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

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Making New Things Familiar

Unless I’m actively promoting myself as a storyteller, I almost never tell people what I do for a living. When I fill out forms that require me to state my occupation, I write “teacher,” and when asked about my job, I say that I teach literacy education. It’s so much easier than saying I’m a storyteller. I learned years ago that when I tell people what I really do, I have to explain myself. And the explanation is never satisfying because a person who has not experienced storytelling can’t understand what it is.
The conversation goes something like:
“You read aloud?”
“No, I don’t read stories, I tell them.”
“Uh huh.”
“I mean, I don’t hold a book, I just look at an audience and tell the story.”
“You memorize it?”
“Not exactly, I sort of perform it.”
“Oh, you’re an actress!”

So, after a while, I just stopped saying that I’m a storyteller. It’s too frustrating.

But a few months ago, I was sitting in my kitchen writing a check for a plumber who had just unclogged my bathroom sink. He was telling me about a wedding he had just attended. Mostly he was marveling about what it must have cost. When he told me the name of the venue, I said,
“Oh, I know that place. I did a job there once.”
Because it would have made no sense to say I taught literacy at a wedding venue, when the man inquired about my job, I had to come clean.
“I’m a storyteller,” I said, resigning myself to the inevitable nonexplanation.
The plumber’s eyes grew wide. He put down the pen he was using to write my receipt and said, “You mean you’re one of those people who can stand in front of an audience, and just by talking, make everyone feel like they’re in another world?”
I was floored! What could I do but say “yes” as modestly as possible?
“I saw a storyteller once,” he continued. “It was, maybe, fifteen years ago, when I was in high school. We had an assembly and this lady came out on the stage. At first it was kind of embarrassing, because the whole school was in the auditorium and none of us knew why she was there. Honestly, she didn’t look like much, but when she started talking, it was like she cast a spell over the room. Everyone was sitting at the edge of their seat with their mouths hanging open. I’ll never forget it.”

As we talked more about the experience, he told me that the storyteller had left a stronger impression on him than “shows or musicals or movies.” I wasn’t surprised to hear this, because I’ve had the same experience listening to my teachers and colleagues tell stories. The conversation did, however, make me wonder, once again, why the quiet art of storytelling packs such a big punch. I decided to begin asking my audiences about it. One of the places I asked was in the fifth grade classroom of my friend, Joan Kenny.
I have been telling stories and facilitating writing activities in Joan’s classroom for several years. At this point, I look for opportunities to teach there because I know I will always find myself working with a group of extraordinary students: children who are passionate, curious, thoughtful, creative, and willing to take risks to learn something new. Joan’s kids represent a cross section of public school students from a racially, culturally, and economically diverse community, but year after year, they defy the current stereotype of  the unmotivated and uninformed American public school student. You don’t have to be in that classroom for long to understand why. Joan is a wonderful teacher, one of the best I’ve ever seen. She makes everything exciting, and her classroom is a place where students know their thoughts and ideas will be met with interest and respect. When I told her what I wanted to ask her students about storytelling, she said,
“Tell them you need their advice. That always pulls them in.”
So when I met with the students, I asked them if they thought listening to a storyteller might help kids learn. Their answers were, of course, all positive, (They are very polite to classroom visitors!) but it was their actions that impressed me. Some of the things they said were,
“Listening to a storyteller helps you learn because it makes you imagine.”
“And get ideas.”
“Stories evoke emotions.”
“When you tell us a story, it makes new things seem familiar.”
“A story stays with you.”

When I asked the student who made the last remark to give me an example, he stood up and gazed at a spot on the ground in front of him with a worried expression. Then he spoke. 
“When the man saw the injured bird, he picked him up very gently.” As he spoke, he stepped forward and bent over, cupping his hands as if he were scooping an object off the floor. 
I realized that he was mimicking the actions and facial expressions I had probably used several weeks earlier when I told his class a story called “Just Rewards.” Before I could say anything, another boy jumped up and walked toward one of the desks. His hands were also cupped as if he were holding the bird, and when he reached the desk, he pretended to place the bird on it and make it comfortable.
“That’s the basket,” said a girl who was watching.
“He’s putting in a soft blanket,” added another student.
As I watched and listened, I was pretty sure that I was seeing a much more detailed version of the story than the one I had told. The movements were more elaborate and continuous, as were the visual details that students continued to describe.
When the second boy sat down, all of the kids had their hands in the air. One after another, they told bits of stories, using their faces and bodies as well as their voices. Each time, I saw and heard something new. The children were not simply imitating me; they had synthesized the information I gave them when I told the stories, and they were giving back their own interpretations. Moreover, they had processed the stories after hearing them only once, and could still recount them weeks or, in some cases, months later.

