rss search

It’s all about the story: reflections on the art of storytelling



Power and Value of Storytelling

Sto­ry­telling … the power that cre­ates syn­ergy; the magic that hap­pens when story, teller and audi­ence ignite with pos­si­bil­i­ties that are end­less; when all are engulfed in imagery, senses, and emo­tions. I have for years, known this power with dance. It is very sim­i­lar, espe­cially in that it is a tem­po­ral art form. Even a great video­g­ra­pher can not cap­ture the magic that hap­pens when one is liv­ing it, breath­ing with the visual and musi­cal images, and feed­ing off the energy, equally shared by the audi­ence and the performer/s. Sto­ry­telling, to me, is aural/oral dancing.

The expe­ri­ence of being in the moment is beyond words. Like many dancers, I have often been uncom­fort­able express­ing myself orally, espe­cially as a per­former. Learn­ing to be a sto­ry­teller, has made me real­ize that I have been paint­ing pic­tures for my stu­dents for years. It has been the key to my suc­cess as a teacher, but I wasn’t even aware of why or how it worked. I have been telling sto­ries with my body through ges­ture and expres­sion, and the words I have care­fully cho­sen. I often worked with begin­ning chore­o­g­ra­phers … teach­ing them the tools of craft­ing. Advanced stu­dents, have enough of a move­ment vocab­u­lary to cre­ate an entire dance based on cir­cles or diag­o­nal lines. Begin­ning stu­dents, who are just learn­ing to express them­selves through move­ment, are often more inspired if they can dance a story. I can’t tell you how many rit­ual sac­ri­fices to the Vol­cano God I have seen over the years, or Quincean­eras staged in a dance stu­dio. But each expe­ri­ence, has been a work of cre­ativ­ity and excite­ment for the stu­dents. Often, they wrote their own sto­ries, but at times I assigned them research projects. Native Amer­i­can Leg­ends was one … it pro­duced amaz­ing, orig­i­nal move­ment as the kids inter­preted the sto­ries. Black His­tory Month was another. These projects were filled with emo­tions and pas­sions. All inspir­ing to watch … all would have been just as inspir­ing to hear.

Every­body loves a good story. Now, how­ever, I appre­ci­ate the value that goes way beyond the enter­tain­ment ele­ment. I can “see”, “feel”, and hear the his­tory of a peo­ple, a fam­ily expe­ri­ence or a moment in time. Whether the mes­sage be rooted in ancient his­to­ries, or an event that took place last year, last week … a story, well told, is invalu­able to help­ing the lis­ten­ers con­nect to the human­ity that we all share.

Lis­ten­ing to my class­mates share their sto­ries, has given me a con­nec­tion to each of them, that I would have missed if we were in a math class. It is unfor­tu­nate, that we don’t inter­act more, in all edu­ca­tional set­tings. I think we learn and absorb so much more mate­r­ial when we find con­nec­tions … how the sub­ject is rel­e­vant to real life, how the peo­ple learn­ing can use a skill, ben­e­fit from the knowl­edge, etc. I cer­tainly know, that when work­ing with teens, a teacher who can make a sub­ject rel­e­vant to life and the future, is a teacher who has found the key to suc­cess. Again … I am aware now that I use sto­ry­telling all the time. If I have to talk about his­tory, I try to learn enough of a real life hap­pen­ing, to make it real to the stu­dents. I often ask them to “imag­ine if, then what” and it brings about lively dis­cus­sion. There is noth­ing more telling, as far as stu­dent engage­ment goes, when a room full of teenagers erupts into a hand wav­ing,” pick me” scene. Sto­ries do this … magic.


Folk­tales and fairy­tales are the most rec­og­nized sto­ries and are found in all cul­tures. One of my favorite lines in Chap­ter 3 of the text is, “Your mind will rec­og­nize it as will your heart.” Folk­tales serve as the foun­da­tion of sto­ry­telling tra­di­tion. The sto­ries reveal truths about human con­di­tions: humor, fear, romance, excite­ment, dan­ger, a les­son learned. They often involve talk­ing ani­mals, talk­ing trees … a delight for the imag­i­na­tion, speak­ing to the child in all of us. I was thrilled to dis­cover that dif­fer­ent cul­tures had sim­i­lar sto­ries, such as the “Beauty and the Beast” theme. How fun it is to read the var­ied adap­ta­tions and to real­ize that the lessons are the same.

