The art of storytelling

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During the first phase of lockdown, I managed to break my arm while trying to keep socially distanced on a busy footpath. It was a clean break to my forearm, just below the elbow — no splint, no surgery, no complications. I was lucky. Earlier this year, my GP tripped on a tree root and broke her elbow into multiple pieces. It involved surgery, a lot of metalware and months of recuperation. Breaking your arm can mean a lot of different things.

In this Fiona Katauskas cartoon, Scott Morrison walks along a street with a closed bars, gallery, theatre and writers hub. He says, 'I don't know much about art, but I know I don't like funding it,'

Not long after my fall, I was walking with a friend and her three-year-old who was curious about my broken arm. Since we were in-situ out in the street, I demonstrated the tripping over and landing on my arm. I may have been more restrained if I’d realised that his parents would be watching their lad re-enact this for the next two weeks.

My friend sent me a one minute video of her little boy in his scooter helmet telling the story three times over. Initially the narration is hesitant, ‘I walk along the road… And what happened?’ It gathers force as he demonstrates the moment of tripping, bumping his gumboots decisively at the gutter edge. Then, as if he is taking a bow, he bends at the waist and lowers his helmeted head gently to the asphalt footpath — this moment in the re-enactment lends a dignity to my stumbling face-plant. After the bow the little fellow stands up and with a triumphant flourish extends his arm, pronouncing with great finality ‘I broke my arm!’ He flinches and holds it close, OUCH!’

I felt honoured that this three-year-old took hold of the story so strongly. The quality of his attention was mesmerising to watch. As a colleague observed, it was a ‘beautiful example of how children work through disturbances in their lives until they integrate whatever the learning is.’

The three-year-old’s mother tells me that storytelling is becoming something of a rite of passage for her boy. Recently, after an episode involving a series of tantrums, he asked her, ‘What happened?’ She realised this was an invitation to telling about the episode and attempting to get a handle on it. In a continuation of this, when her son recently had a mishap on his scooter, she consoled him with telling how he had crashed when he bumped into a big stick. The story told, he was emboldened to get back on the scooter.

 

'Songwriters, poets and musicians bring us narratives wrapped memorably in melody or honed words, which allow us to see our own stories more clearly.'

 

The capacity to story our experience is a powerful tool for reflection and understanding. As adults we learn that no story is pure and we are capable of telling ourselves spin, but the shaping of experience into story is the bread and butter of our lives. Narrative, it has been said, is a primary act of mind.

My son was almost three when his sister was due to be born. He was bewildered by my absence. When I came home, he was waiting at the front gate, ‘Mummy we losed-ed you.’ 

His baby sister took up residence with many visitors admiring her surprisingly bright blonde hair. Bedtime stories settled into a nightly repetition of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Our firstborn asked for it every night for those first weeks. I realised that the story of the blonde-haired female intruder needed retelling until he’d shooed off Goldilocks enough times to be able to give up his place as the singular baby bear of the family.

The two three-year-olds took hold of the tools for making sense; one by the telling of what happened, the other by adopting a story from the cultural storehouse. Meaning-making is a lifelong task that becomes more nuanced as we age.

Songwriters, poets and musicians bring us narratives wrapped memorably in melody or honed words, which allow us to see our own stories more clearly. They offer ways of naming love and loss, yearning, delight, gut-wrenching fear and hooting hilarity. No matter if they adapt the vernacular or write in elegant prose, we receive the possibility of understanding ourselves in a new light. We may find we are not so alone after all.

It is self-evident that we need diverse artists from the varieties of ethnicity, gender and geography if we are to see our lives reflected in these ways. Songs, poetry and story become a shorthand whereby we integrate our own experience and find a common language. This doesn’t replace mental health-care but forms a fabric that connects us to ourselves and others.

Celebrity and commodification can sometimes disguise this process and lead us away from the message to being dazzled by the messenger. But there are artists, song-makers, poets and writers who companion us and enable us to honour our ordinary lives. The best ones know that this is their job, that it is not all about them, but about where the songs or stories or poetry meet the listeners. Their words and melodies free us for the work of making sense of our un-famous lives.

When we understand what artists enable in us, it is no surprise to find outrage at their dismissal by the federal government. Even before the bushfires and COVID-19, the federal government had already started shutting down the arts — rolling the department into a lumpy bed with transport and infrastructure.

Notwithstanding rescue packages that give a cursory nod, the prevailing message is that artists are surplus to need. While announcing the arts rescue package, the Prime Minister felt compelled to mention the benefit to the tradies, but unable to acknowledge the artists themselves.

 

'When you lose the arts, you lose more than economists can count. We will always need creativity to open new pathways in the unknowable future.'

