Too Many Stories

Are we getting paralyzed by narrative overload?


| September-October 1997



Storytelling is among the oldest and most basic ways of communicating information, and we have long relied on stories to make sense of our lives and the seemingly plotless world careening around us. Stories are also building blocks of knowledge. Intelligence and education researchers increasingly place them at the foundation of memory and learning; some postulate the existence of a “narrative module” in the human brain, akin to linguist Noam Chomsky’s “grammar module,” that processes experience and data in story form.

Today the power of narrative is being harnessed in new ways. Medicine, picking up from psychology and 12-step practices, is discovering the palliative and healing powers of storytelling. Richard Stone, author of The Healing Art of Storytelling (Hyperion, 1996), is a professional storyteller who often works in hospices with bereavement counselors and dying patients. “Hospice communities have come to understand—and there’s a lot of research to substantiate this—that when people have a chance to tell their stories, they’re able to see the meaning of life, to see the path they’ve taken, and approach the whole event of their death very differently,” Stone says.

Like other storytellers, Stone has also been hired to build camaraderie and collective values in corporate settings. “Good organizations are concerned about company values,” he says. “I teach leaders to be good storytellers, and how to choose stories that contextually reflect their company’s core values. I also believe—and it’s a very simple idea—that people work together better when they know each other. If you know their personal stories, who they are, you’re going to approach them differently, and probably work more effectively together.”

Similarly, activists have latched onto storytelling as a vivid way to critique irresponsible activities in the community. In the current issue of Alternatives Journal, environmental author Sylvia Bowerbank explores ways in which community residents’ personal narratives, or “testimonies,” can help researchers and public servants advance environmental causes by bearing witness to the ecology of their homeland. In this way, a good story can be a formidable defense against a bad law.

The legal profession’s concern with narrative seems obvious. But the academic movement called narrative law (or “law and literature,” as scholars more often refer to it) goes beyond the traditional presentation of the facts of a case, promoting storytelling as a reformist alternative to mainstream legal debate and discourse—a way for marginalized voices to be heard, to challenge the status quo, and to move away from increasingly abstract forms of modern law. As Yale Law School professor Paul Gewirtz writes in his introduction to Law’s Stories: Narrative and Rhetoric in the Law (Yale University Press, 1996), “I think the turn to narrative [in law] is a clear offshoot of the further loss of faith in the idea of objective truth and the widespread embrace of ideas about the social construction of reality. Narrative, in other words, is seen as the social construction of reality.”

If narrative is, in fact, the social construction of reality, then the ways it is mutating in the online world is a reality shift worth noting. Like print, radio, and TV before it, the Internet has become a hotbed for autobiography and no-holds-barred confessional storytelling. Web diaries are growing exponentially, providing countless true-life soap operas for foraging readers. (That the bulk of them are beyond boring is another matter.)