• Google+ - Grey Circle
  • YouTube - Grey Circle
  • Pinterest - Grey Circle
  • Instagram - Grey Circle
  • Twitter - Grey Circle

© 2018, Tracy McDowell

STORYTELLING MAJOR

Storytelling is the through line of existence. Stories are the origin tool human beings used to rationalize and organize existence. Every fact evolved from a story, everything connects back to the dawn of time, and this interactive practice of taking in information and distributing down the chain is able to positively inform the future.

The major requires a broad range of classes to provide a versatile background regarding the human experience. Emphasis is placed on classes enhancing world view, cultural understanding, communicating ideas, and narrative arts. Narrative arts meaning reflecting or purposely conforming to a particular set of aims or values. A storytelling major prepares one to synthesize human beliefs, thoughts, and traditions into a memorable arch. It also reenforces clear, pithy, and thoughtful communication (both verbal and nonverbal). In an era focused on quick bites of information, stories are an anchor for delving in deeper and exploring the complexities of human existence. 

Traditionally storytelling is responsible for the preservation of history. A storytelling major showcases storytelling as a catalyst for shaping a more positive and equal future. 

Storytelling Thesis

Taking time to study the roots and nuances of storytelling has proven an invaluable tool for me to open my own mind to the infinite possibilities of the future. I now know that storytelling is the easily accessible portal to a state of mind where the “play” and “creative” mode are available for everyone at every age, in every stage, and every moment. 

 

A Storytelling Major is a cross-disciplinary study of similarities and themes that unify unlikely topics. The goal of the major was to explore various modalities for enhancing and creating ways to convey a message, moral,  idea or theme. Some of the disciplines included in my research were anthropology, art history, music, human history, oral traditions, philosophy, movement traditions, theater, language, film, education, technology, literature and a variety of visual arts. The classes included in these disciplines gave me a background for the methodologies, histories, functions and possibilities of storytelling. Emphasis was placed on an enhanced worldview, cultural understanding, and strategies for communicating ideas. Storytelling is responsible for the preservation of much of our history and learning.  A storytelling major emphasizes the power of stories as a catalyst for shaping a vibrant future.

 

Storytelling is valuable because it is the predominant method humans use to pass ideas and lessons from one to another and to make sense of and preserve the world around them. My storytelling major explores clear, pithy, and thoughtful communication (both verbal and nonverbal) to synthesize human beliefs, thoughts, and traditions. Storytelling encourages personal connections and real-time creativity. 

 

The focus for the major was on the process of creating a story and making genuine connections with an audience, free of commercial motive. In an era focused on information snacks, I believe more meaty stories are a rare portal for exploring the complexities of human existence. 

 

The origin of the word “story” is from late Middle English, a shortening of Latin historia ‘history story.’ Story and storytelling are universally prevalent because they make up the fabric of human understanding. In fact, the human brain is wired to retain stories. For the word ‘history’ to exist, there must be an alphabet and language. The language is built from letters which form words, which are themselves ‘stories’ about sounds and shapes that represent ideas and concepts. Stories surround the groups of people who agreed to use and proliferate a word, and, as they do, a larger communal story begins to unfold, laying down the history from which the word story emerges. 

One lesson I am constantly re-learning while researching and working on this major is that nothing is as rigid or linear as I have been conditioned to believe. Stories are complex and often overlap across time and culture, which make stories an ideal vehicle for communicating ideas pertaining to the infinite, and spectrums that exist between the rigid dualities consistently incubated by Western culture.

 

When I made the decision to create the storytelling major I started out with a basic framework of key elements, which organically evolved to encapsulate many other courses that I realized useful throughout my journey at UCSD. One good example of this evolution occurred during my junior year while taking an ethnic studies class called Monsters, Orphans and Robots (MOR), alongside an Existential Philosophy class and simultaneously working on a research paper titled, “Selfie or Self-Affirmation: Why Hating on the 21st century version of the Photographic Self-portrait is Unsupported by the History of Photography” (a long, but accurate title for my research on the value of self-portraiture and more specifically “selfies”).  

