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Monday, January 16, 2012

Ruminations of an Old Goat

In last week's column, I asked for topic suggestions for this column. The two suggestions which will eventually end up being covered in the column involve ideas inspired by the Stupefying Stories slush pile and the ancient art of storytelling. (For those who haven't been hanging around the Friday Challenge for a long time, I've been a professional storyteller for the last six years.)

While I have some ideas for slush-based columns, I'm going to start with a series on storytelling. I don't know how long the series but have a fairly good idea of what we'll end up covering by the time it's over. I hope to have columns inspired by your comments and questions concerning these columns, so please don't be shy about posting comments.

I believe storytelling is the oldest art form known to mankind. There are jobs which are probably older; hunter and gatherer, certainly, and definitely parent if you consider parenting to be a job. (God knows it's a lot of work!) Storytelling came after those but before pretty much everything else mankind has done on this planet. In fact, I expect the art of storytelling started shortly after the first hunt ended, when one of our most ancient ancestors told the other hunters about the "big one" that he almost got.

In ancient times, the storyteller was the keeper of his peoples' history, their accumulated knowledge and wisdom, and the teachings which were passed on to each new generation. That changed somewhat when written language was developed, but storytellers -- or poets and bards, if you prefer -- remained important as long as most people remained illiterate. Many of the best known folk and fairy tales originally served as cautionary tales, meant to teach the children of the day the rules of survival. Little Red Riding Hood, for example, taught young girls to beware of wolves, meaning men who would take sexual advantage of girls given the chance. Other tales were mostly for entertainment, though there was almost always some nugget of wisdom to be found within those stories.

The oral tradition of storytelling began to fall by the wayside as the various folk and fairy tales were recorded and published in books. In the 19th century, traveling shows began to replace storytelling as a primary source of entertainment. The 20th century, with radio, movies, television, and eventually video and computer games, should have been the death knell for storytelling as an art form. That didn't happen, though it may have been a close run thing. Storytelling thrived in rural areas, places where electricity was late to arrive, where radio and television signals were faint, and where cable television never caught on due to the cost of running cables. By the time satellite television made it possible for television signals to reach just about everywhere, storytelling had begun a resurgence.

Libraries discovered that storytelling helped build an interest in reading. Schools discovered that students learned better through stories than through traditional lectures (not that this little tidbit has done much to change how school is taught). Libraries and schools host storytelling festivals, bringing storytellers in from the area to tell stories and help promote both storytelling and reading. On an October weekend in 1973, the first National Storytelling Festival was held in Jonesborough, TN, drawing no more than 60 people (including the storytellers). Since then, the festival has grown into a four day event with attendance topping 30,000.

Storytelling is making a comeback because it is a thoroughly people-oriented art form. At least, that's my opinion. More and more, popular entertainment has allowed us to become isolated from each other. Radio and television have always come into our homes. Since the advent of the VCR, movies have also begun coming into the home. With MP3 players, portable video, tablet computers, and smart phones, entertainment is more individualized than ever. It's entirely possible for a family to sit in the same room, all be tuned into some form of entertainment, yet each family member is being entertained by something different than the others.

Storytelling is different. Everyone in the audience hears the same story, but they can still personalize it. They use their imagination to create the scene and the characters, each picturing the story in their own way. Even familiar stories will vary from storyteller to storyteller (and usually from telling to telling by the storyteller), which keeps the stories fresh for the audience.

I know someone out there is thinking, "Yeah, storytelling is like reading a book out loud to an audience, except the reader will get the story exactly right every time." Every storyteller has had at least one conversation with someone who thinks professional storytellers are getting paid to read books aloud or who doesn't think there is really any difference between a reader and a teller. It's a common misconception, made worse because the big difference between reading and telling seems to be very minor.

The difference is eye contact. When you're reading a book aloud, it's hard to make eye contact with your audience. Sure, you can glance up briefly and catch eye of someone, but you've got to return to the book quickly or risk losing your place and upsetting the flow of the story. In other words, the book is a barrier between the reader and the audience. The storyteller has no book and, therefore, no barrier. The storyteller can make eye contact with everyone in the audience or, in the case of a very large audience, with many people in the audience. The contact, however brief, forges a connection between the storyteller and each member of the audience. For one moment, each person feels as if the storyteller is telling the story directly to them.

It's that brief connection between people that makes storytelling so much more than simply reading aloud. And it's that connection which makes storytelling a useful skill for writers to learn. But that's a topic for a future column.
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