Creating Community Through Storytelling

By Christopher Maier, M .A.

People are starving for something that was meant to pass between them but is not presently passing. Call it a vibration if you like, or attention, or love. —Jacob Needleman

I was in a university theater, and a man on a bare stage was telling stories. I was weeping quietly as I listened. For years, decades actually, I couldn’t really explain to myself why. The stories were not sad. Often I laughed as well and even then, the tears flowed. I did discover that a similar response would happen at other events called “storytelling,” so I went to such events (wearing sunglasses) and continued to wonder at the depth of my response. My language offered me the phrase “My heart is being touched” as its attempt at an explanation. But why? How did it happen? Why did it feel so essential and nurturing even as tears flowed down my cheeks?

There is so little we know for certain. I’m tempted to trumpet out a proud declaration that storytelling is The One Best Way to the Water of Communal Life – that water of which merely a drop on your lips will awaken each and all to a consciousness of the I-That-Is-We. I would love to know that storytelling will be the Way that will salve the fear and isolation rife in the epidemic of lone individualism from which my country suffers. When I was younger, I allowed myself such messianic certainty, but now I am older. I have examined the evidence and found contradictions and complications in that heady experience that continue to occur, both at large storytelling festivals and in tiny circles of story sharing. Ethnographer Victor Turner coined the term communitas to define the deep renewal of a sense of community amongst people. [Sobol] I feel obliged to integrate these qualifications into my song of praise, even as I draw daily upon the continuing resonance of that core ft experience to motivate and hearten I’m to do the work of crafting and 33k telling healing stories.

Every time I tell a story, I am putting out a call to community.  A story presumes a community of listeners who will recognize some experience that they have lived or can imagine living in the narrative. It is a call and response (what in Haitian storytelling is known as a Crick – Crack) where the teller tosses out a community-gathering, a community-presuming device, in other words a story, in the hope that the group of listeners will respond by becoming “we.” To the extent that a “we, ,responds, this means that there is amongst the sea of “I”s sufficient shared assent to the virtual experience of the story that each relaxes the contraction of their I-ness to “we” themselves within the shared world of this story.

So yes, storytelling builds community, or at least helps the process when the conditions are right over time.  NO one can guarantee exactly what will be the effect with any one telling of any one story by any particular teller with any particular listener, but storytelling is an essential activity by which community grows.

Perhaps one reason I feel so compelled to qualify my conviction is that there is so little we can strap down and photograph regarding that which flows amongst us in a moment of joint beholding of story, so little we can measure and verify. Yet we still need each other, and thirst for that sense of belonging as we approach the Other across a vast high plain with low shrubs, an expansive opening between us which we attempt to navigate with plot lines. Storytelling is a process of meaning-making that takes apparently meandering pathways to get directly to the heart of the act – the approach to an Other. “Yes,” writes Wittgenstein in one of his pithy remarks about the philosophy of language, “Meaning something is like going up to someone.” (135). Wittgenstein offers not a noun in which to contain the mystery of meaning but a verb, a verb blurred by a simile: Meaning is like the action of approaching someone, one who is not oneself, an Other (what I want to stress by capitalizing the term). Meaning is not contained within words like gold within old Spanish coins, but meaning arises in the approach of one person to an Other – a person, A landscape, a stray cat. Meaning is an emergent property of the intersection of systems. Like sweetness arising in the systemic coming together of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules to form simple sucrose, meaning arises in a triadic coming together of teller, listener, and tale. (And it is more complex than that simple triangular model suggests; but that will come later.) Each can be seen as meaningful unto itself, dissimilar from carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, none of which contains the quality of sweetness within itself. Still, it is in the act of approaching an Other that meaning is made new. Each of us mimics this act of approach in our inner ruminations: we tell ourselves stories by playing out games of otherness within ourselves. Yet it is when I am approaching that which is truly beyond me, in the sacred realm that Martin Buber called “The Between” that meaning is most clearly created anew. [Friedman p. 121]