 

Paul Fletcher, the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts demonstrated once more the side-stepping of established advisory bodies. The Australia Council will be consulted but not given oversight of the dispersal of the $250 million arts rescue package. The dispersal of taxpayer funds for the other packages are still in danger of a sports rorts style disbursement.

And in a move that reveals a boxed-in version of what education is for, any young person with ambitions to explore history and philosophy in a humanities education is being made to pay double and simultaneously instructed to train vocationally. 

Educating in this way is setting the nation up for an even more gigantic failure of imagination than such policies reveal. We need people with the curriculum vitaes that show what they did when they didn’t get what they wanted — including good grades — life stories that reveal their resilience and capacity to find another path.

If education teaches that A necessarily leads to B, you won’t get that resilience. You’ll get narrow minds that say ‘What relevance does this have? Is this on the exam? Why should I participate, it’s pointless.’ The curiosity and inquiry that makes education vibrant gets lost. Occasionally I’ve taught people with this mindset. You don’t want them on the crew when you are sinking.

So let’s stop saying we are all in the same boat, because, actually, we’re not. We are in the same storm, but most of the artists writers and musicians are on hastily handmade rafts, watching the more valued professions and high end company directors cruise by in the shipping lanes. Meanwhile, the industries that flourish in association with a vibrant arts community are running aground; even if those boats are bigger they’re still getting wrecked in the storm. Just as a broken arm can mean more than one thing, a broken economy costs some sectors more dearly than others. When you lose the arts, you lose more than economists can count.

We will always need creativity to open new pathways in the unknowable future.

We need meaningful ways to engage with each other and a curiosity that interrogates our learning. The question is, will the economic measures that are supposed to save us, simply serve to crush us? Thank goodness there are three-year-olds who know better.

 

 

Julie PerrinJulie Perrin is a Melbourne writer and oral storyteller. She teaches The Art and Practice of Oral Storytelling at Pilgrim Theological College in Parkville. Her collection, Tender: Stories that lean into kindness, is published by MediaCom.

Main image: Cartoon by Fiona Katauskas

Topic tags: Julie Perrin, COVID-19, arts, Scott Morrison, Paul Fletcher, arts rescue package, Australian Arts Council

 

 

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Existing comments

Thanks so much for this article. These words are so needed. Unfortunately it’s a cultural mindset from governments to organisations. I’ve worked in not-for-profits for 20 years and it’s most often the culture beaters of organisations that are the first to be made redundant when there are restructures. The long-term effect on those organisations is disastrous but it’s not seen because the short-term ‘solutions’ are the easiest to deal with.
Nils | 18 August 2020


Amen!
Bridget Chambers | 18 August 2020


Thank you Julie - an important message wrapped in a lovely story.
Joy | 18 August 2020


Thank you Julie for this article and its outlining of the dangers. yes dangers, in this attack on the arts by this federal government.
Tom Kingston | 18 August 2020


This is a hugely nuanced article, firstly and enticingly taking us into the wonderful world of children and then taking us to politics. As an artist, the federal government’s mishandling of the arts, (not a cent of the ‘rescue package’ has been dispersed I believe) is a huge disappointment. We need artists, writers such as Julie to mirror what is going on in our world. Thank you to Eureka street and Julie, for providing this.
Anna Taylor | 18 August 2020


Thank You.
Anne Lanyon | 18 August 2020


Very thoughtful perspective on an essential human activity. I hope those who hold the purse strings which are currently shut tight to most creative endeavour are reading
Vivienne | 18 August 2020


'We can preserve a little of that tradition in the ink that has destroyed it. But the reality of the tradition is passing from us now, and I can only think that the world is poorer for its passing' Robin Flower, 'The Western Island' 1944. Writing about the Blaskets and the demise of the oral tradition.
Michael D. Breen | 18 August 2020


“Every single work of art is the fulfilment of a prophecy: for every work of art is the conversion of an idea into an image. Every single human being should be the fulfilment of a prophecy: for every human being should be the realisation of some ideal, either in the mind of God or in the mind of man. Christ found the type and fixed it, and the dream of a Virgilian poet, either at Jerusalem or at Babylon, became in the long progress of the centuries incarnate in him for whom the world was waiting.” Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
AO | 19 August 2020


What a skilful and eloquent demonstration of the art of story-telling! And you are so spot-on in the points you make about imagination and the arts; the contribution they make to who we are and how we are, and why this is indispensable. Thank you!
Jena Woodhouse | 19 August 2020


