Ever noticed that the world is full of really bad stories? You know, the ones that are wildly inaccurate yet widely believed. Stories that oppress people, incite hatred and leave people feeling isolated, lonely and outside. Stories like ‘muslims are terrorists’, ‘atheists have no morals’, ‘women are hosts’, ‘gay men are sexual predators’, ‘lesbians can be cured’, ‘periods are disgusting’, ‘real men don’t cry’, ‘the value of a woman is her appearance’, ‘transgender people are confused’, ‘child-free women are selfish’, ‘Mexicans are bad hombres’…
And then there are the bad stories that stop us changing things for the better; ‘socialism is unworkable’, ‘buying things is good’, ‘humans are innately selfish’, ‘CEO’s are worth their astronomical salaries’, ‘privileged people have earned their success’, ‘neoliberal capitalism works’, ‘this is the way it has to be’…
All this fucking terrible shit we have to contend with.
What makes these stories, bad stories, is that they aren’t true. Not like fictional stories aren’t true (the good ones actually are in a way…), but in the sense that they carry inaccurate ideas about human reality. But people seem to believe them.
There seems to be two main reasons why these terrible stories hang around. First, these stories are usually written about ‘others’ and not by the subjects of the stories themselves. That is how the ‘othering’ gets in. Second, bad stories often seem to come from people who haven’t been schooled in the humanities: so how could they know what ‘other’ humans are like?
How the humanities can help
As you know, the Humanities is the collective name for subjects like literature, history and geography because they are all about learning what it is to be a human being. Yes they are. Humanities subjects are about studying human experience and culture, and acquiring knowledge of the history of ideas, just that they use different cultural artefacts (or ‘texts’) to do it. The Humanities are all about understanding human reality and the people channeled off into science are reallyhonestlytruly missing out.
I love science. It’s really important. I could have been a science contender. But because modern life demands that education only exists to support vocation, the scientists simply don’t have time for much humanities training before they start their sciencey careers. This is more than a shame because, honestly, I think we all deserve a thorough grounding in the humanities, and I think it would also make the world a better place.
And then there’s ridiculously archaic curricula, like the ubiquitous PPE degrees churning out politicians. And then there are all the people who don’t get a higher education, or even a lower one. I’m pissed off about all of this, but for now, let’s just focus on why humanities training matters.
Fighting with stories
It’s really a debate about the reality of being a human being. In fact, it can be a battleground. Here’s a few examples to show you what I mean.
So in one corner you’ve got Charlotte Bronte, a 19th century Yorkshirewoman thinking that Creole beauties are violently insane madwomen in attics whereas in the other corner, there’s Jean Rhys, a Dominican postmodernist, thinking that they are vivacious, independent and misunderstood. Compare and contrast Jane Eyre with Wide Sargasso Sea. Discuss. Of course both versions of Bertha Mason/Antoinette Cosway are fictional constructs – but what these authors are offering up are different accounts of being a human.
Henry Miller might think women are “dark hairy cracks” and substitute the c-word for woman throughout Tropic of Cancer and so on – stories that posit the ideas that women are just their bodies, exist only as the objects of male desire and are entirely interchangeable with one another. But that’s not what Alison Bechdel thinks. According to the eponymous test (are there at least two female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man?), women are human beings with agency who differ from one another and don’t exist in relation to a man.
The filmmakers behind Basic Instinct might think lesbians are murderous psychopaths and their lovemaking is all about exciting a male observer, whereas the filmmakers behind The Kids are Alright seem to think that lesbians are just people who do the regular things in life, such as raise families and have happy monogamous relationships. I know, crazy, right? (Sarcasm, obvs).
These are over-simplistic contrasts, yes, but they demonstrate the way that cultural texts are engaged in an ideological struggle over what humans are like. This is why the humanities matter and we should all get our culture and ideology training.
