103. Oral storytelling, Part 2

In my last blog, I suggested six approaches to oral storytelling, hoping to encourage all of us to consider telling more stories to our friends and relatives. As a reminder, here they are again:

  • Keep the story focused to one main tale!
  • Keep your story short (less than five minutes)
  • Feel free to embellish your story.
  • Tell your own story.
  • Practice
  • Have a beginning, a middle, and an end to your story.

One point I failed to mention is the idea of being animated. Use your body to emphasize points, raise your voice a bit here and there, or sing a short ditty or two in the midst of the story. Younger children especially are drawn to a well-animated story.

Oral storytelling is especially meaningful when we share our stories with our grandchildren. I recommend  this website for grandparents who would like to become better storytellers. Grandparent Storytelling.

Some readers have suggested that these points may be well and good, but they have trouble getting started. Other readers ask about which kind of stories to tell. They tell us, My life was not all that remarkable, what stories could I possibly tell?, or Where do I turn for ideas of stories to tell?

There are countless ways to get started. Just in case you need some encouragement, here are some suggested starting points to consider:

Deliberately ponder how the world has changed since you were born, remembering things that came into existence for the first time. My mind immediately turned to things like television, computers, and the Internet. Are there interesting stories about the first time you saw TV? Where were you? Who were you with? What was it like? When did you firs see color TV?

What was your first memory as a child? This is an interesting exercise. Sometimes it elicits a story of wonder, of surprise, of Christmas or a trip. The memory may bring into play images that your grandchildren could not imagine. For example, I remember a cast-iron hand pump at the sink in the kitchen where we lived. I was 3 years old and  remember trying to pump the handle and make water come up from the cistern. Cistern? What is that? Oh, did you not know about cisterns? Let me tell you a story.

What was daily life like when you were 12 years old? Who was in your social circles? How was your house was heated? What was it like to live with your siblings. Did you have to sleep three to a bed, like we did? Did you have to do chores? What kind of food did you eat? Who cooked the meals? What was it like having a single parent? Just let your remembering wonder, jotting down ideas that pop into your head.

Tell stories of your life passions. Why do I love gardening? What is that all about? I can tell stories about bugs in the soil and invading weeds, as well as the beauty of a red, ripe tomato. What was your passion? Why did you pursue ventriloquism? What happened to your life as a result of doing what you loved to do? Again, there are endless paths from which to choose engaging stories.

In preparation for my next blog on written storytelling, I suggest that you take time, right now, to make a short list of stories you would like to tell orally. This will also give you a starting point for written story telling.

Most of all, HAVE FUN! This is not a matter of literary genius, it is a matter of passing on our stories to future generations.

102. Oral Storytelling Part 1

Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds. Want to make a point or raise an issue?  Tell a story. — Janet Litherland

Stories matter! For centuries, storytelling was one of the main ways traditions were passed down to future generations. Storytelling is still an important tool in handing down cultural memory.

Storytelling can be simple or complex. Many of the most memorable times of your life can be told through simple storytelling. Your children and grandchildren will remember some of these stories because they belong to you and are told by you, stirring the imagination, bringing humor, sharing sadness, lifting spirits, and otherwise giving vignettes of your life.

Oral storytelling can become complex, like Garrison Keillor does as he weaves intricate and convoluted tales. Simple or complex, oral storytelling has the advantage of voice inflection, cadence, volume and the eye contact that is needed to transmit the feelings and sensations one is trying to explain.  It can be great fun to tell our stories. Remember all those stories around campfires when we attempted to outdo each other with spooky tales? Remember the insistence of grandchildren who often request, What was it like when you were a boy, Grandpa?

There are some things you can do to prevent  becoming that boring uncle who goes on and on. Here are some of my suggestions:

Keep the story focused to one main tale! There are folks who go on much too long in relating stories to anyone who will listen. They go down side paths, wander around the point, and turn back again, nearly forgetting where the story started. We tend to avoid folks who prattle on and on about endless details of stories. We like focused, to-the-point stories that basically relate to one topic, such as last week’s example: In Grandmothers kitchen!

Keep your story short (less than five minutes). This is especially true when telling a story that is one among many stories, like at a reunion. Keeping the story short will also endear you to your listeners, especially if they are very young.