Let me specify what I mean by storytelling, by community, and, to begin with, the key issues I believe we need to consider in examining how the two intersect. The issues can be classified as theoretical, ethical, and pragmatic, though none of these areas are discrete. We need to have a theoretical map of the process by which storytelling builds community sufficiently precise so that we can guide our practice, correcting our course when we are missing the intended destination. One way we can go astray is by ethical insensitivity. The very power that makes storytelling a potent cultural tool opens the possibility of abuse of this power. In a storytelling performance aimed at creating community, lines of connection are attempted among a variety of cultural worlds: the cultural homes of the story, of the teller, and of the variety of listeners one is attempting to gather into a comprehending “we.” Cultural appropriation, exaggeration of or denial of differences amongst these worlds, are some of the missteps one can unwittingly make in one’s enthusiasm for fomenting unity via storytelling. [Conquergood p. 5] Beyond the ethical issues, there are the many pragmatic challenges faced by one attempting to apply storytelling to projects of community building. To at least survey these challenges, I will offer some guidance derived from the field experience of myself and other applied storytellers.

The Heart of Connection

While every cultural expression from cave painting to video games can be considered beneath the conceptual lens of “storytelling,” here I am focusing the term on the unmediated sharing of narratives from articulators-to-listeners. (I would say “speakers-to-listeners” except that I have witnessed powerful storytelling done without a vocalized word by “tellers” using mime, gesture, and sign language.) By unmediated I mean with nothing (at least nothing material) between the bodies that meet in this activity, not even a podium with notes or an open book. There is something about that directness of contact that is key to the power of stories to build community. By community I am referring here to an experience of belonging to a collective in which I find identity even as it extends beyond my individual personhood. Not that as a concept but as a lived experience.

While I certainly don’t want to devalue the transformative power of live reading of stories (or poetry, as for this discussion I don’t see the need to distinguish the genres), there seems to be an inverse relationship between the amount of attention that a teller gives to a fixed text and the depth of contact that is experienced by listeners. While this is most apparent in cases where the “teller” is entirely focused on a printed text (and so becomes a “reader”), it is more subtly apparent when tellers give a predominant share of their attention to an inner, memorized text, such that listeners can tell that the irises vaguely pointed in their direction are not really available to make contact. Somehow we listeners can tell when our own presence has diminished in importance to the teller; we have been upstaged, as it were, by the “teller’s” commitment to the text. Conversely, I have heard “readers” (William Stafford and Robert Bly quickly come to mind) whose readings felt more like tellings, in that most of the attention of the “reader “was focused on his/her relationship to the listener. So while I have defined a focus for the term “storytelling” – the paradigm of unmediated contact, an approach of self to other via the story – I have deliberately not defined an outer, exclusive boundary to delimit what should not be included.

The fact that such subtle “reading” of another’s eye-contact is possible strikes me as amazing testimony to how critical true emotional contact is to the vitality and full-actualization of our species. To comprehend this claim, I need to offer a brief synopsis of the triune brain theory developed by Dr. Paul MacLean, which showed that functionally and structurally it is useful to understand the human brain as actually three brains, the later two wrapping around, augmenting and modifying an earlier developed brain structure. The innermost brainstem is referred to as the reptilian brain (as it consists of those brain structures that are similar to those found in reptiles) which is surround by the mid- or limbic brain which is what is shared with all other mammals. Our beloved neocortex (structures we share with the great apes and some marine mammals), while allowing all the intricate symbolic processing needed to read this essay, is still intricately linked and dependent upon the earlier two brains.