Myths are sto­ries that reveal the reli­gious and cul­tural val­ues of a peo­ple. They often tell about “the begin­nings” … the gods and god­desses, how the world was made, the first peo­ple, ani­mals and events. They fol­low a time­line, from cre­ation through destruc­tion. Mythic sto­ries are based on what at some time may have been per­ceived truth, or a metaphor for beliefs. Research into mythol­ogy may reveal humor­ous char­ac­ters as well as heroic; gods who inter­fere in the lives of humans and crea­tures of great wis­dom. Myths are often sacred, so the teller has a respon­si­bil­ity to honor the tra­di­tion, the cul­ture and the peo­ple who are going to be revealed in the telling. The sto­ries are a won­der­ful vehi­cle to expe­ri­ence all of human emo­tion and to under­stand­ing the human­ity of all.

Leg­ends are sto­ries about peo­ple who exist or may have existed long ago. These sto­ries also pro­vide insight to the peo­ple or cul­ture that is revealed through the leg­end. Char­ac­ters become “big­ger than life” in many cases, as the sto­ries are shared from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. The leg­end may revolve around impor­tant reli­gious fig­ures, great lead­ers and cul­tural fig­ures. They are evolv­ing even today, as the pop­u­lar cul­ture expands and new heroes are rec­og­nized. Hero sto­ries are pow­er­ful in that they reveal a pat­tern that is rec­og­niz­able to all … a jour­ney, a life chang­ing series of events and a les­son learned and shared.

Para­bles are short sto­ries with a moral or spir­i­tual mes­sage. Fables are short folk­tales. All of the story styles are rec­og­niz­able … often, dur­ing a telling, I found myself think­ing, “I know this story!” It may sound a bit dif­fer­ent, but the point is the same. I think this is the thrill of hear­ing such sto­ries … they speak to us. We may add our own twist to the telling or the lis­ten­ing, tak­ing in the mes­sage and enjoy­ing the famil­iar­ity. It is a sat­is­fy­ing, life affirm­ing experience.

Fact-Based and Per­sonal Stories

Fact-based and per­sonal sto­ries are based on real life events and peo­ple. They reveal events that really hap­pened, how the char­ac­ters responded to the sit­u­a­tions and what the out­comes were. These are sto­ries that must be care­fully cho­sen and shaped. Unlike a myth or leg­end, which has a very rec­og­niz­able pat­tern or sequence of events, a fact-based story is com­pletely crafted by the teller. There is a great respon­si­bil­ity to use the truth to tell a story that teaches, moti­vates, inspires … or to move the audi­ence in some way — emo­tion­ally, intel­lec­tu­ally or spir­i­tu­ally. These sto­ries may require per­mis­sions to tell, espe­cially if you are going to reveal facts about some­one who is liv­ing today, be it a fam­ily mem­ber or other char­ac­ter, cour­tesy dic­tates that one has per­mis­sion to tell. It is the eth­i­cal way to go. This type of story may require a lot of research in order to tell the story as it truly hap­pened, and to honor the peo­ple about whom you are speak­ing. A fact based story can enter­tain as well.

I men­tioned above that fact based sto­ries, like all sto­ries pro­vide incred­i­ble oppor­tu­ni­ties to teach rel­e­vance in edu­ca­tional set­tings. When stu­dents con­nect to the human con­di­tion … in his­tory classes, or lit­er­a­ture classes, for exam­ple, the stu­dent will relate to and retain the infor­ma­tion. Learn­ing dry facts about the holo­caust or the bat­tle at Get­tys­burg, can be bor­ing. Adding a real life char­ac­ter … be it hero or vil­lain, can bring knowl­edge to life, and has the power to change the learn­ing envi­ron­ment to one that truly inspires and pro­vides intel­lec­tual and emo­tional growth.