 

All three classes were covering very different topics, but telling stories with similar morals, messages, and meanings. In this case, all three were zeroing in on transcendence, freedom, understanding identity, and understanding the self in the context of other people and the world. All three areas of study used stories to highlight the value of multidisciplinary creativity and art to reach a climax in understanding the shared universal themes. 

 

(The grey section can be skipped, I personally love it, but it can be skipped to meet the word requriment)

 

Iris Murdoch’s thoughts from her book Existentialists and Mystics related seamlessly to MOR’s discussion of monsters and my research on selfies. I found this unlikely connection by delving deeper into Murdoch’s statement that 

Refined sado-masochism can ruin art which is too good to be ruined by the cruder vulgarities of self-indulgence. One's self is interesting, so one's motives are interesting, and the unworthiness of one's motives is interesting. Fascinating too is the alleged relation of master to slave, of the good self to the bad self which, oddly enough, ends in such curious compromises. (Kafka's struggle with the devil which ends up in bed.) The bad self is prepared to suffer but not to obey until the two selves are friends and obedience has become reasonably easy or at least amusing. In reality the good self is very small indeed, and most of what appears good is not. The truly good is not a friendly tyrant to the bad, it is its deadly foe. Even suffering itself can play a demonic role here, and the ideas of guilt and punishment can be the most subtle tool of the ingenious self. The idea of suffering confuses the mind and in certain contexts (the context of 'sincere self- examination' for instance) can masquerade as a purification. It is rarely this, for unless it is very intense indeed it is far too interesting. Plato does not say that philosophy is the study of suffering, he says it is the study of death (Phaedo, 64 A), and these ideas are totally dissimilar. That moral improvement involves suffering is usually true; but the suffering is the by-product of a new orientation and not in any sense an end in itself. 

Murdoch’s thoughts about the self, sincerity, and self-knowledge in 1969  (near the end of the existential movement) touched on the same themes that I was studying in MOR regarding “The Monstrous Other”, as well as my investigation of selfies (an ironically modern conflation of the perceived self and the genuine self), and even includes themes such as forced dichotomy and hyperbolic contrast that I analyzed in a later religious studies class called The Devil in Film. Across disciplines, there are similar morals, messages, and themes being conveyed.  They are merely viewed from different angles. 

 

Murdoch discusses suffering in the passage above. I believe storytelling is a powerful tool to alleviate suffering. I believe storytelling is the cracked window to understanding how “suffering is the by-product of a new orientation and not in any sense an end in itself.” 

 

The existentialist movement emphasized the absurdity of the arbitrary nature of scientific knowledge and values, instead stressing the reality of human freedoms and experiences. Storytelling as a potential movement could highlight that same notion of human freedom and experience as exemplified in the abundance of history surrounding the many aspects of life. 

 

Stories are ripe for the taking. For those who wish to make meaning, they are more accessible and valuable than religion or science. Stories play in the grey area, bouncing off of black or white polarities, but acknowledging the freedom within the overlap, which showcases the reality humans have built for themselves; from stories and with stories. 

Plato says that philosophy is the study of death. If each life is a story (not a narrative) building and shaping itself as one lives, then storytelling is the key to alleviating a life of perpetual suffering. Taking control of aspects of storytelling means simultaneously taking control of the self and the infinite. Let’s say I am about to have a panic attack. When I remind myself that I spent so much time studying and advocating for storytelling as a valuable tool for shaping a better future, I am simultaneously reminded that everything can be a story. This can, in turn, minimize my perceived implications of the event that causes my stress in the first place, and shift my perception of the situation. I may not avoid the panic attack, but it gives that moment a place within the story of my life, contextualizes the experience and allow me to build meaning around that instance regardless of its perceived validity. Making space for the idea of “it had to happen”, but liberating that mantra from the usual religious attachment and instead rooting it to my identity and placing it within the scope of my personal ‘history’ and ‘story’.

