The Power Of Story: Tips For Writing Our Lives

Each of us has a story that is our own, and it can define how we see ourselves, how we are seen, and how we act upon the world.  The following article by Jesse Wolf Hardin has been revised for a general audience, from a longer version written for herbalists and appearing in the Winter issue of the journal of folk herbalism practice and culture.  Subscriptions and the 700 page long Annual book can still be had in time for Christmas.

Tips For Writing Our Lives

by Jesse Wolf Hardin
Anima Lifeways and Herbal School –

Part I: The Vital Narrative

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” –Muriel Rukeyser

“Storytelling is our way of making sense of our world, making order out of [imagined] chaos.  When you tell someone something as simple as what you did today, you are recounting your part of a narrative that began with the dawn of humanity.” –Doug Elliott

We tell our stories, so that we don’t forget.

We tell stories, so that those we tell will remember, but so that we remember as well.  Remember who we are, and the why’s of what we do.  What we intend, as well as what we have gone through.  Remember the natural urgings of our hearts and not just the rote recitations of the mind.  Remember what frightens and threatens, and remember to act to protect ourselves and what we love.  It is our stories that keep us from forgetting our hopes and dreams, and that help us remember to realize them, to manifest, to make real and possible.  To remember the plaintive voice of our calling, and remember that we are both worthy and able to respond.  To recount our mistakes, and thereby drive home each one’s poignant lessons.  To remember all that we have accomplished, wonderfully if imperfectly, and remember to feel satisfaction.  Remember what needs still need to be addressed, and what deeds remain to be done.

There will never be any shortage of stories in the latest “modern” age, but increasingly they’re more like vicarious stand-ins for actual experience, sensation, involvement and risk.  We mustn’t forget that story has at its best always set examples, informed, and inspired action on the part of the listener, reader or viewer.  It does not substitute for our necessary real-world quests, but incites us to ourselves live the sort of life that makes for a good, honorable and possibly exciting tale.  Instead, the trend is towards ever greater degrees of vicariousness through the medium of TV “reality shows”, and escapist literary and film tales of superhumans and comic book superheroes, stories that are less likely to empower us than to make us feel small and insubstantial, in need of the direction, control and protection of superior beings or agencies.  We’re treated to theater or television screen characters that do things we assume we could never do, go places we imagine we could never go, face and overcome or resolve challenges we figure we’d never be able to deal with.  Even great and ancient tales meant to stir a well of courage and a lust for adventure in all who hear them, tend to be reduced to externalized entertainment rather than held up as irresistible inspiration and laudable example, partially due to our failure to notice our place, and our responsibility, in the greater story of contemporary existence.

Storyteller Gemmah Hannah

“I will tell you something about stories… They aren’t just entertainment.  Don’t be fooled.  They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.”
–Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

We need to recognize, develop and exercise our stories, for without a strong sense of our own narrative and how it keys into the the bigger picture, we may well forget.  We may forget that extreme or heroic acts on behalf of others, the land or a cause, are for us to accomplish in our own time, and are not simply the province of historic figures and storybook characters.  That gardens and enchanted forests, instructive creatures and medicinal plants are not just things of the past.  That the age of miracles is now, with a individualized role for each and every one of us in nature’s miraculous healing covenant.  That the world truly is fantastic, every bit as much as any fantasy movie or novel.  And you need not concern yourself with toning down your story.  Truth is like a fish in a tank, that grows as its vessel is enlarged.  An absence of drama is not only un-compelling, but a sure sign that one’s tale about themselves is pure fiction.

“No storyteller has ever been able to dream up anything as fantastically unlikely as what really does happen in this mad Universe.”   –Robert A. Heinlein, Lazarus Long

“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”     –C.S. Lewis

The problem is, that without a story to call our own, we may forget to remember.

Moreover, if we do not take responsibility for the content and telling of our individual and collective story, it will surely and ingloriously be shaped for us.  Events will mold us and the tale of our lives, without either prediction or preparation.  Authorities outside ourselves will decide our value, convention will decide our styles, and circumstances decide our roles.  If we do not actively help write and then communicate, we can easily fall into the template set out like a trap for us, a template of fear and self doubt, boring conformity and contrived normalcy, acquiescence and obedience, moderation and mediocrity.