It is the mid- or limbic brain that does the lion’s share of relational and emotional processing. It is that brain that is dominant in the crucial processes of attachment between dependent infant and primary caregivers, according to Daniel Siegel in his book, The Developing Mind. When the regular needy cries (for food, touch, movement and later, acceptance, affection, admiration) are not regularly responded to, the child that survives develops the rest of its psychological capacities on top of a shaky foundation riddled with defensive patterns that attempt to contract away from feeling the pain of an untrustworthy world. It is also within the limbic brain that the shared ground of empathy is founded. By means of limbic matching, limbic regulation, and limbic revision, the “talking cure” of psychotherapy is possible, as discussed in Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon’s A General Theory of Love. The midbrain of the client connects with the mid-brain of the psychotherapist to regulate itself and ultimately to revise its core schémas about what rules will govern the individual’s relations with self, with others, and with life itself.

What leads me to realize the centrality of relational skills to storytelling was a result of my self-directed apprenticeship in storytelling. It was after I had achieved some facility with the many craftual issues of writing and performing that I realized there was still another, more subtle level of craft I needed to develop. This insight came when I noticed how much change there was between the story that was shaped on my word-processor (the written story), the story that was formed by me when I rehearsed it aloud on my feet (the oral story), and the story that developed after performing it repeatedly for and with audiences. That last we might call the relational story, because it consisted of the knowledge of creating and modifying three relationships such that they are kept vital and honest. The first two relations I had suspected and even had occasionally heard tellers mention: the relationship of teller to listener, and the relation of teller to story. The third relation was the surprise – the relationship of the persona of the storyteller to the multiple truths of the storyteller’s being. Only by keeping all three of these relationships vital and honest am I able to do truthful storytelling.

When I have told stories to children and adolescents in a psychiatric ward, I have most tangibly experienced the linking between their mid-brain and my own. I feel their tentative trying on of a different set of relationships with an Other (me), themselves, and the world. They link to my set of relations with an Other (them), myself, and the world, and they do so through taking in my tones of voice and my facial expressions. They are eyeing me to see if I am a reliable caregiver to whom to attach. As evidence, they note not only how I relate to them, but also how I relate to the characters and the world of the story and how I relate to my selves. Yes, it’s plural because there are so many selves beyond my public storytelling persona that I relate to when I am telling. When I take on the perspective of a frightened youth or a harsh adult in a story, how truthfully do I do so? The truthfulness comes when I have discovered how to own each character as belonging to some possibility within me. I feel my listeners watching and listening for subtle signs of in authenticity, and for all the nuanced indications of relational posturing. When what they find feels authentic, they take the risky leap of tentatively and momentarily trying on a different set of relational lenses through which to make meaning of their experience.

Experiences such as those, supported by my study of the recent research on the neurological basis of attachment and emotional intelligence (as investigated in A General Theory of Love, and also in Daniel Siegel’s The Developing Mind), have led me to enrich and expand the model I use to comprehend how storytelling builds community. I used to think it was the story alone which was the common meeting ground upon which strangers—listeners and tellers—made contact. But that model was inadequate to explain the actual skills it took to make such contact occur and to make sense of the subtle gradations of contact that are significant in comprehending how and why storytelling can build community. I have modified the basic triadic model of storyteller, story, and listener,  extending it beyond the two- dimensional plane in which it is usually conceived.

However, before turning to my new model, I want to point out something I had long overlooked in the old model. While the “standard” triangular diagram directs us to see storyteller and listener meeting via the story, we should not overlook the “direct route” (from teller to listener) without the “stop” in story. That line of connections suggests the importance of interpersonal contact above, below, and beyond the meeting in the story, through the shared presence of teller and listener in the living space of storytelling. It also can remind us how the current paradigm of contact as represented by professional platform storytellers is exceptional in the scarcity of contact listeners have with the tellers beyond the time of telling. While the storyteller in some sense only has a story to the extent that she is a stranger to us, and so has stories we haven’t already heard (though that may be because we are the ones “new to town”), even with the itinerant storyteller there traditionally would be a series of social exchanges – e.g. trading with a peddler, sharing of a meal, or participating in a shared task – prior to and building anticipation for the hoped for sharing of a tale.