 

Another reason the Murdoch passage stood out to me is her explanation of art and her assertion that art is a struggle to be virtuous. There is an emerging trend of specifying and separating people into fields of study. The idea of the ‘polymath’ from the 17th century Greeks has gone out of vogue and has instead been replaced by human beings being sophisticated cogs in massive machines. Murdoch argued for artistry, for artistry’s sake, and I do as well. I believe storytelling demands individuals to look at themselves as artists. To approach not just their work, but every aspect of life as a work for art. This is because when crafting a story or a piece of art there is generally an ebb and flow, a trajectory in flux that evolves from conception to obstruction, from contemplation to epiphany, resulting in the execution of any element of a story as it builds up and comes down. This trajectory is mirrored in one’s experience of moments, like my panic attacks, in day to day life. To be an artist is to practice awareness of the world around oneself and condense that into something new and personal. Murdoch says, “The idea of perfection moves, and possibly changes, us (as artist, worker, agent) because it inspires love in the part of us that is most worthy.” Meaning, art in the form of story is a modality to achieve a state of bliss (in the form of love, connection, pure emotion, flow, etc.). The last line of the song Nature Boy, which I reference in one of the interviews, is “the greatest thing, you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” If I love the goal, then the art of storytelling is the gateway to the goal. 

 

Murdoch continues to say, “One cannot feel unmixed love for a mediocre moral standard any more than one can for the work of a mediocre artist. The idea of perfection is also a natural producer of order.” She describes how there is a true sense of the ‘indefinable’ when it comes to good and that indefinability gives love and goodness their authority. She claims, “it is in the work of artists that we see the operation most clearly. The true artist is obedient to a conception of perfection to which [their] work is constantly related and re-related in what seems an external manner.” What she is describing is how to find and understand the incredibly complex topics “good” and “love.” I agree with Murdoch that art is the answer. Art is the study of what is good and what is love and in what forms. Both are critical for existence because they ignite creative thought and unlimited speculation into all realms of human existence. I believe storytelling is the catalyst for humans to see themselves as artists. More importantly, when the art or story is complete, there is (usually) a tangible result. 

 

Murdoch criticizes sado-masochism, but at its core S&M is enjoying pain and suffering. My understanding of storytelling entertains the same desires by taking suffering and turning it into something more palatable. I believe freedom can be achieved through pain and suffering, and I believe everything I have learned about storytelling and stories proves that humans can withstand suffering, especially when suffering is placed into a finite form or conceptual model, like a story. 

 

My storytelling major is centered around finding the thought lines across generations, classes, and disciplines. My diverse course load allowed me to achieve this, as evidenced by the case of the three aforementioned classes, to juxtapose existential thinkers with tales of ghosts and latin American folklore, against a backdrop of twenty-first-century visual indoctrination and new media. 

 

My time at UCSD working on this major gave me an abundance of examples within readings and lecture topics that all coalesce into a more poignant conclusion. I believe Storytelling is an important field of study because perfecting how to convey a moral message or meaning results in more efficient and effective communication— which is key to peace and prosperity.

 

The question then is, how does this major translate into the “real world.” 

 

When I discuss my storytelling major with people they always ask “But, What are you going to DO with it?” and I honestly don’t know. The point of creating a storytelling major was taking time to investigate the process, not the product. Storytelling was my gateway to tailoring the education system to fit my interests. 

 

On a very personal level, my storytelling major was about finding a balance between myself and the world around me. Rather than indoctrinating myself with a specific worldview within a specific field of study, my storytelling major allowed me to transcend the confines of a rigid system and begin forming connections and seeing patterns between seemingly juxtaposed topics and ideas.

 

Theoretical Underpinnings of the Project 

Storytelling is an incredibly broad and ambiguous term. The goal for my Muir Special Project Major was to explore the variety of definitions that the word and idea of “story" and “storytelling” have taken on, in the twenty first century. The first step was taking classes in a variety of disciplines and identifying,  in readings and lectures, the places where storytelling was present. 

