Stories of Life

Stories of Life

Gwynn Scheltema

As often happens in life, birth and death go hand in hand. Last week I wrote about the birth of my baby granddaughter, Elle, and all the wonderment and creative promise that comes with that.

But our family has also been touched these past weeks with the news of terminal cancer. Many of us in this situation feel the helplessness of not knowing what to do or what to say.

And then an email from an oral story-teller I know told me about a “storyteller-in-residence” at Baycrest Health Sciences.


For the past three years, Dan Yashinsky has been telling and listening to stories at Baycrest as part of their “storycare” program. He explained in an article for The Toronto Star that: “Storycare means creating times and places in the hospital for people to tell, hear, imagine, and remember stories.”

His article explained that storytelling encourages imaginative responses even from dementia patients who have forgotten the names of their loved ones; that suspenseful wondertales can help patients with severe depression “regain their desire to discover what happens next — in the story, and in their own lives.”

He recalls that Yukon Elder Angela Sidney once told him, “I have no money to leave my grandchildren. My stories are my wealth.” For patients in palliative care and their families, telling their life stories can be a comforting and enriching experience.

Life Stories

When I was a young woman, it seemed to me that biographies and to a lesser degree, autobiographies, were the only source of “life stories.” And to make it into book form, the subject life had to be a famous one: great achievement, great adversity, great discovery and such. Today, I have noticed that memoir stories abound. Stories still of great achievement, great adversity and great discovery, but stories from “ordinary” people. The kind of people I might know. The kind of lives I can recognize.

What I like about this trend is the underlying inference that everybody’s life matters. That we all have something to offer. And that in each life I read about I find echoes of my own. This connection through story can, at different times, inspire, comfort, educate, amuse, awe or humble me. It’s all good.

The Power of Story

An article in The New York Times says “Telling and listening to stories is the way we make sense of our lives.” The article tells of a study on the positive effects of storytelling on people with high blood pressure. Dr. Thomas K. Houston, lead author of the study said, “That natural tendency may have the potential to alter behaviour and improve health.”

The International Storytelling Centre (ISC) based in Tennessee, agrees with that power of story, and not just for health, but for attaining any goal because it is the most effective way to communicate both with others and with ourselves.

ISC began a movement to revive oral story telling over forty years ago. The cornerstone of their belief is that “People crave, remember and honour stories.” They say, “We are an organization dedicated to inspiring and empowering people across the world to accomplish goals and make a difference by discovering, capturing, and sharing their stories.”

Tell your story

Many cultures have a rich and active oral storytelling tradition, and increasingly oral storytelling groups are forming the world over. Each year, March 20 marks World Storytelling Day, a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. World Storytelling Day began in Sweden in 1991 and Canada joined the event in 2003.

On this day, people tell and listen to stories in many languages and at as many places as possible, during the same day and night. This event has been important in forging links between storytellers and in drawing attention to the art of storytelling.

Isak Dinesen said, “To be a person is to have a story to tell.” So throw off any thoughts of “my story isn’t worth telling.” It is. In writing or orally, tell your story as only you can tell it.

And when I next visit the hospital, I think I might ask, “Tell me about…”

Explore this topic further:

Storytellers of Canada/ Conteurs du Canada: Devoted to connecting people, reflecting culture, and inspiring discovery through the art of Storytelling.

First nations Storytelling.  Storytelling is a traditional method used to teach about cultural beliefs, values, customs, rituals, history, practices, relationships, and ways of life. First Nations storytelling is a foundation for holistic learning, relationship building, and experiential learning.

Oration, singing and storytelling are a source of both of delight and solace within the Maori culture.  ‘Healing Through Storytelling’ is a grief support programme created with Maori and delivered alongside Maori authors.

Healing Story Alliance explores and promotes the use of storytelling in healing. Our goal as a special interest group of the National Storytelling Network is to build a resource for the use of story in the healing arts and professions.

Paula Abood, a Community Cultural Development (CCD) worker, writer and educator, discusses the importance storytelling in developing confidence, empathy and communities.

Nicole Stewart started the live storytelling series Oral Fixation (An Obsession with True Life Tales). She has produced 19 shows, each with a different theme and featuring regular Dallas folks reading aloud their stories

Dave Lieber is a newspaper columnist, a prize-winning author and storytelling expert. For his investigative newspaper column, Dave receives 50 pitches a week for story ideas – and takes the best two. He knows how to find and identify memorable stories that people care about.


Among the many workshops offered by Writescape is a corporate workshop called “Sell with Story” that explores effective marketing and promotion through storytelling.