It is for us, whoever we are, to author, embody, grow and tell our story.

Then whenever anybody tries to write you off, you just grab their attention (by the collar if necessary) and tell ‘em, “Hey, give me that pen!”

The Story of Story

“The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.” —Harold Goddard

“If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories you may be lost in life.” —Siberian Elder

Story is at the very heart of human existence, defining, communicating and preserving cumulative experience, meaning and lesson.  Stories are, near as I can tell, the most effective way that we people have ever made sense of ourselves and our world.

The human mind has evolved to be naturally receptive to narratives, and to learn information best through illustrative stories.  In the spontaneous stories that children act out in their play, we witness them naturally expressing aspects of who they believe themselves to be and what they hope to become, and often within the context of a behavioral code, personalized morality, or even code of honor.  This is because story provides us a framework not only for identity but for motivation, direction and manifestation as well.

Without an interconnective storyline, life can seem like only a sequence of dimly related events and dynamics, offering the psyche no place to tether, root and grow from.  But with the development of an overall story that we’re an integral and irreplaceable part of, events past and present meld in the moment into a whole and active gestalt, a cognitive leap and unified understanding that affords clarity and stability/balance within a whirlwind of both pleasant and unpleasant experience.  In a society that feeds separativeness and disconnection – that paints us a world where all things seem isolated, temporal and amenable, discontinuous and subject to redefinition or reconfiguration – story is a way of firmly planting ourselves not only in the security of a specific physical and geographic location, but also in a bed of meaning and mission, and in sequence of events leading from and to somewhere, to one condition or outcome after another: what we could call our personal “story arc”.
Telling stories is as elemental as breathing and even more definitively human, for while breathing keeps us alive, it is the richness and significance of our story that can make our finite mortal years feel truly worth living.

And, we must add, worth sharing.

Aristotle says in “Poetics” that storytelling is what gives us a shareable world, connecting and identifying with others through an exchange of subjective tellings.  When entering a new relationship, we describe our selves and our current conditions in the light of future anticipations and valued memories, of an ontological mythos and sense of association, purpose or mission.
In many once land-based cultures, in fact, it is still not uncommon to hear someone ask “What’s your story?” upon meeting for the first time.  Questions such as “How are you?” or “What’s going on?” are naturally preceded by one’s first finding out who and what this other person is that they’ve encountered.  “What’s your name?” isn’t considered nearly as important as “What’s your game?”  The respondent’s introductory story may be long or short depending on the teller and time, but it will in most cases include the place where one calls home, what group or association they belong to or represent, and what they do.  This doing may mean their trade, such as being a woodworker or teacher, or the mission to which they’ve give themselves most passionately or immediately: “I doctor the village” or “I seek the healing yellow root”.

Everyone, from childhood on, is expected to be aware of and able to speak of their story.  It must include, like a fable in a book, an evocation of place and situation (which writers call “setting”), of self (“character”), purpose and challenge or conflict (“plot”), and projected result or resolution (“denouement”) of what’s has happened in their lives and what they are intent on doing.  Their stories describe not only where they come from but where they are going, in other words, their current position within a personal timeline of past and future, on the story arc of an already meaningful and eventful existence.

“Storytellers have as profound a purpose as any who are charged to guide and transform human lives.  I knew it as an ancient discipline and vocation to which everyone is called.”
–Nancy Mellon, The Art of Storytelling

One who proves particularly adept at telling not only her own personal tale, but also the tales of her association or tribe, are featured and feted as honored “storytellers,” the acknowledged keepers of oral history and communicators of the group’s core characteristics, values and priorities.  They are the unofficial teachers, informally appointed through popular acclamation because of the skill and wisdom they evince, and because of this, the most influential sources.  The best instructors and leaders, motivators and singer/songwriters, care givers and herbalists are often also the most effective storytellers… and are nearly always at least aware of – and fully inhabiting – their own powerful story-lines.  What’s more, they are often familiar with the stories of the people in their audience, speaking to their known individual experiences as well as collective sensibilities.  It is storytelling’s subjective and highly personalized dimension that prevents movies and books from effectively taking its place.  Folklorist and wildcrafter Doug Elliott reminds us of an anecdote, wherein someone decides to donate a TV to a so-called undeveloped African village.  For a while, the entire village gathered around the TV, but after a while their interest waned and they went back to hanging out with the village storyteller in the evenings.  One of them was asked, ‘Why did you go back to listening to the storyteller; doesn’t the TV know more stories than the storyteller?’ The reply was ‘Yes, the TV knows more stories, but the storyteller knows us.’