None of this anwers the “why” of my original question. Why does my plumber have such a powerful memory of the storyteller he heard when he was a teenager? Why are Joan’s fifth graders able to remember and retell a story with so little effort?  I know that there are philosophical and physiological explanations for why people react to storytelling the way they do, and I think some of them are probably right. I also think that part of the answer to my question lies in something one of the fifth graders said: Story makes new things seem familiar.
When a storyteller gives a tale to an audience, she presents it in ways that touch each person’s mind and heart and spirit. The story becomes more than words. It is a gesture that a grandmother used to make, an expression on a father’s face, the sound of an old friend’s voice. Each listener recognizes something in the teller’s words and movements that helps him place the story within his own experience. The story becomes more than text or spectacle. It becomes a personal memory, part of the listener’s own life journey.
Receiving a story is a complex and unique experience. Which is why people who have never heard a storyteller just can’t understand what she does!

Paula Davidoff, Storyteller


  1. I actually enjoy telling people what I do for a living. If they're unfamiliar with this obscure little art form...well, explaining my profession can be a good ice breaker.

    Your experience with the fifth graders is a lovely story in and of itself. It is nothing short of magical the way some stories and their tellings -- strong stories, aptly chosen, well-told -- can go straight to long-term memory and be recalled years later, very nearly intact. I wonder if personal stories are as deeply held and as easily recalled as folk and fairy tales.

  2. What a wonderful story about your classroom experience. I, too, tell and teach to 5th & 6th graders, and am amazed at their ability to retain the story and remember it later.

    Megan-- I believe that personal stories are as deeply held as I see the kids' reactions. They often respond when I tell a traditional story with references to personal stories I have told. I think it is the human need to connect. When they feel you have connected with them by telling about yourself, they retain the information so they can continue to be connected.

    Paula, like you, I struggled for a time with telling people what I do. Eventually, I decided to change my "approach" from "dreading the difficulty of explaining" with the same excitement I have when telling stories. I relish the opportunity (and, yes, sometimes the challenge) to get people interested and as excited as I am about what I do. Every question they ask or "inaccurate supposition" they have gives me an opportunity to spend more time with them, educate them, tell them a story, plant a seed of interest, and perhaps even get a future gig.

  3. I agree with Mark that children (and adults) remember the details of personal stories as well they remember those of folk and literary tales. However, I don't think personal stories are as "deeply held" as folk tales and myths unless they have been carefully crafted to follow patterns and imitate motifs of traditional story. And, even then, I'm not sure they can have the same impact (although this latter is surely impossible to prove and probably varies from listener to listener).

    Life isn't art. Most of the personal stories we tell are simply anecdotes, recounting of experiences. People remember them because they wear the clothing of story. The events of one person's experience are embedded in a kind of narrative that may (as Mark says) connect them to a world that is familiar to the listener. I have a detailed recollection of an anecdote I heard from a substitute kindergarten teacher more than half a century ago because, at the moment of the telling, it put me back at my mother's side in my own kitchen where I wished with all my heart I could be and, coincidentally, where I could easily place and visualize the details of her story.

    Personal stories often contain an element that is common to every human experience. In addition, when a teacher decides to tell a personal story to his or her students, it's usually because the story is relevant to something that is going on in the classroom at that moment. In these cases, the story provides a metaphor that sets its content in each listener's memory. Hearing that kindergarten teacher's personal story situated me in a familiar space and emotion, but if it had been about something that was out of my range of personal experience (as it easily could have been) it would have been meaningless to me.

    I believe that traditional stories, those cultural phenomena that are grounded in the oral tradition, are always relevant to every listener because they provide connection to our unconscious experiences. In addition, they have been crafted to take the listener on a journey that uncovers some truth about life -- the listener's own life and the more general human experience. We remember these stories AS we hear them as well as after we hear them. They don't simply resemble our experience, they are our stories.

    About revealing my profession -- As I said, I spend a fair amount of time proselytizing for storytelling in and out of school, but I've lost interest in talking about myself. I get the feeling I'm a lot older and, probably, grumpier than the two of you. I admire your enthusiasm and your willingness to explain yourselves. Keep it up for all our sakes!

  4. Lovely, and if we don't completely understand how and why it works, that's fine, as long as we are aware of how wonderfully well it does work! Happy telling to you! Storyteller Mary