The storytelling animal: an extract from ‘The Enchanted Life’

It’s just two weeks now until The Enchanted Life is officially published. In some ways, it seems like an age has passed since I handed the final manuscript over to my editor at the beginning of October; in other ways it seems all too recent, as I find myself some days still in the throes of what my husband calls ‘post-book traumatic stress disorder’.

Someone asked me the other day what had inspired me to write the book, and where the idea for it came from. And although The Enchanted Life is aimed firmly at both men and women (and contains within its pages interviews with both) and is in no sense a sequel to it, it nevertheless in some ways picks up where If Women Rose Rooted left off. In that book I explored my journey, and other women’s journeys, towards a sense of belonging to the world we live in, and a sense of responsibility for the places we inhabit and which give us life. The Enchanted Life picks up that thread, and expands it. Because it’s all very well to talk about belonging, about reconnection to the natural world of which we’re part, and about re-enchanting ourselves and our relationship with the world – but how do we actually do it? What does it look like – or more accurately, what does it feel like? What is the lived experience, and how do we create it in our daily lives?

To me, ‘belonging’ and ‘enchantment’ are ideas which are inextricably bound together in a glittering web of entanglements. As I write in the introduction to the book, ‘enchantment, by my definition, has nothing to do with fantasy, or escapism, or magical thinking: it is founded on a vivid sense of belongingness to a rich and many-layered world; a profound and whole-hearted participation in the adventure of life.’ And as with If Women Rose Rooted, and as with all my work, the mythic imagination is absolutely central to it. And so, to celebrate the beautiful object that I’m now holding in my hands, with a gorgeous cover by one of my favourite book designers, Leo Nickolls, I’d like to offer you an extract from the book – from the chapter which explores the myths and stories we live by.

 

Image by Maggie Taylor

The storytelling animal

We don’t always appreciate the extent to which stories dominate our lives, and the many ways in which we’ve been shaped by them. After all, what is story? Little more than a set of oral or written conventions which somebody made up sometime, long ago, and which we choose to follow in order, primarily, to entertain ourselves?

Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, we can’t extricate ourselves from story – we are storytelling animals, hardwired for story. It’s so obvious in children; they’re born with a remarkably imaginative and seemingly innate storytelling capacity. In their pretend play, toddlers as young as two and three years old create their own uniquely plotted dramas, populating them with people and animals, pitching their voices differently for different characters, and ascribing clear personality traits to them. Their play-acting covers a wide range of human experience, too – it’s not all about polite chit-chat at dolls’ tea parties. Sometimes it’s positively existential, portraying a world which is changeable and dangerous – just like the fairy tales they almost always love to be told.

Contemporary neuroscience offers up some interesting evidence which may help explain why stories are so important to us. It seems that when we listen to stories, watch movies or read books, the parts of our brain which are activated are exactly the same areas which would be implicated if we ourselves were indulging in the activities that are being described in the story. As far as our brains are concerned, it’s as if we are literally living the story we’re engrossed in, and Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (who also happens to be a novelist), has suggested that reading stories produces a simulation of reality which can be so vivid that we feel as if we are right there, inside it.

It’s not just about our own individual imaginings, though: the beauty of stories is that they can bind people together, bring us to see the world in common ways. Other studies carried out by Oatley and his colleagues show that people who read a lot of fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathise with them, and imagine the world from their perspective. This idea is extended by the work of Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist based at Princeton University, who conducted a series of studies based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the brain. These studies indicated that the brains of different people begin to show similar activity when they hear the same story. In one study, for example, five people listened to the same story, told aloud. Before the recording began, everyone’s brain activity was quite different; but once the story started, their brain activity began to become ‘aligned’, to use Hasson’s phrase. In a related experiment, Russian speakers and English speakers listened to the same story told in their own languages, and the brain activity of the two groups still became aligned; this alignment occurred even when the story was conveyed to each of them in differently worded paraphrases. All of this implies that the brain activity alignment is taking place at the level of the story itself, and is not just a function of linguistics.

Stories can bring us together, then – or they can tear us apart. Stories can change minds, hearts, even the course of history. ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war’ – are the words, legend tells us, that Abraham Lincoln used to greet Harriet Beecher Stowe when he met her in 1862, ten years after she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the second-bestselling book of the nineteenth century. (The bestselling book was the Bible, and if you’re looking for other stories that changed the world, that one’s a pretty good place to start.) Beecher Stowe’s story of Uncle Tom, an African-American slave, brought the horrors of slavery to the public’s attention for the first time. It caused an uproar in the America of the day, furthering the abolitionist cause in the north, creating an unstoppable wave of empathy. It angered southern slave-owners, increasing the tensions between north and south and, as Lincoln suggested, it might well have helped to push an already teetering country into full-blown civil war.