Those stories which retain their significance from person to person, situation to situation, generation to generation, that meet the test of time by continuing to be found both subjectively verifiable and practically employable – are what we call “folklore.”

Part II:


“The story was the bushman’s most sacred possession.  These people knew what we do not; that without a story you have not got a nation, or culture, or civilization.  Without a story of your own, you haven’t got a life of your own.” —Laurens Van der Post

It is stories that shape our existence as much as any actual condition or happening, the subjective, honest or dishonest, contextual telling and retelling that colors the perception and programs the responses of us and those we interact with or are subject to.  These tales include especially the stories told about us, those we tell to and about our selves, and those we truly represent, wholly inhabit, live and express.

The Stories Told About Us

“Stories are the single most powerful weapon in an arsenal.” —Howard Gardner, Harvard University

“People take on the shapes of the songs and the stories that surround them, especially if they don’t have their own song.”
-Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys

To the direct degree that we fail to develop, brand and communicate our story and the story of our group, it will by default end up framed and determined by commentators or authorities from outside.  Being less informed about us, our motivations, intent and methods, their tales will consist almost entirely of their impressions of our appearance and assessments of any readily visible results.  Even these proclamations will be distorted by their existing stereotypes, prejudices and presumptions.  And the less intimate and involved they are with us or our group, the greater and possibly more harmful their spin on things will be.  This is what the call “hanging a jacket” on someone, on the streets.  Women were considered and treated as inferior and ill equipped, before redefining themselves and publicly pushing forth a new narrative highlighting their strengths and abilities.

“The answer is always in the entire story, not a piece of it.” —Jim Harrison

Other’s stories about us personally can be dismissive, literally “writing us off”, unrealistically praiseful or unfairly critical, but in almost all cases will be an unbalanced telling.  Even if the appraisals are not mean spirited, they do us a disservice by being so awfully incomplete, poorly focused and un-nuanced.  You are never just what is thought and said about you.  You have gifts and skills, intentions and dreams that few may recognize if you haven’t wholly and audibly expressed your self and your story.  No description of a scientist or medical doctor is accurate without mention of her feelings and concerns, insights and sensibilities, and a portrayal of even the most informal or alternative herbalist will often need to include a reference to their careful keying out of new plant discoveries, and studious attention to clinical research and its continually revised conclusions.

Government authorities, belittling fathers, bitter grade school teachers, advertising executives out to get our money, and fear mongering Fox News commentators are all examples of external voices who are very, very good at framing, spinning and delivering a convincing narrative.  It is up to you, and to us, to get out the rest of the story…
…the whole story.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“Those times of depression tell you that it’s either time to get out of the story you’re in and move into a new story, or that you’re in the right story but there’s some piece of it you are not living out.” — Carol S. Pearson

The stories others tell about us, can yoke us to an unjust or at least rigid characterization that affects how people view us upon first meeting.  Similarly, narrow or unjust characterizations of a group can result in reduced participation in its work and events, can make accomplishing its goals more difficult, and can even be the narrative that paves the way for the restricting or outlawing of a group or its practices.

Even more dangerous, however, are those untruths or unbalanced tellings that we spin for ourselves.

This is so whether the story is about us specifically, or about some element of our lives.  And whether we craft the tale, or merely repeat the untruths impressed upon us by our parents or peers.  In the former case, we may be unconsciously misshaping reality as part of our denial of or retreat from a traumatic experience, or we may be consciously protecting ourselves by telling a tough story when we really feel vulnerable.  In the latter, we have adopted a story refrain that was impressed or even pounded into us.  This can be as simple as a dishonest tale about a family’s race or origins, or as complex as a set of values and preconditions for relating to anyone or anything.  Or as insidious as a parent impressing with their shows of disappointment just how worthless their kid is.  Or as terrible as a sexually abusive parent, teacher or priest who instills in their victim the lifelong narrative that it was really theirs – the abused’s – fault for what happened.

