July 09, 2014

The Art of Storytelling

Storytelling predates written communication. Stories have been shared in every culture that exists.

Whether instilling moral values, recounting ancestral heritage or passing down culture through the generations, the entire fabric of our lives and existence of humanity is simply series of stories intricately woven together. It's a key component of the curriculum at Experience Institute, and I've learned a lot about the art of storytelling this year.

Sandee Kastrul, our storytelling facilitator, told me I was a talented storyteller during our first Meetup in September. I was a bit surprised by this compliment. I’ve spent most of my life with a severe stutter and never considered myself an adept storyteller. To receive such high praise from a master storyteller like Sandee didn’t make sense to me. How could I, of all people be good at storytelling?

During Meetup #2, we went to Story Club Chicago one blisteringly cold night in January. They had a cigar box where people could put their names in for a chance to be called up to the stage at random to share a story. I put my name in the box and didn't really think much of it. I had never been to one of these events before, so I didn't really know what to expect. The theme of the night was timing. As the speakers took the stage one after another, I felt the energy in the room building, excitement welled up within me.

I started to think that it would actually be a lot of fun to get up there and take a crack at improvising a story. I began to hope I would get picked. The hosts were reaching into the cigar box to pick the last name and I knew they were going to call my name, I felt it. I stood up and my name was called to approach the mic. The whole night I had been thinking (if I get called) I'd probably share a story about the Philippines or Australia since I had practiced those ones all week. When I got up there and looked at the people gathered around, I changed my mind and started talking about Kenya.

It felt so awesome to share that story. It was one of those rare moments in life where you completely lose yourself within yourself. My thoughts translated effortlessly into words and my actions didn't feel fully conscious. It was almost as if there was a greater force channeling through me as a vessel.

The whole situation was so beautiful. I could feel people's engagement by reading their facial expressions, hearing them laugh, and feeling the vibration of the room's collective energy. I fed off this energy and, reflecting back, I'm convinced this must have informed the delivery of my story too.

Fast forward to last month: Meetup #3. I had some family in town from Pakistan and there was a BBQ one night where I got to hang and be with everyone. I hadn't really spent quality time with my family, nor with my community, for 9 months at that point. People were pleasantly surprised to see me. I was still reeling from culture shock after returning from living in a village in the Philippines and seeing everything just a little differently.

It's quite common in South Asian culture for Uncles to gather round a table or stand outside on the porch in a circle talking. I remember conversations typically center around things like business, politics, money, media and the 'good ole days.' What's really happening in these circles is storytelling. This time I was able to see the animation, picture the little embellished details and feel the lightness in my heart from the incessant humor in my Uncle’s stories. They learned this behavior from their parents who in turn learned from their parents and so on since a very long time ago. This banter is about hanging out, it's not a special story slam or an event that people put flyers up for, it's just normal life. Now though, I see storytelling circles and they have been part of my life longer than I can remember. I'm starting to connect some dots. I see now that I come from a rich lineage of storytelling.

The biggest obstacle I've faced in learning to be a good storyteller is myself. I realize now there's no space left for self-defeating thoughts about not believing I have the capability to be a good storyteller. I've told good stories and gotten positive feedback. Storytelling is in my blood. I've changed the story I tell myself.

What's your story?

This post also appears on Muffadal's personal blog.

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