We perceive, explain and make sense of the world through stories. They are the stars we navigate by, and that’s why storytelling is a universal human phenomenon, a vital aspect of communal life across all cultures and throughout the entirety of our known history. Around fifteen years ago, when I returned from America to my croft on the north-west coast of Scotland, I also returned to the practice of psychology. My lifelong love of myth and story, along with the fact that at the time I was completing a Master’s degree in creative writing, led me to develop a specialisation in narrative psychology. This is a branch of psychology which holds that we humans use story as our primary way of making sense of our experiences – by telling stories (which we usually call anecdotes) about our experiences, by envisaging our lives as an evolving story, and by listening to and learning from the life stories of others, or the stories we are told at bedtime, or read in books.

You don’t need to be a psychologist, of course, to understand that stories teach us everything we know. Their lessons are deep and rich. Anywhere, there may be a door to another world: learn to look for it. Always leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way out of the dark wood. Don’t maim yourself trying to fit into the glass slipper which was made for someone else. Gold is never a good goal. Never take your skin off and leave it unattended.

The characters in stories are great teachers, too. They can be role models for our development, and as a child I think I learned more about ways of being in the world from characters in books and stories than from people I actually knew. I was usually uncomfortable around other children (I grew up in a house where concealment was the foundation stone of our lives; I found the openness of others hard to bear) and so I found friends in stories before I found them in the real world. My preferred companions were the solitary heroines in books and stories who were strong enough to win through the tough times. I studied them carefully, thinking about what kept them going, how they cultivated resilience. I loved the prosaic ‘just-get-on-with-it’ attitude of the princess in the old Orkney tale of ‘Peerie Fool’, who casually outwits a giant, steals back the skins he flayed from the body of her sisters, so bringing them back to life, and finally, with the help of her mother, kills the giant by pouring an enormous pot of boiling water over him. Or Kate Crackernuts, who, through a combination of close observation and steely nerve, not only manages to restore her sister’s head to her body (it had been replaced by a sheep’s head) but finds a cure for a sick prince (whose brother, of course, she then marries) at the same time.

My friend Caitriona took to fairy tales to try to figure out how to create the endings she most desired. She was constantly exposed to stories during her rural Irish childhood – and repeatedly, because she had many younger siblings. She tells me that fairy tales helped to build her sense of possibility, which she thinks has been critical to her own survival during troubled times. ‘During repeated hearings of the same stories, while I was sitting there spellbound, I seemed always open to the possibility that the story might be re-made; I felt that somehow a story which had previously had a sad ending might be able to turn out differently. And I would wait in suspense for those stories with happy endings, to hear that ending unpeeled, again and again, and figure out how it came to be. I wanted to know, how do you make happy endings? I would be captivated, living and reliving every single bit of the stories as they were freshly revealed to me each time, fully in the moment. They helped me to imagine outcomes which otherwise I might not have been able to see.’

Stories can reveal to us longings that we never knew we had, fire us up with new ideas and insights, and inspire us to grow and change. A young princess marries a prince who has been transformed into a black bull. When he falls into the clutches of the evil witch who originally cast the spell on him, she spends seven long years working for a blacksmith – the only one who can make the shoes that will enable her to scale an impassable glass mountain. When her time is up she manages to cross the mountain and saves her husband from the clutches of the evil witch.

Fragments of a shattered magic mirror made by the Devil penetrate the chests of people all over the world, freezing their hearts and making them see only things that are bad and ugly. One boy’s heart is pierced by such a splinter, and he is captured and then ensorcelled by the Snow Queen. The girl who is his closest friend searches the earth for him, finds him with the help of animal and human allies, and eventually melts the icy splinter in his heart with the warm tears she sheds out of her love for him.

These are tales of courage, endurance, and reward for loyalty and fidelity; the tasks which must be undertaken in these stories are stuff out of which souls, not just shoes, are forged. How could we not be entranced by them? They are founded on the challenges and concerns which make up our daily lives.

Working with myth and story

  • Is there a particular myth, legend or fairy tale that you loved as a child? If so, what makes it so memorable? The plot, or a character, or an especially beautiful image? Did you see yourself in the story?
  • Are there stories you particularly disliked – and if so, why?

 


The Enchanted Life is published as a trade paperback in the UK & Ireland by September Publishing, February 27 2018. ISBN 978-1910463888. It will also be published as a trade paperback by House of Anansi Press in Canada in April 2018, and in the USA in August 2018. (ISBN 978-1487004071.)

For orders on Amazon.co.uk, please follow this link. For pre-orders of the Canadian edition at Amazon.ca, please follow this link. Or, for orders at The Book Depository, with free delivery worldwide, please follow this link.

Signed copies can be ordered directly from me, here.

3 thoughts on “The storytelling animal: an extract from ‘The Enchanted Life’

  1. I will order a copy and is there a possibility, to those who comment, to form an online community to discuss how enchantment plays out in our lives? Sharon Blackie speaks to my soul and I’m sure others might want to connect and discuss too.

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  2. I have had the book on order for some time and can’t wait to read it. It speaks of things I seem to know when I read how you put them into words. That’s clumsily put but I hope you know what I mean!

    Sent from my iPhone

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