Regardless of our stories’ veracity, source or source material, there are almost always deep ramifications and both predictable and unforeseen consequences to the particular narratives we construct or adopt, identify with and often attach to.
This applies not only to our narratives about our selves, but also to those that are about the people and elements around us.  For example, if we were to tell ourselves that nature is dangerous, that fitting-in is primary and intrusive government a necessary evil, we will be more likely to contribute to a reality that is wholly manmade, conformist and controlled.  We will welcome restrictions on our liberties for the promise of security, and likely be afraid to leave the security of the “shire” to chance some great adventure or quest.  We will surely be hesitant to be and express our real and whole selves, out of concern that we might be seen as different and therefore excluded from the fold.  We will probably fail to find instruction and inspiration in the natural world, while supporting endless development of wildlands, spraying toxic herbicides on tightly crew-cutted lawns, and mistrusting herbal remedies. But if we were to tell a story of rebellious heroes that buck the norm, embark on adventures and attempt the seemingly impossible, we would surely come to take risks on behalf of our passion and purpose.  If we were to tell of a nature that is inspirited and instructive, filled with sentient green beings whose medicinal properties can aid us, then we would just as assuredly find ways to actively oppose infringements on the last wild and biodiverse places, let our lawns grow or even dedicate our yards to reintroducing native species, and look to the green ones as accomplices to and agents of our healing of ourselves, other people and this planet we are integral to.  In telling ourselves a story of liberty and response-ability, individuality and community, connection and healing, empowerment and action, we begin to fashion for ourselves and all things a differently conceived world.
If the story we tell ourselves is that we’re inadequate or inconsequential, it makes it less likely that we’ll attempt the difficult tasks and changes that might be needed.  If the character that we paint of ourselves is held to be unworthy for any either real or delusional reason, we probably won’t do the things we want because we won’t think we deserve the experience, and for the same reason, we will have a harder time believing or relishing any credit, compliments, accomplishments or rewards.  But when our story focuses on our real selves and intrinsic worth,  – on our genuine character, certain gifts, proven skills, honest needs, sure potential, heartful goals and most insistent calling – the we can move forward, and manifest… just as we express.

The Story We Inhabit, Fulfill & Express

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.” –Lewis Carrol, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

No one is truly on the sidelines.  None is invisible.  There’s no one who isn’t a participant and thus co-creator of this reality and world.  It is so important, then, that we present what we want seen, tell of our selves and what needs telling, notice our effects, and act to best effect.  That we accept we have the response-ability to consciously and purposefully contribute to that co-creation through the story we truly inhabit, fulfill through the living of it, and express to all who will hear.

Our awareness of, taking responsibility for, learning from and sharing of our story can do the following:

•Honestly describe and define ourselves, for our own self perception as well as that of others
Frame, illustrate, color, represent and help to determine the course and flavor of our lives
•Contribute to the full expression of our full selves, and the most honest as well as characteristic expression of our group
•Incessantly illuminate and explore relevant ramifications and consequence, quandaries and questions
Provide us a means for a consciously and purposefully “shareable world”
•Contribute to a cultural and political narrative/mythology, independent of – or even in opposition to – the  narrative of the dominant paradigm
•Contribute to a needed mythos of personal and planetary health, of personal and earthen mission, in which we can each play a significant, exemplary or even heroic role

“Once upon a time there was what there was, and if nothing had happened there would be nothing to tell.”
–Charles de Lint, Dreams Underfoot

Storyteller Clare Murphy

Our story can be communicated orally:
•In installments, beginning with the most definitive and salient parts first.
•In a single telling at special dedicated time, for the benefit of someone that clearly interested.
•Not just at first meeting someone, but at every timely opportunity as you build mutual understanding and affinity.

Oral Storytelling Tips:

•Tell what is important to you, and it will be what you most want to share.
•Don’t think you need to be a great orator to vocalize your story.
•A story is just a conversation, in which the telling is purposeful and the topics significant and relevant.
•Besides live storytelling, record your oral story on whatever medium, for your own reference as well as to share with others.
•People will hear you best, if you also demonstrate a sincere interest in their own personal stories.
•You don’t have to be the obvious subject of the story, if your approach to to the subjects that matter to you demonstrates your character, values, interests, temperament, experiences and effects, intentions or aims.
•Trust the power of your true story, rather than relying on embellishment.
•Speak conversationally in your normal voice and timbre.
•Don’t worry about dramatizing, as your voice will naturally reflect the feelings and degrees of excitement that each portion of the story bring out.
•Shorten your story and speak more concisely when those listening are in danger of distraction or disinterest.
•Extend and flesh out your tale when they are paying attention and appear to want more.
•The storyteller’s success is not a matter of how well folks are entertained, but how much they really heard and any effects it may have on them.