 

Later, I chose the medium of a podcast composed of interviews with individuals from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines to expand my written data to living, breathing, talking data. 

 

The interview questions were: 

 1. What is your passion (what makes you tick, happy, excited about life)?

 2. What is your profession (what do you do to make money)?

 3. How do you define story and storytelling?

 4. How do stories and storytelling play into your passion and profession?

 

A smaller goal within the project was exploring how often people actually integrate their passions with their work. This is because a portion of my proposal with storytelling is that there is an unnecessary schism between the creative and the scientific. By interviewing people about what they love, followed by what they do, and then asking about storytelling, I found people tying together their own “narrative” “stories” and connecting the dots about storytelling’s potential to be seen everywhere, all within our thirty-minute conversations. 

 

It came to my attention as I neared the end of the project that I had no burning “why?” behind my desire to research storytelling. Perhaps I am trying to find the themes of my own life and personal story. 

 

Along the way, I have discovered storytelling is an important area of study because it can be a new framework for viewing the world, any world. A way to conceptualize the value of storytelling as a mental framework is to think about meditation and mindfulness. Meditation and mindfulness have become increasingly popular in the new millennium. They primarily teach how to achieve a different perspective through parallel states of consciousness. They are valuable tools, but often are dismissed for seeming difficult or lofty. I believe this is because many meditation practices teach letting go and awareness---two concepts that are hard to relate to in a consumerist society. 

 

The lack of universal interest in mindfulness and meditation stems from its inaccessibility. It seems to me that one solution to making the ideas of universality and oneness in meditation accessible is to embrace storytelling. This is because storytelling includes playfulness, mistakes, and other often ostracized parts of the human experience; it embraces the humanities of, as Shakespeare put it, childishness and second childishness. 

 

Stories are often associated with childhood. More than one interviewee discussed stories they had been told as a child, mentioning how a certain story shaped their childhood. In the collection of interviews, Patrick talked about growing up down the street from Christopher Robin and the games of make believe that later inspired him to keep playing and exploring and eventually led him to create the first self-charging LED hula-hoop. Beth talked about being read stories as a child and how important it was to have those stories as a foundation for her understanding the world. A a great deal that is unknowns in the world and there is something very grounding about a story that helps make sense of it all. 

 

Another subject that came up more than once in the interviews was religion. Each time, it was in relation to wanting to believe a religious story because it gave them something to hold onto. 

 

My definition of storytelling is something with a moral, message, or meaning. This kept me on the lookout for examples of storytelling that allowed my interviewees to come to a conclusion about something. Yet, the interviews and passages I marked have taught me that everything is in flux. Change is constant. An example that stands out has been the process of watching the children I take care of grow up. I interviewed one of them and spent much of the interview marveling at how much she had changed in five years. Much of my previous work has been with children.  I have learned an immense amount about human openness and creativity before they are corrupted by the overload of sensory inputs in a technology driven world. One of my most striking observations is a child’s desire to make sense of things. They want to place things at either end of a sliding scale, know when something is wrong or right. The middle seems somehow unsafe to them. Stories make room for a non-rigid investigation of a topic, for example, reading Harry Potter and discussing house elves. In the novel, S.P.E.W. is an organization to free the house elves from their slave cast. Having a fictional example of a very relevant real-world issue like slavery in plain sight, allows kids to see multiple sides of the issue as they hear positions from various characters. The story works like a trial, for them to be exposed to as many sides of the argument as possible and then enables them to act as jury and decide for themselves how they feel about the rights of house elves. It is much easier to learn about compassion crying over a dead Dobby in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, than hearing parents’ biased discussion about slavery or the media's inflated and or biased representation of the issue. 

 

Storytelling is fluid and this is what makes it an even more valuable tool than mindfulness or meditation, especially with children. There is the ability to “get lost,” “forget about time,” and “transcend” because stories provide more opportunities within their framework to brush up against meditation and mindfulness, thereby increasing awareness.  

 

Goals of the Project 

My project was constructed within a podcast, rather than a traditional research paper. This is because I feel the nuances of an auditory storytelling are integral to achieving a greater understanding of storytelling. 

