Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Storytelling in the 21st Century

A professional writer and editor, Maria LoBiondo's love of fairy, folk, and wisdom tales has been lifelong, although studies leading to her bachelor’s degree in education from Boston College and years as a preschool teacher deepened her appreciation. Maria’s life experiences have included work in low-income communities with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Utica, NY, and Providence, RI, and participation in artist Judy Chicago’s needlework effort, The Birth Project. She has told stories for the past 15 years at several venues, including Princeton’s Littlebrook School, the Princeton Montessori School, the Catholic Community of St. Charles Borromeo in Montgomery Township, and the New Jersey Storytelling Festival, in addition to her work for Storytelling Arts. Maria is a member of the Princeton Storytelling Circle.

Going through old papers recently I found this note from a storytelling visit: “Thank you for telling stories to my class. I enjoyed listening to the story ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon.’ I could picture the trolls in my head. I could see the prince saying, ‘Who can ever wash my shirt will be my wife.’ Hope you come back soon.”

Not only did the note make me smile, but it lifted my spirits after a day of feeling as if everywhere I turned there was another screen to view – my phone, my computer, a TV attached to the elliptical machine in the gym, another in the supermarket checkout line, and another in a favorite restaurant, not to mention the TV in my living room. I don’t have an e-reader or an iPad, but I do have an iPod, and even though it’s not the latest version, it has a screen, too.

All those screens vying for my attention, feeding me images, both stimulating and distracting. But how much of my imagination did they engage?

When telling a story, the images of what is happening as the plot unfolds cross my inner eye as they might a movie screen but I am creating the scenes anew with each telling, and no two tellings of the same story are the alike. I may have seen a troll with three heads and countless warts on each nose, but my student listener created her own troll, as scary or comical as she wanted it to be. Both of us used our imaginations to make the story come alive.

For some time now I have been trying to reconcile my feelings about 21st-century digital technology and the ancient art of storytelling. I know there is no turning back to fewer screens competing for our attention. I know that the future will bring more tools to use to converse, research, and entertain.

In frustration, I listened to Thomas Freidman’s “The World is Flat” in my car while driving to and fro this summer. Friedman’s storytelling – whether he gave an account of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the birth of a new company – won me over.

He employed short narratives to make his points rather than simply a barrage of information.

Friedman makes a strong case for beefed up science, math, and engineering courses in our schools, but he also suggests that stimulating the imagination is critically important.

To my mind, storytelling does this at all age levels. It helps us have all sensorial cylinders firing as we listen, visualize what’s happening, and create for ourselves the touch, smell, and taste evoked in the tale. The give and take between teller and listener means a story is never static, never just consuming passively, because the story becomes alive as it is told as the teller and listener create the images they “see.”

Imagination is a way of seeing. Before we can “see” big things like societal change or starting a new business it’s helpful to start with something as small as imagining trolls. All the number crunching computers can do won’t mean much without the imagination of people to apply the information in new ways.

Which brings me to Albert Einstein’s famous quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Telling and listening to stories, visualizing and reflecting on the images we create, promotes imagination. The ancient art of storytelling is as important today as it ever was.