Our story can also be communicated through writing:

•In installments focused on various aspects, as related topics or question arise in conversation.
•In a single exposition.
In the form of:
•Detailed letters and emails.
•Letters to the editor.
•Blog posts about past or ongoing parts of your life, that readers will find them engaging and useful.
•Hand written memoirs with photographs such as you might want to hand down to your children.
•A full autobiography, regardless of any possible literary merits.

Tips for Written Storytelling:

•Work on your ability to write clearly and powerfully.
•Do not wait until you are happy with your writing ability, before starting to write your story.
•An essay or article is just a story recorded in ink, don’t let writing intimidate you.
•Relax.  Spoken words may not be able to be taken back, but until you send it out, your written story can be reexamined and fact checked, adjusted and improved, expanded or erased.
•As with an oral story, written storytelling only differs from relaxed conversation in terms of its relevance, significance, focus and depth.
•Again, you don’t have to be the obvious subject of the story.  You share the story of your self when you write personally (not objectively) about any of the things in life that most matter to you.

There are elements of every person’s story in yours, which is what makes it possible for someone you don’t know to relate to it, but it is in another way your story and yours alone, exactly like no one’s story before you.  Our individual stories are like fingerprints, in that they are specifically identified with us… and because no two are ever exactly alike.

The fundamental elements of all our stories, no matter how unique, are character, intention, action/conflict, experience and effect/result.
The central character of your story is certainly you, including your characteristics… such as personality, appearance, temperament, attitude, energetics and constitution, interests, beliefs and concerns, values and priorities, propensities and passions.  This authentic, self-aware you sets intentions and goals according to your character values.  Action to actualize your intent, resolve conflicts and move towards your goals, includes personal subjective experience from which you can learn and strengthen, precipitating both intended and unintended effects and results.  In literary terms, action and conflict is the buildup leading to conclusion.  To the contrary, in our real life stories, each incidence of resolution sets the stage for the further efforts and events of a successive chapter, and our deaths are always the closest thing that we have to a final scene.

“Death is the sanction of everything the story-teller can tell.  He has borrowed his authority from death.” –Walter Benjamin

Our work, then, is to recognize, develop, brand and communicate our authentic, purposeful story.  We first need to recognize what is real and definite in and about us and our narrative, and what is artifice or illusion.  We next need to develop our tale and our character, with study and application, through the clarifying of our intent and missions, and through the conflicts we face in actualizing our intentions and manifesting our successive aims and goals.  And we want to brand our story with our unique, indelible mark, with the ways we are different as well as connected and related, with the touch of our non-replicable fire and spirit.

•Don’t let others write or delimit your story,  it is for you to author… and to live.

•Don’t let others determine how your story is told to the world, preempt or counterbalance with your own
engaging exposition.

•Don’t get trapped in one mood, chapter or scene of your story.

•It is the challenges, obstacles and surprises that forge you, as the main character of your story.

•Avoid stereotypes, which are never wholly accurate and seldom compelling.

•Never let story and fiction or projection begin to take the place of actual experiencing and doing.

•Realize that your path through your story is every bit as potentially magical and revealing as any piece of fiction, and that you are as able – as any realistically portrayed character – of significant feats, quests, discoveries, assisted healings and other meaningful acts of service.  And yes, of deep rewards.

“Life itself is the most wonderful fairytale of all.” —Hans Christian Andersen

Tell the story of your life, remembering that every story should be made worthwhile.  Tell your story as completely as you can, while remembering that no story is ever complete.  Plant your story in the soil of truth, in the very real world.  Feed and grow it, then spread its seeds of nourishment, meaning and healing.  Tell it any damn way you want… but keep moving as you recount.

Tell your story walkin’.

“This part is my part of the movie, now let’s hear yours.” –Jack Kerouac, Tristessa

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