I’ll tell you a story.
So goes the beginning of the answer to “What is the meaning of life?” The story behind that actually stems from artificial intelligence research a few decades ago. It’s what a computer capable of relating stories said when asked that question.
Or so the story goes. Whether it’s true is not the point. The point is the power of the statement. And the story itself is one Denise McCormack likes to tell. The answer is just so … perfect for how she sees humanity: We are stories. Our personalities, our memories, dare one say our very souls; all about story.
It’s impossible, in fact, to separate McCormack from stories. That’s not just because she tells them for a living, it’s because talking to her for more than a few minutes means hearing one story after another, after another.
It’s almost tempting to think she’s not even aware of how many stories she has in her mental library; like a comedian peeling off one-liners in a nightclub. It’s easy to start wondering if she’ll ever run out; easy to try to remember them all for later; easy to start telling your own in return.
But then, that’s largely what McCormack wants—stories, from everywhere and everyone. Because part of telling stories, she says, is hearing them back.
To drive home a point, McCormack, a resident of Bordentown City, is a professional storyteller. That’s not a euphemism for “writer” or “speaker,” she actually stands up in front of crowds, large and small and everything in between, and tells stories out loud. She’s been doing it for more than a decade, mainly across the Tri-State area. She is the New Jersey liaison for the National Storytelling Network, co-chair of the New Jersey Storytelling Festival, president of the Patchwork Storytelling Guild in Philadelphia, and an active member of various organizations for which storytelling is central.
And in case her dedication to the importance of stories to the human existence still hasn’t come across, there’s always her mantra to fall back on: There is a story for every time and purpose under heaven.
Something to keep in mind, though, is that McCormack is not playing around. Her stories might be, in turns, funny, sweet, light, deep, or moving, but she’s not some affected, foppish performer who shows up for open mic night with a magic hat full of flair and melodrama. She’s every bit the student of mythology and stories and language and communication, and every bit the businesswoman who knows down to the microlevel what she’s working on.
Fittingly, part of her business acumen comes from the classic hero’s journey of mythology. Those familiar with mythology as an academic subject will recognize the name Joseph Campbell, who was the first to really qualify and quantify the characteristics that make up the archetypal path of the hero—the backstory, the call to action, the stages of trials and obstacles, and so on.
McCormack became a fan of Campbell’s and about how mythologies reflect the cultures and climates whence they were born when she took a college course. Norse myths, for example, reflect the harsh, rugged lives of Scandanavians, and the heroes of these stories are almost always strong and brave in the face of that harshness.
McCormack’s revelation was a touch less dramatic, but no less compelling for her life. She’s an educator and teacher by training—she has a master’s from the College of New Jersey and has taught elementary school and homeschooled her children—which means she just loves learning new things. She was taking a course in mythology at TCNJ when all the talk of the hero’s journey hit her with a mighty broadsword: “We’re all heroes of our own myth.”
McCormack says it’s fascinating how individuals share unique experiences that become our common experiences.
Part of the hero’s journey is overcoming obstacles, which become record (and, of course, legend). McCormack took a page from mythology and started keeping track of her goals, with a focus on becoming a storyteller. She essentially wrote her journey and followed it, her perspective being, “If I want to get here, I need to do this,” she says.
When goals were reached, she celebrated with her children. Then she got back to work. In 2006 she started MagicWords101, a project aimed at prenatal storytelling. Language, she says, is patterned into the brain as a child is developing. And yes, that assertion is backed up with some hard science.
In 2011 Frontiers in Psychology published “Language and the Newborn Brain,” which featured this sentence: “Previous research has shown that by the time of birth, the neonate brain responds specially to the native language when compared to acoustically similar non-language stimuli.”
Translating for jargon, that just meas that brains in the womb are able to wire up to receive the patterns of the language everyone around the child is going to speak. Like mythology and storytelling power, McCormack is fascinated by how language works to tell those stories. Consider, she says, how English is a “stress-time language,” meaning a sentence means different things depending on where you stress a word.
For example: Birds eat worms. Try saying that aloud three times, but each time hit a different word.
By contrast, a lot of eastern Asian languages are tonal. English speakers often comment on the singsong sounds of languages from the Far East, and McCormack says the people who speak those languages are familiar with the musicality.
“They (almost) could play their language on the flute and people could understand it,” she says.
While McCormack has stepped back a bit from MagicWords101, she says she’s refocusing on it. But even if she never touches the project again, the understanding of how language works, how sounds mean so many things has been an irreplaceable lesson. It’s in the delivery of the language, the sounds of the words, the pace and rhythms to which our brains respond that, at least in part, drive her to keep telling stories.
What also drives her is the simple fact that she loves stories; to hear them, to learn them, to tell them. Around Bordentown, she says, she’s learned so much about so many people simply by listening to the stories they tell about their lives and families – the retired cop who used to ride his horse to school; the neighbor who still has old flour sacks from a long-gone flour mill in town; the folks who remember chunks of ice being dropped off to homes and businesses.
These personal memories of things long since vanished do more than keep living history afloat, she says. They connect people with their past in a way that humanizes these moments. Stories, she says, lift history from the textbooks and tuck them neatly into the minds of the listeners.
It’s fascinating, McCormack says, how individuals share unique experiences that become our common experiences. “If it’s happening to one person, she says, “ it’s happening to others.”
In other words, storytelling is the art of empathy. The reason we connect to stories, to experiences we’ve never actually lived, is because of empathy; our ability to understand the heart and soul of what someone else is going through without having to go through it ourselves. That, McCormack says, is how we learn and how we grow. It’s how we’re all heroes in our own myths. And it’s why telling stories is so important to her.
What’s funny is, if you ask McCormack what her first story as a storyteller was about, the first one in front of an audience of eager listeners, she’ll say this: “I have no idea.” But there’s more to this than it might appear. Just as great stories from personal memories are important for the building of empathy and connection, not all memories need to be kept. We forget for a reason.
“What good is a memory if it doesn’t go forward?” she says.
So she’s not sure what was the first tale she told. She does know she formally started as a storyteller and corporate coach (generally on how to deliver strong stories) in 2007. She also know she likes folktales.
“They reflect a lot of cultural values,” she says. Yet they transcend culture at the same time. Pretty much every culture has the same set of fairy tales, just with different costumes or names or accents. But that similarity is the heart of what McCormack is driving at with storytelling. Every culture tells the same basic stories because those are the stories of us, not as Japanese people or Peloponnesian people or Bolivian people, but as people. Human beings with shared experiences, who share them to tell us we’re not alone.
This, for Denise McCormack, is magic. And it’s miraculous, this ability we have to share our stories across centuries and cultures and still know what it means to be a person looking for something. Maybe it’s a sense of wonder, maybe it’s a perspective on a breakup, maybe it’s something that reminds us that other people have made it across the harsh and forbidding landscapes and survived. It’s all got to do with what we want from these experiences and how we interpret them within ourselves.
“I’ll tell you a story,” McCormack says: A farmer sitting is eating lunch when a grumbly traveler walks up and asks what people in the town ahead are like. The farmer asks the man what they were like in the last town. The man says they were rotten, and the farmer tells him he’ll probably find people ahead to be the same way. Later, a happy man asks the farmer about the people ahead, and answers that the people he’s leaving behind were delightful. The farmer tells him he’ll probably find people ahead to be the same way.
The point? People are people. But what you make of them and their stories? “It’s all about perspective,” McCormack says.
And there you have the other part of the answer about what the meaning of life is.