Oscar Wilde, was a true artist, poet and story teller for children and adults alike: "It is, if I can fully attain to it, the ultimate realisation of the artistic life. For the artistic life is simply self-development. Humility in the artist is his frank acceptance of all experiences, just as love in the artist is simply the sense of beauty that reveals to the world its body and its soul. In Marius the Epicurean Pater seeks to reconcile the artistic life with the life of religion, in the deep, sweet, and austere sense of the word. But Marius is little more than a spectator: an ideal spectator indeed, and one to whom it is given ‘to contemplate the spectacle of life with appropriate emotions,’ which Wordsworth defines as the poet’s true aim; yet a spectator merely, and perhaps a little too much occupied with the comeliness of the benches of the sanctuary to notice that it is the sanctuary of sorrow that he is gazing at. I see a far more intimate and immediate connection between the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist; and I take a keen pleasure in the reflection that long before sorrow had made my days her own and bound me to her wheel I had written in The Soul of Man that he who would lead a Christ-like life must be entirely and absolutely himself, and had taken as my types not merely the shepherd on the hillside and the prisoner in his cell, but also the painter to whom the world is a pageant and the poet for whom the world is a song. I remember saying once to André Gide, as we sat together in some Paris café, that while meta-physics had but little real interest for me, and morality absolutely none, there was nothing that either Plato or Christ had said that could not be transferred immediately into the sphere of Art and there find its complete fulfilment." From De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde
AO | 19 August 2020


Julie. I always enjoy your writing enormously. I have been fortunate to be a published writer and poet and have enjoyed art since childhood and continue in my dotage with my acrylic painting. However, I have to disagree with the implications of this article and opinions of some commentators/correspondents. The arts are the product of certain individuals with a God -given talent that they indulge as a hobby in the main, even though some do earn a living from that talent. They [the arts] are indulged by a vast minority of the population despite the fact that in our fortunate and wealthy society we possess many shrines to the talent of the artists and writers. The whole population, however, is threatened by a diabolical virus which kills innocent people and threatens everyone regardless of occupation with job losses and economic disaster. The obligation of us all , not only government administration, is to minimise that damage to the benefit of the entire population and that means that non-essential endeavours also need to make the temporary sacrifices necessary for the greater good. The arts will always survive because they are a part of God's creation expressed through those whom the Creator has chosen to express the beauty of his creation. A few months without funding for some non-essential areas is nothing in the expanse of creation. Perhaps the artists/writers might take a break till we have this virus under control and devote their time to essential work, rather than reaping the benefits from the essential work of others. Writers and artists are not that precious - we are not greater than life itself even if we were the fortunate ones in the queue when God was handing out free talents.
john frawley | 19 August 2020


Thank Julie for your article. If imagination and creativity are not fostered and encouraged to grow we all suffer the consequences. No one reads an economic ledger for entertainment or listens to parliament for nourishment. The arts are part of an essential service package of what makes us alive, keeps us alive, without such we are walking husks.
Heather Hesterman | 19 August 2020


Thank you, Julie, for using your story teller’s art to make for such an important political point in such an evocative way. Amen!!
Harriet | 19 August 2020


There are good stories and bad stories, good retelling and bad retelling. In ancient times story tellers were called bards and were regarded as being at least partly divinely inspired. You get this with Homer but even more so with the great Indian epics, like the Ramayana and Bhagvad Gita. In contemporary India, despite excellent TV serialisations of the epics, you still have traditional recitals of them in the local villages. There these are perfectly natural and help to preserve the ancient culture. I think, in the West, we have lost this tradition. It is a great pity because you can learn about morality from these epics. Bravery and loyalty are not just abstract. In the contemporary West we do not have an agreed concept of morality. We sometimes lose this in what T S Eliot terms 'a wilderness of mirrors'. The great epics, Shakespeare, Dante et sim are more than 'the arts'. They are our lifeblood. Without them we die internally. I think, in many ways, our society is dead in this aspect and needs to be resurrected. Funding is just part of the problem.
Edward Fido | 20 August 2020


John Frawley, I disagree with 98% of what you have said here. Please read De Profudis, by Oscar Wilde. Then, if you will, leave another comment. Thank you.
AO | 20 August 2020


Thank you Julie, for these wise words. Both dire state of the Arts under a philistine government, and also the beautiful description of 3yr olds learning how to tell and use stories. Blessings on you and your writing.
Heather McKean | 21 August 2020


I have read De Profundis , AO, although a long time ago. I have a copy in my study so will have another look at it in bed tonight in search of its significance in support of agreement with a mere 2% of my view on the place of the creative arts as a relatively non-essential occupation in times such as those we face at moment. I will comment again tomorrow if tonight's reading is productive or relevant.
john frawley | 21 August 2020


Thank you Julie for your thoughtful and sensitive essay. I would love to hear you telling a story one day. Also thanks to Edward Fido for your comment. Well said.
Brett | 21 August 2020


