22 December 2006

A Good Story, Well Told

I have been reflecting for several months on the art of storytelling lately in both my working and private lives.

In my work, I have been helping to educate my volunteers about historic interpretation as good storytelling. Visitors to our museum do not want to be lectured. They come to learn something about the past to which they can relate to themselves or, at least to which they can compare themselves. They want to feel like they are part of the events that lead young, wealthy men to rebel against their government to form a self-government--a risk not many today in my country would be willing to take, I venture to guess. Or, they want to learn about the domestic life of a colonial gentry household that included slaves and indentured servants. Or, how a gentlewoman entertained her many guests in her fine house.

Often visitors get an interpreter who is enthusiastic about the detailed minutia of history. This is the person who loves telling all the little memories or all of the information collected on a topic over a lifetime of enthusiasm. Not all of the stories are true, but they often sound extremely appealing. It's wonderful to love history and all of its detail. I certainly do. Yet, I also want my interpreters to know the facts. The average visitor is not the connoisseur of historical minutia that the typical interpreter is. They begin to glaze over if you don't capture their imagination right from the beginning of the tour.

The writer and creativity coach, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, puts the importance of storytelling versus rambling or lecturing very succinctly:

An account of a series of events is not a story. A series of
sounds or musical phrases is not a composition. Bits of color or shape, a
string of images or random textures, do not make a piece of art. . . And I
wonder what happened to the editing process, the process by which the raw
material of stories--the words that are chosen, the real or imagined events that
are described, the sensory details of inner responses and outer settings--are
shaped and reshaped until they become something whole and complete."

--What We Ache For: Creativity and the Unfolding of Your Soul, 2005

The editing process is a vital part of storytelling. Without placing emphasis on a critical moment or object or emotion, the listener is lost in what I call the "laundry list" of factoids. It's information overload and their brain has shut down. I don't think history should be taught like peas are fed to children, "because it's good for you." I think that history is storytelling and that the story must be enjoyable and comprehensible to the listener.

The challenge for the interpreter is to assess his or her audience before the story is even begun. There are tales of bards from the Middle Ages who could enter a room and capture an audience with a sweeping gesture and nod towards the crowd. The Bard would calculate timing, cadence, tone of voice, and dramatic movement to propel the story forward and to keep the audience members on the edge of their seats, desperate to hear what happens next.

When I was a pre-teen I went each summer to a camp in the wooded hills of Kentucky. Some of my best friends from my town and neighborhood also went to this camp, but once we were there our lives were filled with new challenges and activities distant from any we did at home.

One of my favorite aspects of this camp was the evening campfires where we watched the sun and our daily life set as the embers of the bonfire began to spark. We sang songs familiar to our teenage counselors--who were children of the late Sixties and taught us folk songs and lighter protest anthems, Scouting songs and even older English or Celtic-inspired ballads. The air temperature grew cold, sometimes the wind picked up and I can still recall the scary tale of Wolf Pen and the native spirits who one of our counselors said inhabited the barren rockscape only three miles hike from where we sat. Storytelling as song and as legend fed my imagination. I think my love of folk music and of being scared by spooky tales comes from these nights in the Kentucky hills.

Later as a graduate student I researched the concept of initiation in West and Central Africa for a paper in an African Art class. It told of the way that pre-teens--girls as well as boys--of a certain age were prepared for adulthood by their separation from their village in a place distant from their homes and families. There they learned--girls with their Elder Ladies or boys with their Elder Menfolk--skills to prepare them for adult lives as women and men. The adults also told them the stories of their people--the mythology, belief-system, and fables that encourage good, proper behavior or quick decision-making. The African stories of the animals and of the Gods become embedded in the young person's mind. For these African pre-teenagers, storytelling and mythology was (is still, in some cases) there to guide them in their daily lives as they approach adulthood. History, mythology and all of the little tales we tell each other and ourselves are somehow an essential part of being human, for all cultures utilize this method of presenting information to each other.

Storytelling is an art that I love to practice especially in the dark months of the year. The wintertime seems the best time to share tales and legends. The darkness feeds the imagination. Creatures can grow. Heroes become larger-than-life. The air holds a sense of mystery and invites you to journey into the Unknown. It's not unlike the dim setting of a movie theater, where moving pictures fuel our desires or nightmares. Even in the summer, the best storytime is after dark. There is something powerful about the memory of sitting round the campfire on sultry June nights that haunts me to this day.

We all have stories to share. Our lives unfold like stories. What is your favorite story?

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