This extra-textual relationship between teller and listener goes on as well during the actual telling. Tellers quickly learn that they need to tend at least as much to the time of the telling as to the time of the told. It is by their attending to the present shared with listeners that some of the more memorable and delightful moments of storytelling emerge. An unexpected event occurs – a “listener” speaks up, a camera flashes, an announcement comes over the P.A. system in the school auditorium in the midst of a story performance. Or even a somewhat expected though distracting event occurs – the train whistle blows listeners’ hair back in a tent during the National Storytelling Festival. It is the teller’s fresh response to the present event, the absurd and yet possible inclusion of it in the time and the world of the told, that grabs listeners’ attention and their appreciation disproportionately. Sixty minutes of storytelling, and yet the moments I have seen most relished by listeners and shared with friends in the post-performance savoring are often those moments which only happened that time, the time that we were there. Such moments capture the rare joy of knowing that our presence mattered. And so we marvel even more at the capacity of those tellers who never abandon us even as they are able to take us away to another world.

Revising the World: A Wider View of What the Teller and Listener Bring

I became conscious of the need for an expanded view of what the teller and the listener bring to the event of storytelling through my intimate tellings to small groups in a psychiatric day- treatment program for children and adolescent. I’ve since realized this more expanded view – one that asks us to widen and deepen our understanding of what happens in the telling and listening of a story – happens in any communication event that addresses the heart. Both teller and listener bring with them their relations with self, other, and world. In the meeting site of the story telling, these two triangles of relations approach and, as it were, sniff each other, twisting and adjusting to see how they can clasp each other. It is in that dynamic dance of finding a way of clasping another’s set of relational postures that I imagine the work of community-building is effected. To the extent that the clasping occurs, a shared world is enacted that projects its pattern down upon the lived world that the two imagine they share. Thus the world can be revised so that teller and listener can leave with more of a shared world than that which they arrived within.

I have simplified the relations to those three – self, other, and world – in part because even that is tricky to convey, but each of these three sets of relation can certainly be examined more closely to reveal all sorts of further possible divisions and additions. I will offer two examples of how this model can be augmented: first one from the teller’s set of relations and then one from the listener’s. A teller relates to the world of the story by bringing to it his relations to the consensual world he assumes is shared with listeners. The world he projects into the story is established on his relations to the extra-textual world. That extra-textual world includes how the teller relates to the cultural home(s) of the story. Naturally the more a teller knows of the culture within which the tale has been living (as also the cultural world in which his listeners have been living), the more he can bring that knowledge to inform his telling of the tale.

All knowledge has limits, and the more we find ourselves Hermes-like carrying tales between cultural worlds, the more our telling must include not only our knowledge but our ignorance. By no means is this a call to limit our tales to what we know. A primary task of mythos is to stretch our quest for meaning out beyond the known. How else do new worlds begin to be conceived? However, this is done with integrity by acknowledging where our dreams claim no ground in consensual knowledge. The teller’s respect for both a tale’s cultural past, as well as the courage he musters in venturing the tale into the present as a proposal for the future, shape the ethical relations that are manifested to the sensitive listener.

I also see the listener arriving to the meeting with tale and teller with her various sets of relations to self, other, and world. What constitutes a listener’s relations to self certainly includes all her self-concepts and her self- judgments about her own inner cast of characters – both those imaginable and those cast out of imagination. But beyond those relations to herself as first-person singular are the relations a listener has to herself as part of various first person plurals 一 her self-concept as a member of different we’s (e.g. mothers, or jovial people who laugh loudly!). How she relates to her various collective identities contributes a significant part to her availability to participate as a member of a storytelling audience.

