Storytelling

Teaching Storytelling and Teaching through Storytelling

Storytelling is very much in fashion right now, which is both good and bad. Good because it is getting attention, bad because it is being experimented with by some who do not understand or respect its power and end up misusing it.

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The technique of any art is sometimes apt to dampen, as it were, the spark of inspiration in a mediocre artist; but the same technique in the hands of a master can fan that spark into an unquenchable flame. 

– Joseph Jasser

Jasser’s warning can be accurate—but what does it mean to a teacher of the art of storytelling? How do you know your students and their abili- ties before experiencing their talent? I remember well how my profes- sor father quelled any hope I ever had of daring to write by criticizing my grammar. He meant well, and he was accurate in his assessment, but it made me very anxious, so that writing still requires an act of will. That same man also told me wonderful stories at bedtime; he dismissed his teaching role and had fun. Now I can talk a blue streak, but putting words on paper still scares me. My experience of one was that of an intellectual lesson and the other as a gift, which begs the question: how do you teach an art? How do you offer helpful advice that will assist artists to grow without dampening their enthusiasm? 

All you can do is care, hope for the best, and ask each person to take responsibility for his or her own learning. As my tai chi teacher says, “You cannot teach by humiliation. You can dominate or indoctrinate, but you cannot stimulate growth. That, as with plants, takes sun and water and time alone in the dark.” This is very similar to what hap- pens when you tell stories: although you don’t know how they will be interpreted, you do know that occasionally you will be surprised by the response. 

Storytelling is very much in fashion right now, which is both good and bad. Good because it is getting attention, bad because it is being experimented with by some who do not understand or respect its power and end up misusing it.

The issue of lying within storytelling is something that will appear later; it involves storytelling that tricks the audience, not for entertain- ment or teaching but to serve the selfish ends of the trickster; a fair number of stories deal with just that. The old sideshow barker and the television huckster on infomercials epitomize this negative role of trying to manipulate with story. Much commercial advertising and cer- tainly politics uses story, sometimes legitimately, to make something clear and sometimes to lead an audience to an “inescapable” conclu- sion. The issue is introduced here just to ensure that story’s power is recognized. 

Entertainment is a requirement for successful storytelling. No story works without it; otherwise it becomes a lecture. Most of us have ex- perienced such non-storytelling, so I won’t belabor the point. We are living in an age of mistrust, and this extends to education, where to a student learning often feels like letting the teachers “win” by allowing “their” values to be superimposed on “mine.” In contrast to formal edu- cation, storytelling allows a listener to allow an idea to grow naturally to fit the hearer. 

The other idea that should be introduced at the very beginning is that story is an evanescent art. Truth, like story, cannot be written in stone, for it dies when it is solidified. The first person to write down the Veda (Hindu sacred scriptures) was called “the butcher of the Veda” because he trapped the words on paper, rather than letting them be alive and free as sound. This effect is evident in the fact that older, written ver- sions of stories often lose their appeal. This also relates to why novels are different from oral stories, why films are different from both, and why online storytelling is different from in-person storytelling and will probably require new terminology to describe it. A musical analogy would be the difference between going to a concert and listening to a CD; and both are very different from reading a score. 

Why tell stories? Ideally, storytellers are selling hope. The psy- chiatrist Milton Erickson, who used stories as his method of therapy, telling the beginnings and letting the patient choose the ending, said that he could prevent a patient’s depression by getting that patient to accept that a 90 percent success rate was a good result. The pa- tient came to accept that demanding perfection was unrealistic and foolish. In other words, it is silly to expect to always win, but one can always gain from any experience. In traditional story terms, this can be seen in the pattern of the third son: the first two were so self-important and determined to succeed that they missed op- portunities, while the third son was open to possibilities and willing to take a chance—success came as a by-product of trying something unexpected. 

Although it may feel like it, disappointment is not defeat—it is just not success yet. Learning lies in recognizing disappointment as a lo- cal rather than a cosmic event, believing that hope can sanely remain. Hope makes a better companion than despair, regardless of how or where a journey aims or ends up. Story supports hope: it gives courage to fight when needed, laughter when the unexpected happens, and a kind of verbal sanctuary of wisdom to ponder in times of quiet. Every- thing is transitory. 

If a listener can learn that living is not about establishing self- importance but about becoming comfortable with reality and can see that “truth” can come in many forms, then that person may become content with life as it is, rather than expecting it to meet all desires and provide constant stimulation. Maybe the fate of the third son can still convince people that it is worth trying, without their being conscious of the lesson as a lesson. And whether it works or not, we can still have fun telling his story. We are storytellers, not therapists or instructors; we tell what we love and listener beware: you are responsible for any meaning you attach to the tale. 

So let’s prepare for giving entertainment to audiences, not for per- fection. And let’s remain aware of the joy that comes with storytell- ing, for both teller and listener. It is this joy that makes the effort well worthwhile. 

There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and intelligence transform a yellow spot into sun. 

—Pablo Picasso

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