There are a ton of bad stories making sure this never happens though. Let’s add to the list: ‘educational is purely vocational’, ‘not everyone is cut out for learning’, ‘the arts and humanities are of no practical value’, ‘education is too expensive for everyone to have’, ‘production is the most important thing in the world’, ‘people can be either science or arts and not both’… and many more. These are ideas that stop us having a world where all humans have a thorough and sophisticated education in being a human being, including how ideology and stories work. I know, I know! When we’re starting from a position where ‘girls don’t go to school’ is a prevalent story, then complaining that scientists and economists don’t get to study the humanities enough, seems ridiculous. My utopian ideal is a very long way off, but the very least we should do is teach everyone to read and write.
Studying the humanities gives people critical tools to read, analyse, understand and challenge all these claims about human reality but there are other tools that anyone can use. Ask yourself whether the storyteller knows what they are talking about? What is their means of accessing the truth they are presenting? Are they essentially making up stories about other people’s experiences or is the story being told by the people who have lived it? And if we want to get to the heart of the matter, we can write the stories ourselves.
True life storytelling gets right down to it. Through sharing and listening to true life stories (and any artworks rooted in it), we can learn more about being human. By listening to other people’s lived experiences, we can see that the ‘bad stories’ that ‘other’ people just aren’t true. Hearing from the person who knows is very powerful social learning indeed.
This power carries over into fictional storytelling and art. Take the film I, Daniel Blake, for instance. It is about people trying to access the British welfare system and is based on the screen writer’s interviews with real people in similar situations. It is a work of fiction because Daniel Blake is a character portrayed by an actor following a script – but it is very powerful piece of storytelling because it comes out of true life experiences.
What to do with your true life stories
True life stories can be the basis for all sorts of cultural artefacts, ranging the continuum from autobiographical to fictionalised to fiction. Let’s get ourselves fired up by looking at some examples.
Songwriters take different approaches to writing lyrics. Of her album The Reminder Feist said, “By nature of me being the one singing it and writing it there is always an innate bit of autobiography there but I think I learned years ago that you don’t get songs that have that long stride and that pivot-hinge ability if it’s too much diary entry.” (The New York Times, “Just Feist. Just Wait.” 15 April 2007).
On the other hand, Jarvis Cocker purposefully weaves autobiographical details into his lyrics. “I was struck by the massive discrepancy between the way relationships were depicted in the songs I’d heard on the radio and the way I was experiencing them in real life… So I decided to attempt to redress the balance, to put in all the awkward bits and the fumblings… I had loved pop music from an early age and now wanted it to go through puberty with me – so I ended up documenting my puberty through pop music itself… If I have learnt anything about songwriting since then, it is that in order to ring true a song must be rooted in your own personal experience… Life is the important bit and detail is key – only a true eyewitness would notice apparently insignificant minutiae… When you put such details into songs, they bestow authenticity… The worst thing you can do is to make a conscious effort to ignore all that stuff… That happens a lot – or maybe people don’t value their own experience enough to deem it worthy of being written down”. (The Guardian, “Jarvis Cocker: the secrets of Pulp’s songs”, 16 October 2011).
Some songwriters are very up front about telling their life story. See Estelle’s 1980 which begins: “I grew in the 1980’s, in a four bedroomed house, my family, my grandma, three or four aunties, uncles and brothers in and out of prison daily, at certain times when there was no heat, we stay under covers, there was life like you never seen…”. It certainly makes a welcome change to hear women writing about their own experiences instead of all those decades of fictional women invented, described, explained and objectified by male writers.
Poet Rupi Kaur tells a different story:
“i like the way the stretch marks
on my thighs look human and
that we’re so soft yet
rough and jungle wild
when we need to be
i love that about us
how capable we are of feeling
how unafraid we are of breaking
and tend to our wounds with grace
just being a woman
makes me utterly whole
(Rupi Kaur, Milk and Honey, page 169).