 

The actual finished product is an introductory podcast and a collection of interviews. The introductory podcast is a template for where I hope to take the rest of the project over time. The interviews are uncut and currently unedited into a podcast format because I underestimated the amount of time a project of this scale would take working-solo. I am still pleased with the finished product because I feel that the time spent perfecting the introduction taught me how to use sound editing software, gave me a template for the aesthetic I am aiming for, and reinforced many of the themes and ideas I hoped to capture while creating a storytelling major. 

 

Trying to create an interview-based podcast alone reinforced why collaboration and community are so critical to the success of a story. Editing the podcast drove home the ideas of information building and layering upon one another to create something new—a concept I explored at length over the course of making this major through a past, present, future model I made for storytelling. Listening and trying to edit peoples’ interviews reinforced my hypothesis that stories are often nonlinear. Integrating elements other than my voice fortified my claim that multidisciplinary modalities have a greater impact. The project also demanded I become very self-aware because it required listening to my voice again and again and again, having to analyze subtle differences within components of communication that are often left unnoticed and taken for granted like tone, pacing, pauses, dynamics, imagery, inflection, etc. Oral storytelling, one of the oldest storytelling modalities, forced me to acknowledge these fundamental elements. Most importantly, and especially for me, the process of finding a project that felt authentic—when trying to encapsulate storytelling— led me down a path that became my story of learning the importance of giving time for things to grow (in this case my major). 

 

Conclusion

Cavemen painted on walls, early tribes told stories and danced, and our understanding of their world is gleaned from the art left behind; humanity is built on stories. What I hope to expose with this major is that storytelling is foundational to the success of humanity, and is more powerful today than it has ever been.  Storytelling will never lose its allure. Technology has enabled storytelling to proliferate in infinite forms and formats. Technology is here to stay and rather than fighting its influence, I hope to be one of the advocates for its productive integration and expansion of storytelling, creating new compelling mediums such as animation, 3D movies, holograms, videogames, TED Talks, websites, virtual reality, augmented reality, podcasts and more. 

 

What I want to I would like to conclude with are two of the stories and writers that have had the greatest impact on me and my understanding of my place in the world. William Shakespeare and J.M.Barrie. 

 

Art is the process of making art, storytelling the process of telling a story, and regardless of whether someone's words are repeated like Shakespeare's, the process of creating a story is key. 

 

In the intro podcast episode, I discuss how it is nearly impossible to know how much of what I know is true or not and that all I can do is create things from all the things happening around me. 

 

This, I believe is the foundation of a story. It is what children do without prompting. It is what artists do to survive. Childishness means foolish, fatuous, silly, inane, stupid, asinine and implies weakness of intellect and lack of judgment, but these are not characteristics exclusively found in children or the senile. It is much easier to get away with being foolish, silly, stupid, etc. if you never grow up. 

I joke that Peter Pan is MY Disney princess, but I do believe that J.M.Barrie’s little boy who does not want to grow up is exactly what the world requires. We need brave souls who are unwilling to “grow up” and fall into the humdrum of adult life.  We need true ‘individuals” who are desperate for stories, willing to connect and create.  

 

Each time we read a book, gossip with friends, or cry during a movie, we reaffirm our humanity and our ability to create and connect. Everyone tells and seeks out stories. Everyone wants to be more in touch with storytelling because the fun part of life is learning and growing, and storytelling gives everyone immediate access to the never ending puzzle that is the infinite universe. 

 

Storytelling is the weapon to fight the darkness and understand suffering. It allows us to define and redefine good and love in the face of impending doom. 

 

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Jacques famous speech begins  “All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.” He continues, outlining the seven stages of man (or woman) concluding, “Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” 

 

In my introductory podcast, I joke that we are all going to die and that our inevitable doom influences our desire to remember and leave our mark on things. The marks that have most impacted me came from stories written by artists who reached out into the abyss and yelled their truths… with the eternal hope that someone would connect and reach back.