by Paula Davidoff and Maria LoBiondo
There are many books on the how and why of storytelling, but few match Ruth Sawyer’s book, The Way of the Storyteller, published in 1942 and still a classic. When we realized the strong influence Sawyer’s work had on both of us, we decided to collaborate on this post. —Maria and Paula
|Ruth Sawyer, storyteller and author|
Maria: As a beginning storyteller, this book gave me a sense of the deeper meaning storytelling could have—for me and for those with whom I looked forward to sharing tales.
Calling Ruth Sawyer’s Way of the Storyteller a bible may sound like an exaggeration, yet Sawyer clearly sees storytelling as a spiritual calling, “something for which the soul cries out.” Like a biblical prophet, she sets out to inspire tellers beyond memorization, beyond flat interpretation. Her commandments exhort tellers to enrich their art, to go deeper into the stories themselves, and to create connections with listeners as they make the tales come alive.
These big statements were like manna to me as a beginning storyteller and in re-reading them, they still inspire. It’s as if a key clicked open a secret box inside me when I first read them; stories are able to go to a place our rational selves hold in check and our emotional selves may find overwhelming.
Paula: I fell under the spell of Ms. Sawyer’s language when I was a child. The Folk and Fairy Tales volume of my orange-bound Childcraft books included The Flea, a Spanish folktale from her Picture Tales of Spain. My mother read to us from Childcraft at bedtime and I used to ask for The Flea again and again. There was something about the voice in which the story was told that made me comfortable. I felt included in the narrative, as if the writer were winking at me or giving me a conspiratorial nod throughout the telling.
Much later in life, when I first read The Way of the Storyteller, a book, perhaps the book, that started me on the way I have traveled for the past thirty years, I recognized the voice. I remember reading chapter by chapter, feeling the déjà vu that is usually reserved for memories of dreams, until I came to the stories at the end of the volume. The Flea is not among those stories, but the voice was the same.
Maria: And Sawyer, herself, wrote about the importance of voice: “I beseech all storytellers to cultivate the listening ear, to learn to hear their own voices, to be alert to the voices around them, to compare.”
Developing your voice as a storyteller takes time, practice, and patience. I recently had the pleasure of listening to two tellers over two days tell a favorite from the American South, Wiley and the Hairy Man. Laura Kaighn told at a gathering of the Garden State Storytellers League, and Storytelling Arts’ Jack McKeon at the recent celebration of SAI’s 20 years.
Neither teller used microphones. Each employed a different voice for the main characters, giving Wiley, Wiley’s mama, and the Hairy Man distinct personalities without straining vocal chords or credibility. Each emphasized different plot points and elaborated with different gestures so that the story came alive in a way unique to each teller. Their storytelling voices were as individual as they are—which Sawyer would applaud.
Sawyer gives helpful hints from her musical training, but as a writer as well as a storyteller, I find a stronger parallel in advice for writers. At first we imitate the masters we admire. Eventually we step out and play with metaphors and phrasing that come easily to us. With time and dedication, the stories become our own, with descriptions rising from our own experiences and feelings.
Paula: That is so true. Sometimes, when I’m telling a favorite story, I feel like I’m relating a personal experience, and I think that comes through in our tellings.
Maria: Sawyer had great respect for the folk wisdom that storytellers impart in the tales told. She urged tellers to approach their stories with heart and mind and spirit, as she did. Her description of a storytelling artist marries imagination and creativity with discipline and technique. This is what distinguishes telling from a book, telling from memorization or rote, telling a casual experience of what happened to us on a given day. Artist storytellers are not actors but there is more than craft at work. The artist teller creates a world for all to share for the space of the story—and helps us see the world anew.
Paula: And Sawyer reminds us that storytelling is a folk-art, a “living art” and adds, “it lives only while the story is being told.” In The Celtic Twilight, Yeats says folk-art is “the oldest of the aristocracies of thought, and because it refuses what is passing and trivial, the merely clever and pretty, as certainly as the vulgar and insincere, and because it has gathered into itself the simplest and most unforgettable thoughts of the generations, it is the soil where all great art is rooted.” Ruth Sawyer definitely agreed with Yeats on the importance and immutability of folk-art.
Maria: I was especially heartened in re-reading by Sawyer’s accounts of perfecting her art, the slog of learning what worked both for herself and the myriad audiences she visited. She learns to become a medium for the story, to serve the story and her listeners, rather than dazzle audiences with performing skill. And continuing her prophetic role, she implores tellers to feed the imagination.
Paula: When I re-read The Way of the Storyteller after we decided to write about it, I was struck hard by Ruth Sawyer’s insistence that storytelling is an art and that tellers, those who follow the path because of their desire to give life to the stories that have touched them most deeply and which they are equipped to tell, are artists.
As a teaching artists, it’s easy to get caught up in the jargon we use, and to get tangled in the hoops we jump through to convince funders and educators that our art belongs in the classroom. We write lesson plans, identify objectives, and connect to curriculum -- all legitimate, indeed, essential steps toward making the most of the time we spend with our students. But sometimes during this process I lose sight of the fact that the most important thing I do for students is to embody stories, to bring folktales and myths to life right before their eyes.
Maria: This, of course, is where Storytelling Arts fits right in. As tellers we want to entertain but also to reach that place in our listeners that may refresh and nourish them, as stories do for us. All of us naturally tell stories, that’s part of being human. But to learn to imagine new possibilities, deeper layers of meaning, and empathy for others through the medium of a well-told tale elevates storytelling to art. Sawyer calls tellers to reach for this, and her book remains a touchstone for me.