Visual art can also be autobiographical storytelling. A prime example is Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) which tells the story of the four days she spent in bed following a breakdown and includes vodka, cigarettes, condoms, contraceptive pills, stained underwear and other detritus from the artist’s lived experience of those days. Years later, Emin has described the artwork, which reveals her most personal space, as a portrait of herself at a younger age. Grayson Perry is another obvious example of autobiography in art and has produced ceramic urns decorated with autobiographical scenes, such as Hot Afternoon in ’75 (1999) or delve deeper into his personality such as Aspects of Myself (2001) which depicts various ‘selves’ he discovered through psychotherapy. Grayson Perry has said that personal identity is “the most beautiful and complex artworks we can make” (Who Are You? Channel 4, 2014).
Illustrator Mari Andrew also makes engaging visual art out of her lived experience. Check out her instagram. It is full of insightful illustrations such as ‘First dates I’ve had many times’, ‘How I became an artist’, ‘Is he enjoying this date, an investigation’, ‘Seasonal memories’, ‘My life in DC, a memoir’, ‘The stages of grief’ and ‘Him drinks on Thursday, a text message produced by Mari L. Andrew’. See also graphic novel memoirs, such as Nicola Streeten’s Billy, Me and You, based on the diaries she kept following the sudden death of her two year old son.
Not forgetting zines. Zines are self-publications and come in all sorts of gloriously free and uncensored varieties. Reserving the term ‘perzines’ (personal zines) for those which are overtly autobiographical, all zines embody some kind of self-expression. Zines are often cited as an important medium for marginalised groups because of the safe spaces they provide for discussion and expression. Zinesters gonna zine!
Performing your stories
Life stories can be the basis for all sorts of performance art too. Film-makers, comedians and playwrights are able to incorporate personal storytelling or else use life stories as a starting point for material. We know better than to believe that what a stand-up comedian is saying on stage is 100% true – but the kernel of their material might well be their personal experiences.
Stephen K Amos has said “I spent a quite a lot of years kind of just being funny and not really getting anything out of it… and not letting anything of myself be seen. When I first started, I didn’t think for one minute an audience would be remotely interested in what I had to say personally about my own life. But then I thought, actually, we’ve all got a story to tell. Every single one of us on this planet has a story to tell” (Off the Mic: The world’s best comedians get serious about comedy by Deborah Frances-White and Marsha Shandur, 2015).
Simon Amstell has also explained how performing stand up comedy makes him feel “freer than life” and he attributes that high to the audience having “validated you and your life, because what I’m talking about is so personal, I’m telling people the things that have caused me the most embarrassment, the most shame, the most pain… and also in their laughter there is a sort of ‘it’s okay we’re all like that’”. Through authentic personal storytelling, comedians can find connection and share acceptance with the people watching their show. “I’m not really interested in seeing comedians who just come out confident and loud, in a shiny suit… I don’t know where the human being is in that person… In stand up there should be no restrictions between what you are saying to your friends, saying to yourself, and what you are saying to the audience. You are just desperate to connect with these people, and the truth is usually what connects” (BBC Imagine – The Art of Standup, episode 1, 2012).