Feel free to embellish your story. I often tell the story of one of our daughters dating a young man that came attired in a very unusual outfit, ready to take her to the prom. I describe the orange cummerbund, the checkered tennis shoes, and other unusual apparel. In my telling of the story I add a few touches, such as a streak of purple hair and a ponytail. The point of the story is that at first glance, this young man is not a person I wanted dating our daughter, but when we got to know him, he was, and still is, a fine young man. Appearances can be very deceiving, and we really have no good reason for judging solely on appearance. So, adding a bit of embellishment simply makes the story richer.

Tell your own story. This does not mean that the story has to be about you, but it should be a story that personally involves your learnings, your understandings, or the insights learned from the story. For example, I can tell a story about my father and how he always wore bib overalls and steel-toed, high-top shoes. The story is not about me, but about my memories of what my Dads outfit meant to us as children. (Hint: all those pockets held wondrous things, such as a small, 6-inch channel-lock pliers).

Practice. You are not going to compete in any storytelling contest, so why would you want to practice? The reason we practice is to get a good handle on how the story is going to play out. This means that you can tell the story to yourself while you are driving alone in the car. Just dont do it at a traffic light, where others can see you because you may need to explain your behavior. Tell the story out loud to an empty room, pretending your grandchildren are sitting on the floor and they are enthralled with your story.

Have a beginning, a middle, and an end to your story. Once upon a time may not be the best lead in, but something like, When I was 11, I had a dog that was blind in one eye and only had three legs. His name was Lucky. This stirs the imagination and creates a mental image of what you are about to describe in your story. And even though your story has a beginning, middle and end, you may want to actually start your story in the middle, then refer to the beginning, and finish it up with a grand ending. For example, I recently told a story at a public event that had me standing on a ledge with a sharp drop-off to my right and a mountain wall to my left, and I was trembling with fear. Later in the story, I revealed how I actually ended up at this mountain path. But the story started with the line, Nothing in my childhood or growing up years could have prepared me for this moment!

In my next blog, we will look at some ideas about how to get started in doing some real, live, current storytelling.

101. Lets tell our stories!

Shyly she asked, Would you like to read my story? It is the kind of story you write about in your blogs. Of course, I assured her, I would be very happy to read your story.

The envelope contained a neatly typed seven-page manuscript, documenting major portions of her life. The first chapter, Early school years, covered the highlights of her elementary and early high school years. Fun at grandmas house revealed the fondness the writer had for her grandmother and the wonderful little things that grandma did to delight her young visitor every time she showed up at the house.

Interesting vignettes, illustrations, and anecdotes punctuated the chapter on being A depression kid. A chapter on My major life work highlighted the tension between being a mother of four and a mother who worked outside the home. Although the chapter on Body and health history would suggest a tale of sickness, accidents, and other setbacks, it was an interesting glimpse into a world where less advanced medicine was practiced.

The authors final chapter, Spiritual life and values contained a detailed understanding of her husbands journey through suffering with diabetes, including recovery from peripheral neuropathy. The chapter ends with the words, All things are possible with God?

This lovely lady is now in her nineties.  She has written her memories and has given the manuscript to each of her grandchildren at Christmastime. She does not have a typewriter or a computer, so a great deal of effort had to go into getting a friend to sit down with her and type out her words. The final result was seven short chapters.

It is not important that the manuscript is not ready for the publishers; it clearly tells her stories. It is a treasure because her grandchildren can read these stories long after she is gone as they tell their children about her way-of-life in bygone years.

This manuscript is a gift to the following generations! I was fortunate to get to read her stories, to get a bit of insight into who she is, who she was, and why she chose to live as she did.

Our stories do not need to be ready for any publisher, editorial critic, or any hounding grammarian. They just need to be told in ones own voice, including our feelings and sense of being. Each of us can do this. It is a matter of will. Why not consider starting today?

Over the next several weeks, I am going to suggest some simple and relatively easy ways to begin to tell our stories.

  • February 11 – Telling our stories orally, Part 1
  • February 25 – Telling our stories orally, Part 2
  • March 10 – Writing our stories: How to begin.
  • March 24 – Writing our stories: Going to print