2014 / Sunday

Storytelling: Truth is the Cornerstone

Ben Nielsen

Kathryn Heyman

Kathryn Heyman

Like devout religious followers, writers and readers are flocking to Sydney’s Walsh Bay finger wharfs in celebration of the written word. As the crowds swamp their favourite author or peruse the selection of novels on sale, it seems necessary to ask the most basic question. Why do we need stories, and how do we construct them? In this popular Friday session of the festival’s On Craft series, acclaimed Australian author Kathryn Heyman speaks about writing.

Literary educator, author of five successful novels (including The Breaking, Captain Starlight’s Apprentice and last year’s Floodline), and recipient of many awards, Ms Heyman is at home with the art of storytelling and its significance. Its primary virtues, as she explained in her opening address, are to make sense of our own lives and to act as a means of entertainment.

“Storytelling is our most powerful tool,” she said. “It enables us to go deeper, to become more connected and therefore, I believe, more human.”

Through storytelling, we are able to unearth truth, find life and create art. This creativity and exploration also provides sustenance to the community. But, storytelling is far more dangerous than many realise – in fact, Plato believed that the activity was so subversive that he wanted it banned.

“When people hear stories, they’re just making sense of themselves and casting themselves in the various roles. Why is it so dangerous? It’s just words, right? But I’m with Plato; I think stories are dangerous. They create culture, create politics, and create imperialism or revolution,” she said.

The power and influence of storytelling is undeniable. People are refused entry and exit to countries simply on the basis of the stories they might divulge. The French use the English term “storytelling” to refer to political propaganda and deceit. Increasingly, the term is also associated with the insidious corporate and capitalist mission.

“Coca Cola knows of this power, the website tells endless uplifting stories of all things Coke. Things like ‘my best Coke day’ or ‘my Coke-themed wedding’,” she said.

“They believe that storytelling is the cornerstone of 21st century communications. This kind of storytelling, that Coke and other corporations are choosing to appropriate, is of surface gloss with no murky chaos.”

The murky chaos to which she refers is the act of unearthing truth. Interestingly, much of Ms Heyman’s own writing is about secrecy and revelation, and the concept of truth providing freedom. But she discusses the idea not in relation to narrative device, but rather, personal and professional development. In finding truth and authenticity, she said, a writer can create their best work.

“As with life, if you let the secret fears niggle without naming them out loud, they have more power than they deserve. Try to dig a little deeper, keep writing, and try to find the truth. Truth is the cornerstone of good writing.”

She said another integral aspect of narrative is the creation of character. The protagonist and antagonist lead the story and move the reader through an empathetic experience. This is the means with which our own experiences are amplified, and a way to make contact with our fellow humans. Emerging from this are elements of desire and conflict.

“Good stories seem lifelike, because a good life is story shaped. It’s the first lesson you learn in primary school narrative: your protagonist needs an obstacle,” she said.

“One of the great lessons of storytelling is to honour conflict; without it there is no change and without change there is no story. In narrative, there will always be some tension between desire and obstacle, some tension between strength and weakness.”

Ms Heyman captivates her audience, who are scribbling in their Moleskine notebooks throughout, although her use of poetic device and literary references sometimes divert attention from the crux of her argument. She summarises: storytelling requires character, desire, obstacle, weakness, a helper, transformation and revelation. But, transcending these external layers is the writer’s own internal character development, craft and process. Narratives often reflect life itself, and the journey that characters traverse is mirrored by the writer’s own process.

“To spin mere words into gold, we need to acknowledge the perennial wounds and failure, not to be at war with them, but to turn our own weakness and vulnerability into wholeness, into art, into gold,” she said.

“It seems to me that the most violently hopeless, determinedly subversive, wildly radical thing we can do is tell our stories. Tell them not with mere gloss and the pretense of chaos, but tell them with all their murk and doubt. All you need is a pencil, a desire and the courage to be wounded. It’s as simple and complex as breath.”