I am not a storyteller.
I don’t have any stories to tell.
This is the story I have told myself.
Mitch Ditkoff (2015) thinks my story is absurd. In his excellent post directed at people who share my story about not being a storyteller, he lays it out front and center:
You already know how to tell a good story. You do. You’ve been telling good stories your entire life. Today, you probably told a few. And later, tonight, you will probably tell some more….Story is the ocean we are swimming in. And because it is, we don’t necessarily feel wet when we’re in it, but we are. Fish aren’t taught to swim. And you aren’t taught to tell stories….Just because you don’t know how you do it, doesn’t mean you lack the knowledge or the skill. You don’t. It’s in there. It is….Storytelling is what some psychologists refer to as an “unconscious competence” — a skill, like walking, eating…that has become second nature to you. Where do you begin? With one simple commitment: To stop telling yourself the story that you don’t know how to tell a good story. (para. 2-6)
In his talk on humans as a storytelling animal (embedded below), Jonathan Gottschall (TEDx Talks, 2014, May 4) similarly relates the ways that stories permeate our lives but often in ways that fall outside our awareness. Like Ditkoff’s all-encompassing ocean analogy, Gottschall offers his own, a storm:
Human beings live inside a storm of stories….We live in stories all day long. We dream in stories all night long. Stories are how we communicate with each other. It’s how we connect with each other. It’s how we learn. It’s how we think. (7:51)
Not only are stories all around us, but we are constantly creating our own stories about what we observe and experience. He says, “we are [constantly] trying to impose the order of story structure on the chaos of existence” (5:39). Every single one of us, then, is a master storyteller (well, at least the vast majority of us, those with the capacity to observe and interpret).
In a post that is supposed to target the elements and definition of digital storytelling, why am I focusing on stories and storytelling in general? Because digital storytelling is, first and foremost, storytelling. Without understanding storytelling, one cannot begin to understand digital storytelling. In his book The New Digital Storytelling, Bryan Alexander (2011) suggests that participants in his digital storytelling workshops often have anxiety about the technology used to create digital stories. My anxiety when approaching the topic is entirely different. I feel great about the technology, excited to explore and work with the tools. But coming up with a story? A story worth hearing and experiencing? That’s an entirely different thing. It’s the notion of telling a story that terrifies me. I had to start by understanding what stories are (not just their components but what they are in essence), what storytelling is, and what it takes to become a storyteller. For this reason, in all my readings and viewing thus far for my Digital Storytelling course, Ditkoff and Gottschall were the most important ones for me.
After much reading, viewing lectures, and thought, I have developed the following personal definitions. A story, at its essence, is an engaging piece of communication that conveys a sequence of related events (something happening), centers on a problem or challenge, and has meaning, a point. Storytelling is the act of delivering this type of communication to an audience via any medium or method. A storyteller is virtually every human with the capacity to communicate. Yes, even me.
Now for defining digital storytelling. Bryan Alexander (2011) provides this simple definition for digital storytelling: “storytelling with digital technologies” (p. 3). Well, I suppose that’s true based on the word digital in digital storytelling. Unfortunately, I find that word to be a poor choice that places an arbitrary divide between what is a digital story and what isn’t. For example, a blockbuster movie is still a movie whether it was originally filmed using actual film or whether it was born digital. As an audience, we experience it the same, though the graphics quality isn’t. We see it in theaters, on DVD, on BluRay, and even online using any number of devices. It’s still a movie, it’s still a story told in moving images. When Alexander further narrows the definition to be stories that are “‘born digital’ and published in a digital format” (p. 15), the waters are only muddied more (something he does acknowledge but leaves open).
I propose that what we are really talking about when we say “digital stories” is technology-mediated stories, ones in which a storyteller uses (any) technology to present or communicate the story to his or her audience. The ways technology has been used to tell stories, and what that looks like, has changed as the technologies themselves has changed. From the birth of moving pictures, to the interactive and text-based computer games and fiction that pre-dated the internet, to the widely diverse digital stories of today, people have told “stories with nearly every new piece of communication technology we invent” (Alexander, 2011, p. 5). (See Alexander’s chapters 2 & 3 for a great overview of the history of digital storytelling and 4-7 for the current state of affairs.) With this definition, for example, we can think of all movies as existing in the same realm of storytelling without the arbitrary divide of saying one is a digital story and one isn’t.
Certainly, the current era of technology-mediated storytelling has facilitated incredible diversity in storytelling forms and in storytellers whose stories may be heard. We can now tell stories in ways that couldn’t have been imagined even 20 years ago. Nearly everyone has access to tools for creating, publishing, distributing, and consuming digital stories — at least within the United States — thanks to the proliferation of smartphones mobile devices as well as the affordability of other technologies for creation and consumption. (See the following Change of Storytelling interview compilation (Center for Storytelling, 2010) and mini-lecture by Zach King (TEDx Talks, 2014, May 15).)
Having said all that, I’m not in charge of naming conventions and the name “digital storytelling” is already out there. Shocking, I know! In order to participate in the conversation about digital storytelling, I will continue to use this established phrase. However, I will use it as if it means the same thing as technology-mediated storytelling as I have described above, with an understanding that people are generally referring to current technologies.
Wading through the materials to prepare myself for this course and for this writing assignment was a journey in understanding story and starting to accept that I am, in fact, a storyteller.
I do have stories.
Not all stories are epic. We tell stories every day.
I tell stories every day. My stories.
And people listen.
Now I just need to practice making and telling stories consciously, on purpose — and give myself permission to explore and try and fail and try again.
Alexander, B. (2011). The new digital storytelling: Creating narratives with new media. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
Center for Storytelling. (2010, July 1). Storytelling part 1: Change of storytelling [Video file]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/12999733
Ditkoff, M. (2015, June 19). How to tell a good story [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mitch-ditkoff/how-to-tell-a-good-story_b_7618534.html
TEDx Talks. (2014, May 4). The storytelling animal: Jonathan Gottschall at TEDxFurmanU [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Vhd0XdedLpY
TEDx Talks. (2014, May 15). Zach King: The storyteller in all of us [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/VMIpxqeoI1c
Briggs, S. (2015, December 5). How storytelling can enhance any learning experience [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/how-storytelling-can-enhance-any-learning-experience/
Future of Storytelling. (2012, October 3). Empathy, neurochemistry, and the dramatic arc: Paul Zak at the Future of Storytelling 2012 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/q1a7tiA1Qzo
Hsu, J. (2008). Secrets of storytelling: Our love for telling tales reveals the workings of the mind. Scientific American Mind, 19(4), 46-51.
Iwancio, P. (2010, June 18). 7 elements for digital storytelling (in 4 minutes!) [Video file]. Retrieved from http://vimeo.com/12672069
Jenkins, H. (2010, August 23). How new media is transforming storytelling: A new video series [Web log post with video files]. Retrieved from http://henryjenkins.org/2010/08/how_new_media_is_transforming.html
TEDx Talks. (2011, August 16). TEDx Gallatin – Amanda D’Annucci – Storytelling, psychology, and neuroscience [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/KKB_JVNGjLY
Zak, P.J. (2013, December 17). How stories change the brain [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_stories_change_brain