Make Time

The Lifesaving Power of Storytelling

It is important to tell stories to the young, but it is even more important to make storytelling a lifelong habit, enriching your life and the lives around you.

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In many ways, my father was not an easy man. Something of a martinet, he lived with a huge amount of anxiety that he freely displaced onto others and, while he was enormously smart, his view of the world was, in certain respects, quite circumscribed. A true child of the Depression, he grew up behind his parent’s dress shop in the Bronx and turned to popular cultural icons of the time like Horatio Alger and Dink Stover to figure out how to navigate the world. He lived to be 91 years old, mostly with some real quality of life, and when he died, I eulogized him. Trying to figure out what aspects felt right to pick out of our complicated 60-year relationship, I focused on how he had given me a love for stories.

Dad was a CPA who ultimately came to regard the reading of novels as frivolous, but he was, nonetheless, a wonderful natural storyteller. Throughout my childhood, our moments of greatest intimacy came when he told me bedtime stories. Sometimes he read other people’s stories to us. (I can still recall the grisly accounts from Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York of acid baths and bitten-off ears preserved in jars). Better yet were the stories from his childhood. There was one I particularly loved about a race riot in which he had become embroiled that featured narrow escapes worthy of Indiana Jones. While none of these stories would have been granted the parenting seal of approval, they surely fueled my interest in fiction.

Emulating my father in this respect, I always made a point of telling stories to my two sons, and now my older son tells stories to his children. In this way, we are passing along family history, cultural values, and ethical guidelines for how we think life should be lived. I wager that most people in the world have, on occasion at least, tried to do the same with their offspring, but this critical work too often gets lost in the shuffle of today’s overprogrammed childhoods. We must ascribe equal importance to the lessons in life that we gain through stories as we do to the lessons that our children learn on the cello, in tennis, and in coding.

Studies have confirmed the power and importance of storytelling. In the mid-’90s, psychologist Marshall Duke created the “Did You Know” scale to help explore myth and ritual in American families, asking children to answer a series of questions, such as “Do you know where your parents met?” or “Do you know the story of your birth?” Duke found that the more children knew about their family histories, the more sense of control they had over their live, which, in turn, resulted in higher self-esteem.

I believe that most of us understand, at least intuitively, how important it is to tell stories to young children, in order to give them an understanding of their place in the continuum. Simply put, storytelling is cozy, constructive, and a win-win for parent and child alike. We forget, however, that the power of storytelling is available to us throughout our lives—and throughout the lives of our children.

Curling up with your adult child on a comfy Morris chair is obviously not an interest or an option for most people, and so if storytelling is to continue to be exchanged between parent and child, it almost inevitably will involve more formal constructs. To that end, many people today are engaging in memoir writing or are taping oral histories with the idea of leaving family stories behind. While I admire those who pursue such activities, many others fall by the wayside on account of the commitment and discipline that is required. I also recognize how difficult it is to craft a memoir that will sustain the interest of the reader—or the writer.

I have worked with adult, nonprofessional writers on stories of limited length—let’s say, 500 to 1,000 words—and have found that their short narratives allow them to plumb the human condition with remarkable courage, candor, and often great skill. They write them for all the same reasons that anyone has ever written anything: to connect with other people; to come to terms with something in the past; to better understand something in physical or human nature; to pass along a tradition; to explore an ethical value or moral standard; to amuse; to confess; to forgive or be forgiven.

I have seen these writers create powerful stories about such things as joyfully singing in a choir even when struggling with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease brought on by years of smoking or coping with a wife’s cancer by teaching dance to cancer survivors. And while these writers are no longer using stories to tuck their children into bed, some have reported that they transformed the Thanksgiving table with their reading of them.

In telling these stories, they are doing exactly what Atul Gawande talks about in his book Being Mortal. “As people become aware of the finitude of their life, they do not ask for much. They do not seek more riches. They do not seek more power,” Gawande writes. “They ask only to be permitted, insofar as possible, to keep shaping the story of their life in the world.”

Storytelling is as basic to the human experience as music, dance, or sports. In our busy world, we can’t afford to leave it behind for it is too good for us and for our children. Storytelling can lend clarity and purpose to life’s third act, when disorder and a lack of relevancy looms, and it can give clarity, purpose, and strength to those whom we will one day leave behind.

Alan Gelb is a writing coach and widely published author of fiction and nonfiction, including his latest Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story (Tarcher, August 2015) and Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps (Ten Speed Press). His work has been featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and CBS Money Watch among others. Learn more at Havingthelastsay.com.