By Brian Sturm
Storytelling is how we communicate with each other; it is a fundamental way we organize information in our lives, and it helps us negotiate our differences, find our commonalities, and build communities. In short, we LIVE stories. “Hey, let me tell you what I did over the weekend!” “You know that good book about….” “Once upon a time, there lived a little girl, and her name was Goldilocks.” Stories surround us. They are inescapable. They are our life’s blood, yet because they are so ubiquitous, we feel that – and I hear it all the time – everyone’s a storyteller. While this is true, not everyone is a good storyteller, and few are great at it. We need to hone our skills and perfect our innate abilities through practice and critical thought. We all know how to eat, but, while some people do it merely for survival, others develop it into an art.
In the elementary classroom, stories abound, as children find stories fascinating. But even natural listeners need help to develop their listening skills to the point that they can sit still for the duration of a well-told story. So, not only do we need to train ourselves as storytellers, we need to train our audience to listen. Folklore does this naturally. Folktales have been honed for centuries by retelling, and they come ready-made to the tongue. They deal with issues deeply embedded in our lives (in an oral society, only the best stories survive; a bad story is simply not told and soon disappears), and they come in all languages and from all cultures. What better fodder exists for building self-awareness and an understanding of diversity than that?
So, how do I do it?
1. Read lots of folktales (Dewey 398.2 in your school or public library) so you get familiar with the genre and its format and style.
2. Find a story that moves you somehow (laughter, tears, etc.); it doesn’t matter the effect, just that it has one on you. You want to have an emotional connection with the story.
3. Read it several times, then put it aside and outline it. You want to distill it down to its essence.
4. From this outline, begin to layer back on descriptions, character attitudes, character voices, gestures, facial expressions, etc. If you start with the kernel story, as you build it back up, it will become YOUR interpretation, not just a recitation of the book’s text.
5. Practice! Tell it to your cat, to the wind, as you walk. Tell it to things that won’t give you any feedback or criticism (maybe the cat’s not such a good idea! Dogs anyone?) because when you’re first learning a story, you are too “raw” or new to the story for feedback to help much. Make it yours before you share it.
6. Tell it to a trusted friend who will be honest but gentle. Ask for feedback on what DOES work, then move to what doesn’t for that listener. Remember, all listeners are different, so just because one person doesn’t like something in your story or your performance, that doesn’t preclude others from loving it. YOU must decide what you want from the story and how best to get there. Take everyone’s feedback as suggestions, not facts.
7. Tell it to a small group so that you have the intimacy of proximity. It’s easier to make eye contact with a group of seven than with a crowd of 100.
8. Remember that storytelling is like a bubble. It starts at the bottom of the lake in the mud and the muck of thousands of dead lives (leaves, fish, worms, etc.). As a storyteller, we begin the process as a muck-raker. As the bubble rises toward the surface, we shape it, practice it, mold it and get it ready. Then the bubble finally hits the surface, it forms the most gorgeous, iridescent bubble, with colors coruscating across its surface. THIS is our moment! As a storyteller, we must make that moment of beauty as enchanting as possible, until “POP!” and the moment is gone, never to return in quite the same way.
9. We have one chance in oral storytelling to get it right. If we train ourselves and our audiences, storytelling becomes the alchemists’ Philosopher’s Stone: it turns base experience into pure gold.
10. Finally, have fun. Storytelling is about the emotional connection we can have with stories and each other. Plot is only the vehicle for an entrancing connection.
If you are interested in pursuing storytelling further, there are higher education degrees in storytelling (East Tennessee State has one, for example), national and regional storytelling workshops and associations, and local performers. In North Carolina, the best place to start is the North Carolina Storytelling Guild, or you can become a member of the National Storytelling Network.
Whether you decide to tell stories or hire a storyteller doesn’t matter. What matters is that our children are exposed to the rich and enduring global heritage that is captured in world folktales.
Dr. Brian Sturm teaches storytelling and children’s literature at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been sharing world folktales with children and adults in libraries, schools, and cultural organizations for over 15 years.