We can add to this by looking at the work of Perrier award winning stand-up, comedian’s comedian’ and expert storyteller, Daniel Kitson. He is the creator of over 30 shows which include stand-up, story shows and plays. I love The Kitson so you’re going to get a nice long quote – and you’re going to like it, or else! He tells stories of everyday life such as this (abbreviated) one:
“The first girl I ever fell in love with was blonde. Her name was called Lisa Matthews and I was in love with her between the ages of 9 and 12. I tried wooing Lisa with a variety of fairly standard mechanisms. I left her lots of notes “Dear Lisa, please will you be my girlfriend? Tick the Yes box or the No box and leave this note precisely where you found it”… That hadn’t worked, not surprisingly and so I made her a valentine’s card and took it to her house because I knew where she lived. Having that sort of personal knowledge was less threatening when I was 9 than when I’m 27 and heavily bearded…
… In the first year of middle school we had a school disco and I was there with my friend James Kitchen and Lisa was there on the far side of the room just looking like an angel made flesh. I don’t know what happened – either a peak in self-confidence or a dip in self- awareness – but somehow I found myself standing in front of Lisa Matthews muttering through the sentence “Lisa would you like to dance?” and Lisa said yes. And I hadn’t prepared for that eventuality whatsoever. Oh well that’s very good of you Lisa but clearly you’re unfamiliar with the role of the unobtainable object of sexual desire, this ‘saying yes’ malarkey, well meaning though doubtless it is, is not going to result in any quality poetry come my teenage years, allow me to direct your pretty attention to a flow chart of how I saw this evening going. I begin over here, with James, I come to you, I ask you if you want to dance, you say no, I come back to James and we talk about things…At no point here is there a yes digression… Lisa …stands up, starts dancing, and I’m fucking transfixed… And after about a minute she goes “Daniel if you don’t start dancing I’m going to have to sit down. At the moment you’re just staring and that’s a bit weird”. And I realise that’s all I’ve been doing, I’ve just been staring. Now technically she didn’t have any grounds for complaint because my question had been “would you like to dance?” not “shall we dance” but “would you Lisa Matthew like to dance while I Daniel Kitson view from an awkward distance”, but now she’s told me that if I don’t start dancing she’s going to sit down so I know that contained somewhere within my body is the answer to increase Lisa viewing time but I don’t know what to do and suddenly inside my head I hear “Daniel, you have the ability to do a swallow dive. If ever a moment called for a swallow dive, it is surely this one. Check your watch…swallow dive o clock”… What the move comprises of is you jump in the air, your whole upper body is off the earth, you’re off the planet, yeah, you’re like “what’s that gravity? Bite me bitch, I’ll be back down when I’m ready I’m ready now I’m ready now” and your first point of contact is your arms, your arms hit the floor, and …and your feet kick out at the end, that’s pivotal… Now if you’d written this scene in a bad American sitcom, say something like Saved by the Bell or something of that ilk, what you may do at this point… is put say a teacher behind the boy carrying a stack of plates, but that could never actually happen. So I kick these plates everywhere right, they scatter, they clatter, the light bounces off them, the noise bounces off the walls…” (Daniel Kitson, Dancing, 2004).
Whether the stories he tells are personal stories from his life or more fictionalised versions, there is a very real sense that through these stories we are accessing and sharing an understanding of human nature. And we’re doing it by looking at the little things in life. No hostage situations here.
Contemporary dance is another artform that can tell true stories and be rooted in autobiography. Award winning dancer and choreographer Mamela Nyamza is known for producing work inspired by her personal experiences. Some examples are Hatched – in which Nyamza explores her personal story as a dancer, mother and an African, and I Stand Corrected – which tells a narrative of sexuality and oppression – personal stories which, through being performed, are also political.
And there are plenty more things that personal storytelling can be used to create – not just the short stories, fiction, novels, articles, travel writing, memoirs and autobiographies produced by wordsmiths, memory keepers and authors but any writing that relies on creating authentic human connections such as heart centred business, community building, campaign motivation, crowdfunding and blogging. Read this post for examples.
There can never be too many stories and multiplicity is a good thing. Another key difference between ‘bad stories’ and ‘good stories’ is that the bad ones tend to say things like ‘all women want children’ or ‘all unemployed people are lazy’ – and here’s another clue about the truthfulness of stories. Do they allow for a multiplicity of voices and experiences or do they assert universal absolutes? Human reality is multi-varied and paying attention to lots of storytellers helps us to understand that.
Storytelling doesn’t have to be campaigny – just get into it for the warm fuzzy feelings of connection, acceptance and feeling known. But in a world where infotoxins are fired at us of a rate 3,000 per day, true life storytelling is a radical act of humanity.