The Transformative Act of Storytelling

This past summer, I got an email from my past writing professor Jamin Rowan explaining that he would be co-teaching an Honors Unexpected Connections course titled “The Art of Transformative Storytelling,” and he asked if I’d be willing to be a TA. Storytelling has been a passion of mine since I was little, and I was instantly intrigued. He said that the class would be designed to “help students become more capable of crafting and sharing meaningful and engaging stories about the transformations they experience as lifelong learners.” I needed little convincing to jump on board.

As I’ve spent the last few months helping teach students how to tell interesting stories about their own transformative experiences, I’ve reflected a lot on my own life. And I have realized that the most impactful transformations in my life have occurred gradually, as I’ve learned how to be a storyteller.

I’ve always enjoyed telling stories. When I was young, I would force my grandparents to listen to never-ending, fantastical tales that most often included princesses and princes and talking animals. Today, I give my family a play-by-play of embarrassingly funny blunders I made at a racquetball tournament. Oral storytelling has always come naturally to me, but in college I was introduced to the genre of the personal essay, an entirely different approach to telling my story. The shift from oral to written storytelling was jarring, and forcing my thoughts to move from my brain to my hands was a frustrating process that often resulted in many rewrites and deleted pages.

In the summer of 2019, I went on a study abroad to the UK with Joey Franklin and Leslie Thorne-Murphy, both professors in the BYU English department. We spent our weeks reading literature, hiking through the countryside, and learning the art of travel writing. These weren’t fantastical stories about far-off lands and non-existent people. These were my stories about my life. I fell in love with personal essay writing because it was a way for me to process my experiences and to deliver them in a way that conveyed meaning to others. More importantly, the personal essay helped me derive meaning from past experiences.

After returning from my study abroad, I declared a creative writing minor and spent the next few semesters wrestling memories, research, and my own life narrative into personal essay prose. A trip to the library turned into a nostalgic reflection on paper, and going through my East Prussian grandmother’s journals prompted an essay on refugees. As I’ve spent hours trying to remember details from childhood experiences or piece together narratives from family members, I’ve been able to use my own memories to create stories that have transformed how I see the world and my place in it.

“The brain is wired to encode memories in terms of narrative as it is the basis for building causal chains,”1 says neuroscientist Michael Yassa. These narratives are built in our brains subconsciously, and they give us essential frameworks through which we can both process events and anticipate future ones. Storytelling, then, is about taking those narratives and infusing them with meaning, even if that meaning might not come until you reflect back on that experience later in life.

A traumatic narrative can be retold to promote healing. A childhood memory can be revisited with new wisdom. A revealed mistake can relieve long-held guilt. This act of shifting toward what Keith J. Karren has called an “optimistic explanatory style of living” can promote mental wellbeing and increase longevity.2

Research has shown that simply knowing our brains are creating these narratives can provide mental health benefits. Barbara Mager and Lou Stevens write, “An increased awareness, to one’s life story tends to build an appreciation for one’s life, that is to say, when one looks beyond the details and toward the big picture, they are more likely to see that a meaningful life is unfolding. This in turn, often creates a reaction of gratitude and a sense of purpose, which is an important factor in successful, resilient aging.”3 Whether through the written or spoken word, telling stories can have major benefits, not only for the people listening and learning from you and your story but also for yourself.

In studying the humanities, we encounter stories every day. Novels and works of art have been created in all corners of the globe in every major human era, from the cave paintings of Lascaux to the infinity rooms of Yayoi Kusama, and from the tale of Beowulf to the writings of Toni Morrison. Stories are lived and written now, as we speak. Storytelling has been integral in the continuation of humanist studies and studying the stories of others can often help to understand our own.

It’s easy to be sucked into the compelling plots of popular literature, film, and art. I love seeing myself reflected in my favorite characters, and I often wish that my life was as exciting as theirs. And while I don’t think that doing so is bad, I often have to remind myself to devote more time and attention to living, reflecting upon, and recording my own story.

My younger sister recently made me aware of a current trend on Tiktok called “main character energy.” To participate, users post videos of themselves living their best lives with an audio clip playing in the background that says, “You have to start romanticizing your life. You have to start thinking of yourself as the main character. Because if you don’t, life will continue to pass you by and all the little things that make it so beautiful will continue to go unnoticed. So, take a second and look around and realize that it’s a blessing for you to be here right now.” Media often drives us to romanticize other people’s lives and we can easily become more invested in external stories that might seem more interesting to us than our own. But seeing ourselves as the “main character” in our own life story is an effective way to take control of our narrative and, therefore, shape our sense of self and purpose.

Sometimes it can be uncomfortable for us to mine our own lives for meaning, to revisit painful memories, or to interrogate our biases. But often sitting with and making sense of our own stories is the only way to envision a path forward.

Learning how to tell my story has been empowering and has helped me take a step back from the immediacy of the moment to see the larger picture my lived experiences form. Scenes, characters, and narrative arcs have culminated in me, sitting here writing this blog post. And while I may still have a long way to go in terms of the art and craft of the personal essay, it’s clear to me that learning these skills has been an act of transformation and self-discovery.

This post was written by Heather Bergeson, a Humanities Center undergraduate fellow.

 

  1. Yassa, Michael, in Yassa, Manuela. “Why Our Brains Love Story.” Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, UC Irvine, 4 December 2018. https://cnlm.uci.edu/2018/12/04/story/
  2. Karren, Keith J., et al. “Explanatory Style and Health,” Mind Body Health: The Effect of Attitude, Emotions, and Relationships. Pearson, 2014, pp. 104–118.
  3. Mager, Barbara J. R. and Stevens, Lou Ann M. (2015). “The Effects of Storytelling on Happiness and Resilience in Older Adults.” Retrieved from Sophia, the St. Catherine University repository website: https://sophia.stkate.edu/ma_hhs/3

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