
One intrinsically bad story that comes with our socio-economic territory is that celebrities are more valuable than other people. We know it’s not true but the cult of celebrity hooks us in all the same. This is because it plays upon our hard-wiring for community. Once upon a time in our evolutionary history, people lived in small groups and it was essential to know the other members and be known in return. “Sociological research indicates that the maximum natural size of a group of humans is roughly 150 members. Most humans are just incapable of intimately knowing more than 150 people” (The Innovation of Loneliness by Shimi Cohen). Add more people and the group splits into two. This is because communities of social animals, like humans or monkeys, need all the members to know each other for social cohesion to exist. (They’ve still to test the human and monkey community of my dreams, but I jest…).
Celebrity, or fame, is our way of knowing other members of our shared communities as before– only now that our communities run to billions, we can’t be known in return. Population size, infrastructure, mass media and communication technology have largely put an end to reciprocal relationships and community life as we once knew it so celebrity worship is how we channeling these very human needs.
Celebrities may well have talents to be celebrated, or they may not. Either way, it’s really about substituting those people (whose faces are known to us from television, film and YouTube) for community members who can know us back. You might feel like you know Kim Kardashian but she certainly doesn’t know you.
There’s no shame in turning to celebrity magazines, gossip sites and entertainment news – people buying into all this are simply at the mercy of their evolutionary need for community. The broadsheets aren’t immune to carrying celebrity content either – they just feature different famous people for different audiences. We’re all interested in famous people, one way or another, because modern society has robbed us of community life. We need to feel we know people in common in order to be a society at all.
Following celebrities is a poor substitute for reciprocal community relationships though and fame is yet another type of inequality running through modern life. Fame, which is experienced by the few and created by the many, is the inequality of attention and feeling known. It’s so imbalanced that there is too much attention for the famous (who can suffer from it) and too little for the rest of us (who can suffer from that too). Nobody really wins because our basic need to ‘know one another’ has gone very wrong.
How to stop worshipping celebrities
Going cold turkey won’t help us wean ourselves off celebrity worship. Like all addiction, we really need to replace it with something else. Although an internet full of celebrities at our fingertips might seem a neat solution to the highly individualised structure of modern society, it fails because it is one-sided. Who is there to know you back?
All social species, particularly humans, utilise shared attention to achieve social learning and cooperation. We are hard-wired to pay attention to other humans and we also crave the acceptance, respect, prestige and status that attention brings to us. By giving too much attention to celebrities whilst simultaneously receiving too little attention ourselves, we are messing with our wellbeing. We end up feeling worthless. We can hardly be blamed for following celebrity culture, if that’s the only currency of shared knowing available, but it’s making us feel shit about ourselves.
As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickering explain in The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone: “It is a remarkable paradox that, at the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume and with little or no community life. Lacking the relaxed social contact and emotional satisfaction we all need, we seek comfort in over-eating, obsessive shopping and spending, or become prey to excessive alcohol, psychoactive medicines and illegal drugs. How is it that we have created so much mental and emotional suffering despite levels of wealth and comfort unprecedented in human history?” (p.3)
And we exacerbate the effects of all this inequality, with one-sided consumption of story. Story is the medium in which human beings exist, yet only consuming stories without ever telling any of our own isn’t so good for our health.
We are living isolated lives with little community and connection and, on top of all that, we are making ourselves feel even worse by comparing them to celebrity lifestyles. We know that the glamour is illusory but we do it anyway. Comedian Celeste Barber’s fun-poking at celebrity instagram poses is a welcome dose of humour that works as an antidote to all this (more please!), but puncturing celebrity nonsense isn’t the whole solution: we need to replace it with something better. What happens if we pay more attention to all the other, non-famous people around us, and also get some attention for ourselves. Surely, we can collectively redistribute our attention to the benefit of everyone? One way to do this is through true life storytelling.
Have a look at Dave Isay’s TED talk Everyone around you has a story the world needs to hear. As the founder of StoryCorps (which records meaningful conversations) explains, true life storytelling is a way to re-balance this inequality of social attention. By facilitating and recording ‘real’ (as opposed to celebrity) people telling each other personal stories, storytellers can feel valued and known. We can all be storytellers.
Beginning by making radio documentaries that aimed to “shine a light on people who are rarely heard from in the media. Over and over again I would see how the simple act of being interviewed could mean so much to people – particularly those who had been told that their stories didn’t matter”. One man reacted to his photograph appearing in a book about flop-houses by running down the corridor shouting “I exist!”. This is what StoryCorps is all about. Many of these stories have the power to make people cry – not because they are sad, he explains, but because you are listening to something that is “authentic and pure” when we live in a world where it is sometimes hard to tell “what’s real and what’s an advertisement”.
StoryCorps participants receive a recording of their conversation and another is archived by the Library of Congress. It is now the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered. And, as an archivist, I love Dave Isay’s description of this as “an archive of human wisdom”.
So don’t feel like you have to be living a crazy and unusual life or be part of a minority group to share your personal stories. The rest of us need to hear from our fellow humans whoever you may be. We need this for community and connection and for resisting the bad stories that are keeping us down.
How to be somebody
So what do we do, if it still feels like we have no stories to tell? The trick is to overcome the way that all this capitalist ideology and celebrity worship has made us feel about ourselves. Using storytelling tools, idea prompts and other resources to discover our stories, can also be a type of therapy. The very act of story-sparking can help to change the way we feel about ourselves. And, once you have written them up – or turned them into art or music – sharing your stories can also bring community and connection. We have to overcome the way that society makes us feel like non-celebrity nobodies living boring lives… and learn to value ourselves, our experiences, achievements and knowledge. We can do this by finding and sharing our stories.
This is the reason behind Life Writing’s carefully pitched writing prompts. It is all about finding our stories in the everyday living we do. Don’t wait until you become a celebrity to write that memoir of your glitzy life. Not because it ain’t gonna happen (it ain’t) but because it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to wait and see whether you made it as a celebrity to find out whether your life matters or not. It doesn’t work like that so start sharing your life stories now.
Life is what’s happening while you make other plans so don’t overlook the actual stuff of life as it is happening to you. As Jarvis Cocker said “The worst thing you can do is to make a conscious effort to ignore all that stuff… maybe people don’t value their own experience enough to deem it worthy of being written down”. If instagramming your wardrobe leads to buying more clothes, then storytelling the life you’re living must surely lead to living it more fully? Perhaps the storytellers among us do live their lives with more curiosity and engagement, perhaps they are more open to new experiences, and more attuned to learning from them. Perhaps storytelling can subconsciously affect the way we approach our short time on this planet and help us get more out of life.
In any case, writing your life stories is one way to see yourself in a different light – yes you can gain self-knowledge and connect with others, yes you can appreciate the life you are living and yes, please realise, you do matter.