When I was 25 years old, I decided I wanted to write for kids. Teenagers, specifically, but I dipped my toe into writing for younger children, too. My own childhood is full of fond memories of books I read and the fantastic worlds I discovered.
I fully believe in the power of stories to shape young minds and help children feel at home with themselves and more empathetic toward others.
It didn’t take long for me to find a huge community of aspiring and working authors to bond with. The children’s literature community (also known as “kidlit”) teemed with people who loved stories and understood how a good book could impact a child’s life. That the powers of storytelling shape the world.
I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I still think about it and use it every day of my life.
Family stories are passed down from generation to generation without scarcely a thought. Everyone knows the tale of how Uncle John fought a raccoon and lost, or the time Grandma Becca made a stunning dress for a Hollywood starlet.
What we don’t think about is how those stories became part of our family tapestry and why they matter. In another post, I wrote about being the family record keeper and wanting to leave a legacy for future generations because I realized there were so many stories about my own grandparents that I’ll never know. Those that I do know are so special, so colorful.
At its core, storytelling is about community and empathy. Human beings want to connect, and one of the most powerful ways we’ve found to do that is through telling stories. Storytelling is one of the things that makes us uniquely human, a common thread that separates us from beasts.
Look at the history of humanity. Since our earliest days, long before we had smart phones or books or even paper, we were telling stories. There are traces of them everywhere, from the oral ballads of old to cave paintings depicting creatures lost to time. When we hear or see these things, we’re brought to an intimate moment preserved for millennia, though the people who created it have long since become dust.
In a sense, they live. We know they were here. We can close our eyes and almost smell the fire burning, the paint mixing, the cadence of the poems spoken aloud to cheers and groans. Their legacy isn’t lost to the sands of time. That’s the true power of stories.
In college, I took many courses that hammered the lesson of connecting to the audience at every given opportunity. We needed to find that thread, that common touchpoint, in order for our work to resonate. It didn’t matter if we were writing poems, music, essays, fiction, or non-fiction. If the work didn’t connect, it went forgotten.
This is why stories with personal stakes move us so much. It’s what makes them sharable. We’re reminding our audience that there’s a person behind the words or images, someone who’s like them or that they can care about. It ignites something in us when we read a personal story and feel that sense of “Me, too. I’ve felt this way, too. I’ve been through this, too.”
In the same way, our families tell stories to bond and pass history down through the generations. Even if we live far away from one another or grow apart, there are stories we can share during holiday gatherings that bring us that sense of belonging, of home, of family. It reminds us our stories are connected in countless ways.
Together, we remember our joys, struggles, wins, and losses. We hear Grandpa Joe tell his best fishing story for the umpteenth time and we smile, feeling the warmth of familiarity and support.
The power of stories doesn’t only come from that sense of community bonding. It’s also a recording, a way to reach into the future even if we won’t be there. People tell stories to:
And for a thousand other reasons. Whether we’re telling a family story or writing a fantasy novel filled with dragons and warriors, we’re reaching out to our audience and inviting them into our world. A story is the closest we can come to telepathy – transferring ideas from one mind into another.
Telling a story invites other people to make it their own. They internalize it and see it through their own lens. No two people will take away exactly the same message or picture the same image, yet the sense of ownership is relatable no matter what. We share this thing, now. It’s ours. If we had nothing in common before, we have this narrative between us now.
That sense of being a part of a greater message is a huge part of what makes storytelling so powerful.
Stories are so much more than simple entertainment. They can actually change the way we see the world.
Back in 2014, the journal Brain Connectivity published a study that showed findings on how reading fiction improves brain connectivity. It sparked a discussion about the ways sinking into a narrative opens up our brain to a more pliable state of imagination, allowing us to better understand another’s point of view. In other words, stories help increase our sense of empathy.
Storytellers the world over have long known this to be true, even if they didn’t realize the science behind it. Reading or hearing someone else’s story allows you to see the world through their experience, even if it’s only for a moment. You’re able to understand their motivation and their emotions. In turn, this gives you deeper insight into what it’s like to live a life unlike your own.
This is why we cry when a favorite fictional character dies or feel our heart beat faster when a couple who’ve been developing a slow-burn romance in our favorite television show finally kiss. The parts of our brains that register emotion—like loss, desire, sorrow, and glee—are awakened when we’re pulled into a good story.
These aren’t even real people, but they feel real to us because we get to experience the world through their eyes. We connect to them in a way we’d connect to a close friend or family member.
When we get to the core of storytelling as a source of family record keeping, we’re really getting to the heart of what makes humanity tick. Stories reach a central part of our brain, which is why they’re so fundamental.
So much history has been lost to us over the years because those in power understood that stories can unite people and teach valuable lessons, so they destroyed them. Even so, you can’t completely erase a people’s history. Families keep stories alive through song, folktales, urban legends, photographs, documents, and video.
In this age of technology, there’s no way to stop the spread of stories, and we’re more connected than we’ve ever been before.
Go online anywhere and you’ll find millions of hours of video, billions of pages of personal essays, anecdotes, and blogs, and more photos than you could ever possibly look at in a lifetime. Instagram topped one billion active users in January 2020 and shows little sign of slowing down.
This immense amount of information is overwhelming, but it also gives us access we’ve never been able to achieve before. We can learn history never taught in school, personal stories from someone halfway across the world, and track our family’s lineage through DNA data and archived records uploaded online.
Everything has led to this moment of monumental change. So many voices have gone unheard for so long, but now their stories are being heard, internalized, and shared. Last year, The 1619 Project launched from The New York Times Magazine to commemorate the beginning of American slavery, sharing essays, photo timelines, poems, and more so readers can finally hear and understand these powerful, untold stories that tore so many families apart.
This initiative is only one of the projects rising on the tide of digital storytelling, a trend which shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
Those silly stories told around the family dinner table may seem less silly now. As we live through this uncertain period where the world feels so volatile and fragile, where our lives have changed irrevocably, those small family moments are all the more important to capture.
We see, time and again, how easy it is to miss a precious moment, and then it’s gone forever. The stories that we tell our listeners will depend entirely on how we choose to preserve our history today. Every photo, every video, every document, art project, journal, marriage certificate… it all matters. It’s all worth holding on to as we create our legacy.
Every single family has a story to tell. We’re lucky enough to live in a time period where almost all of us carry a valuable recording device around everywhere we go. It’s time to start using it.
Tell your own story. No one else can do it for you.
About the Author
Stephanie Wargin has been writing both personally and professionally for nearly fifteen years. She’s won both the Katherine Paterson Honor and the Next Generation Indie Book Honor for her young adult fiction. Her home is in Northern California wine country with her family and two cats. You can follow her on Instagram at instagram.com/sesinkhorn/.