Inside and Outside: Community and Story

Much of what is significant in what transpires in a storytelling event is beyond the reach of measurement. In any particular combination of tale, teller, and listener, there are so many variables that influence the experience that a particular outcome seems impossible to predict. Using this model, we can articulate a bit more definitively what factors make each listener’s experience so idiosyncratic. Each listener’s set of what psychotherapists call “object relations” will govern whether a particular combination of tale-teller-listener can make an affective connection, and further, whether that connection stands a chance of revising that listener’s relational map of the world.

I need to add a further issue that troubles any project of community building, no matter what the means one is using, and will name that the paradox of inclusion-exclusion. One of the ways it seems our species has evolved its capacity for collective bonding is by defining inclusiveness in terms of who is excluded. There is hardly any ethnic or other group identity that does not have a name for the Others, those that are not us (pagans, barbarians, goyim, gaje, etc.). This is so deeply entrenched that one wonders if we as a species are yet capable of building a sense of community without simultaneously creating or strengthening a sense of distance from those excluded.

I have found myself puzzling over this general question when I attempted to comprehend some hostile feelings that have paradoxically come along with experiencing great waves of communitas. Often at times such as described at the very opening of this essay, when I felt my heart was most touched by a shared story, I also would notice myself bristling with hostile judgments at those who didn’t appear to be sharing my response. I noticed that with the deepening of my affective response often came a corresponding heightened sensitivity to the separateness of my responsiveness. How ironic it seemed to find that my experience of deep human connectedness made me feel more separate from those boors in the next row chatting afterwards about lunch possibilities! From my Buddhist training, I clearly could see how attached I was to those emotional experiences, and so I began to release my clinging to them and grinned and shrugged them off. Recently this paradoxical experience has troubled me less, perhaps just because I have developed greater acceptance of the paradoxical nature of truth. Still, I couldn’t honestly leave these hesitations out of my portrait of this topic.

Begin Feeding the Mouths, then the Ears and the Hearts Will Respond

Community building always expands inclusivity, continually learning how to make deeper and more abundant connections. Every step of the journey involves discovering, sharing, co-creating and revising stories 一 from the grant proposals you write, the interviews you give, the conversations you have with city employees whom you need to grant you a permit, to the chats with people after the event about how it all went. Making community events as welcoming as possible – particularly through offering food to feed the body as well as stories to feed the heart – brings people to the most ancient ground for gathering: sharing food as well as tales are primordial needs of our being. I know of no better exemplars than the F.E.A.S.T. events (Friends Eating and Storytelling Together) put on in Santa Fe, New Mexico by storytellers and community-builders Bob Kanegis and Liz Mangual. Bringing people together to eat and visit can open the doors to the lifetimes of stories within the group.

There is so little reference that people have for sharing their experience with each other, that we must give away free tastes of that experience so that they will remember their yearning for this contact. What helps one to continue to give away free tastes is that in the giving one also always receives. One realizes that one’s own hunger for community is fed both by the giving and the receiving of stories.


Benjamin, Walter. (1969) Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.

Conquergood, Dwight. (1985) “Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of  Performance.” Literature in Performance: 5 (1985): 1-13.

Friedman Maurice. (1985) The Healing Dialogue in Psychotherapy. New York: Jacob Aronson.

Lewis, Thomas,Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. (2000/A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House.

Siegel, Daniel. (1999) The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience. New York: The Guilford Press.

Sobol, Joseph. (1999) The Storytellers’ Journey: An American Revival. Chicago: U. of Illinois.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1968) Philosophical Investigations: The English Text of the Third Edition. G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans. New York: Macmillian Publishing.

This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 5, Summer 2008.

Christopher Maier practices the arts of psychotherapy, story-creating, storytelling, and teaching adults. His unique approach to re-visioning life stories informed by Buddhism, mystic Christianity, trauma and attachment theories is a topic on which he speaks and leads workshops. His training includes a B.A. in Theater (University of California at Santa Cruz), an M .A. in Speech (Northwestern), and a second M.A. in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology (Naropa University where he is now on the faculty). He has performed at storytelling festivals in a half dozen states as well as in thousands of schools and libraries.

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