The art of Storytelling: What is your story?
2020-09-17 | By Jacqueline Pemberton
There has never been a better time to release your inner story.
With Covid-19 continuing to transform our lives in ways we never could have imagined back in the pre-pandemic world, many of us might be feeling more lonely, anxious and isolated than ever. We may feel detached and disconnected, so perhaps the soothing art of storytelling, whether written or spoken, can help us cope, heal and reconnect. But what exactly is storytelling?
Ever since we sat around a campfire millennia ago, humans have been hardwired for storytelling. Told in small gatherings, these first stories were by their very nature intimate, interactive, and empathetic. Through Shakespeare to Snapchat, storytelling has come a long way, but in its many forms–oral, written, visual, digital-interactive–it is still simply the art of telling stories.
According to Sahand Sahebdivani, a modern-day storyteller, musician, and co-founder of Mezrab, a popular storytelling, cultural centre and expat hangout in Amsterdam, “Storytelling is an art form and even though many things can be storytelling one of the common links is how accessible it is to an audience and how it doesn’t have a fourth wall. In many art forms you have an audience, such as with theatre, whereas with storytelling you are in direct communication with the audience.”
Sahebdivani, who arrived in the Netherlands in the eighties as a refugee with his Iranian parents, is doing much to keep this underappreciated art form alive by making it more accessible to a modern-day audience. He says he never questioned becoming a storyteller, “For me, it was intrinsic, but I would say it’s because my father is an incredible storyteller and he was passing down stories he heard in his family. I thought it was such an incredible treasure he gave me, that I don’t want to be the person who stops the stories. It was a kind of calling.”
Between two worlds
The Mezrab (house of stories) is a unique creative space, open to everyone, regardless of age, sex or nationality to come together in a warm, friendly and personal setting, to share stories, play music, dance, and/or participate in open mic (comedy) nights. Set up by Sahebdivani in early 2004 in his living room at the time–complete with sofa, cushions, and soup served up by his mother (who, along with his father, remain involved to this day)–the Mezrab still retains much of its charm. Though now, it also streams to the rest of the world via Facebook as Mezrab TV.
Yet, while Sahebdivani is happy to offer this new platform, he says he misses the connectedness of the physical setting, “I need to be able to look the audience in the eye.”
All in the same boat
Mezrab offers a safe sanctuary for internationals, students, refugees, and expats alike, where they can–indeed, are encouraged to–be their true authentic self and celebrate their cultural heritage.
“One thing I notice in the Netherlands,” Sahebdivani says “is that a lot of internationals find it difficult to find a social network. For many people who come to my story nights, it is where their social life in the Netherlands started, because suddenly you are in a room full of people who are all in the same boat.”
According to Sahebdivani, many have an outsider’s perspective to convey, “Most people in this situation might have an issue with having more than one ‘identity’ or they’ve kind of ‘gone beyond identity.’”
Mieke Eerkens is a Dutch-American writer and writing lecturer, whose book All Ships Follow Me: A Family Memoir of War Across Three Continents goes on a journey through her heritage, in her quest for identity.
She says, “reading about someone else who has gone through what I have, and writing my own narrative with the knowledge that there are others out there who may have experienced the same, stimulates a sense of community. This is especially important for expats who have left their home communities and familiarity behind. Writing is an important way to process our experiences and put them into a context we choose and form.”
Write here write now
Although writers often have the reputation of being somewhat introverted, solitary creatures, they can benefit from joining a writing group. Especially now when social isolation is so acute, being exposed to other writers’ creative ideas and feedback can be stimulating. Moreover, joining a group helps both experienced and new writers find their storytelling voice and increases confidence. While some writing groups are meeting up again in a physical setting, many are still connecting virtually.
The power of writing groups
Writing coach Hannah Behrens is a member of the ACCESS Training Network (ATN) and founder of Weeds & Wilderness, a creative writing group devoted to helping artists and writers break through self-doubt and create their best work. She says that during these times of uncertainty any kind of creativity can help keep us balanced within ourselves and connected socially. “Art gives us hope and gives us a method of connecting with others. Joining an artistic online social group–whether it’s writing or music or dancing or book discussions helps to get us out of the feeling of isolation and into a mode of connecting with others.”
While Behrens has had to decrease both her on- and offline workshops, she plans to have her writing group running again in September.
Spoken word poetry is performed in front of a live audience, and harks back to the oral tradition of storytelling. Honest, open, and engaging, performers openly discuss a number of issues, which can be liberating and empowering.
Word Up is a non-profit organisation that celebrates and inspires self-expression through spoken word poetry and related musical and performance expression in order to promote social inclusion and diversity. They regularly hold writing workshops, and have a podcast that “focusses on the people behind the art form and their worldly perspectives.” Many of their workshops and events are available online.
“Creative expression is a beautiful way to connect, meet new people, and celebrate togetherness and inclusion. To witness creatives share their stories, pieces, and visions, brings us all closer together. At Word Up, we only provide content in English since we notice that our community is very international, cosmopolitan, and diverse,” says Evelina Kvartūnaitė, the organisation’s founder.
“Not just for writers but probably for all, the Covid-19 crisis has brought up a lot of different things to the surface–certainly anxiety, and loneliness and so on, but it has also brought about a more insightful reflection causing us to re-evaluate what is important in life,” she adds.
Storytelling as stand-up comedy
Stand-up comedy and improvisation also use storytelling techniques, and perhaps there is nothing like comedy to help us make sense of it all. Laughter is the best medicine! “Like we say at Boom Chicago: Life is better when you laugh. Comedy unites, holds a mirror in front of people and it relaxes the highly tense situation we are in,” says Boom Chicago’s CEO, Saskia Maas.
Boom Chicago is a well-known English language comedy venue in Amsterdam that stages comedy performances, and offers comedy improvisation, and writing workshops. While they have had to move much of their operations online, they currently have live shows with ‘safe seating’, and are still conducting physical workshops.
“We started again in June. Our theatre has a lot of space to do classes while maintaining the required one-and-a-half metre. We do offer some digital writing classes as well, but it is good to see happy faces in our building again.” Maas says. “Comedy makes you look at yourself in different ways. Laughing establishes a much-needed bond between people and it is good not to take ourselves too seriously all the time.”
Storytelling has always been a way to bring people together, intrinsic to our human condition, and something we have always fallen back on during difficult times. Even in this era of separation, when traditional ways of meeting might be difficult, it is reassuring that storytellers are finding ways to come together to share each other’s stories.
As Behrens says, “Any form of creative activity that helps us makes sense of the craziness of the world at this time can be useful. Art helps to process emotions and transform inner and outer chaos into something beautiful.”
If you would like to explore some Arts within The Netherlands, you can read more about Street Arts: Urban Identity
About the author
Jacqueline Pemberton is a British-Australian freelance writer based in Ubbergen. She has an M.A. in Writing from Swinburne University and enjoys writing screenplays, drawing, and playing guitar in her free time.