Julie Thank you for your artistic comment on life and how we cope. Story telling by and for littlies is so important, but as adults we have to listen and as a society I do not think we are good at listening. I loved your story of Goldilocks being a repeat because of an intruder. My youngest child was enamoured with Dorothy, from the Wizard of Oz. I must have read it at least 365 times including when he was in hospital as 1 2 year old. I believe he needed a girl to succeed because he had many sisters who loved him, played with him and made him know what he alreday thought , ' he was the most important person in the family'.
Gabrielle | 21 August 2020


Yes Julie, as integral philosopher Ken Wilber says, we need an integral and fully integrated whole of life approach that incorporates both an internal/external and an individual/collective worldview (in his philosophy these make up 4 quadrants which are inextricably linked). Unfortunately most of us get 'stuck' in a more limited worldview somewhere in our development, and which usually doesn't incorporate all of the quadrants. All great philosophers seem to tell as that life involves, and therefore must incorporate, the physical, the mental/emotional, and the spiritual - to leave any one out is highly detrimental to our humanity, as you are pointing out.
Richard | 22 August 2020


Thank you Julie for these wise insights into the value of the arts. You have given me a better understanding of their value in making meaning of our lives. Your words have also shown the deeper value of story-telling as a means of understanding our emotions and recognising that we all have a story to tell. In giving voice to those who cannot speak for themselves we link people of all ethnicities and geographies in the hope of attaining compassion and understanding. Having just completed a memoir recounting my good fortune to work with people from many walks of life I can appreciate the personal benefits, and joy, in reflecting on my personal story. Like keeping a personal journal, it is highly recommended,
Anne Doyle | 22 August 2020


It is very dangerous when politicians are given complete control of arts funding and its disbursement. I am reminded that one of the achievements of the (fortunately fictional) Sir Les Patterson was Minister for the "Yarts". Was Barry Humphries prophetic in creating Les?
Edward Fido | 24 August 2020


Thank you Julie. Your observations and reflections Here are an example par excellence of your comments on the need for the arts.
WG | 25 August 2020


There are doctors and scientist who are doing their best to combat this virus. As we all are to the best of our individual and collective ability. If my memory does not fail me, you are a doctor by profession are you not, John Frawley? Than you should be advocating for all that strengthens the immune system, laughter, joy and all emotions resulting from engaging and perpetuating 'art' in all its many diverse forms. Causing further division, the virus has already perpetuated, by not supporting artists and the art industry, is counterproductive. For a start. Ask any ill child who makes them feel better, a medical doctor or a clown doctor? https://www.humourfoundation.org.au/clown-doctors/our-work/
AO | 25 August 2020


“…I love seeing Clown Doctors because they are so much fun. They make me feel really happy and distract my mind…” A 9 year old friend and patient.
AO | 25 August 2020


Dear John Frawley, thanks for your remarks which deserve a longer response than allowed in a comment stream. I need to disagree that the arts are in some way a bonus activity resulting from talent given out to the ‘fortunate ones in the queue.’ I think this owes its origins to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and can diminish our understanding of God as Creator – potter and poet. At the same time as suggesting artists are somehow special and lucky, this view could also be construed as trivialising an essential gift in what it means to be human. Whilst I would never insist that arts projects should be funded ahead of the essential services that have kept us alive in this period, I don’t believe it is as simple as ‘a few months without funding.’ The very structure of the JobKeeper rules out thousands of artists from accessing any assistance for survival, let alone the capacity to create work. I would claim that to view the arts as simply the icing on the cake, or being ‘given out’ in a hierarchical manner is a mistake about the very nature of our being.
Julie Perrin | 27 August 2020


Thank you for your comment Julie. My attitude towards the arts is similar to my attitude to creation as a whole. I see all the beauty that surrounds us in this world as a gift from the Creator that is not to be exploited for personal benefit. Hence I dislike the crass corporatisation of all that is God created ranging from the natural environment to the productive talents that some individuals are fortunate to possess. I suspect that if there is indeed a Creator who will one day judge his individual human creations, the judgment will depend not on what was done with the talents given but on the failure to use them, either not at all or for purposes other than to the greater glory of God. People of such great talent are quite capable of contributing great art while at the same time contributing to the whole of society through paid work which serves the vast majority of members of the society as we have chosen to structure it. If that means I am a Phillistine, then as Fr Hamilton notes in his piece today "I am what I am" or "It is what it is". Mind you, some of my attitudes worry me more than a little!!!!
john frawley | 27 August 2020


John Frawley: Your last comment. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrWoG8IckyE
AO | 28 August 2020


Thank you, Fatima.
AO | 29 August 2020


... and in case you missed the news today JF https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-13/tas-clown-doctors-covid-19/12657910
AO | 13 September 2020


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