I chose my fact based story from a prompt, “mem­o­rable firsts.” It was a light humor story about a child­hood event. I wrote about it a year ago in a cre­ative writ­ing class, but for telling, I did a rewrite for sequence, then I added sen­sory descrip­tions. It was a sim­ple lit­tle story, but I think it had mem­o­rable moments that most adults could find relat­able. The telling was much more enjoy­able than writ­ing! I had many ideas for a per­sonal story… I have a few sto­ries brew­ing in my mind, but some are not yet ready to be revealed, espe­cially emo­tion­ally, so I chose this event as one I could craft into an enjoy­able lit­tle story with a les­son learned. As I gain more expe­ri­ence, I want to branch out to tell sto­ries of a more seri­ous nature, and I look for­ward to that challenge.

Selec­tion of Tellable Tales

I actu­ally enjoy research, so this was a great oppor­tu­nity and chal­lenge … find­ing sto­ries that may inspire me to craft and tell. I actu­ally printed out addi­tional sto­ries that I didn’t review. I started with the Sto­ry­telling Site at SMCC, then clicked on links all over the place. When I found some­thing inspir­ing, I just “googled” Aztec myths, Native Amer­i­can Leg­ends, for exam­ple, and was sur­prised at the wealth of infor­ma­tion. I wish the inter­net had been around when I was in school … it sure beats the card cat­a­log! Sto­ry­telling sites men­tioned in the text were help­ful too. I even pur­chased Ashliman’s book, Folk and Fairy Tales. I also had fun sift­ing through my own col­lec­tion of books. I have thou­sands of books on so many sub­jects, and I col­lected many, many books for my chil­dren. I have myths, folk­tales and leg­ends in many forms of children’s books, and I used one of my daughter’s favorites for my first story. I found my myth of Echo and Nar­cis­sus while research­ing a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter. I now look dif­fer­ently at sto­ries that I read or shows that I watch. “How would this work if told aloud?” Hmmmmmmmmmm.

The Prepa­ra­tion and Telling of Stories

This was the craft­ing sequence that has, so far, really worked for me. I would read a story sev­eral times first. Then I would write it out in my own words. Then the sto­ry­board with all its col­ors and lit­tle stick fig­ure prompts … this was the great­est tool. I used the meth­ods of the 5 P’s (I used the 6th, the pic­ture part to visu­al­ize my set­ting and the entire story expe­ri­ence) and my favorite, The Inverted World, to form the sequence. I have a pho­to­graphic mem­ory, so the sto­ry­board was my best method for learn­ing the story thor­oughly. I avoided read­ing the “script” more than right after I wrote it, because I didn’t want the story to sound mem­o­rized. I then told the story, over and over again. I allowed nat­ural ges­tures to “just hap­pen” because move­ment is my first medium. I repeated the tellings until the ges­tures and vocal pac­ing became more com­fort­able. I worked in front of a mir­ror, though I found myself not really look­ing at my image, it was more like the per­son in the mir­ror was the audi­ence. I told the sto­ries to my 16 year old daugh­ter, and she often gave me great advice. It was weird to tell to my hus­band. The first few sto­ries didn’t get much of a response, but the per­sonal story was dif­fer­ent. Per­haps it was because he knows me pretty well, but I knew I had him when he started grin­ning and react­ing. Each time I told the story, it was a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent. That really makes it fun, and surprising!

The text­book pro­vided great infor­ma­tion regard­ing pac­ing, voice, use of image, etc., but for the most part I relied on my instincts. My dance expe­ri­ence was invalu­able. Danc­ing is all about breath­ing and pac­ing … and I found this worked in the use of voice and body energy when telling. It was nat­ural. It also helped me with nerves. Speak­ing in this for­mat is scary, but as I moved and the story took hold, the nerves dis­ap­peared. I also really con­nected to the audi­ence. I found their facial expres­sions and reac­tions inspi­ra­tional … they were so much a part of every story I told. So … this is syn­ergy. I like to call it magic.

I learned from the tellings … I learned to chal­lenge myself to give the story to my audi­ence. This is so dif­fer­ent than “per­form­ing” and it is a very sat­is­fy­ing expe­ri­ence. I am always acutely aware of the peo­ple in the room, their expres­sions, their bod­ily energy. it becomes part of what I am doing … such a rush to feel that give and take … and so very dif­fer­ent than my past expe­ri­ence of being on stage. I have always felt the energy from an audi­ence, but in sto­ry­telling, the big dif­fer­ence is that I can see their faces. Wow! I also enjoyed the feed­back, the pos­i­tive response. At first, being that I am so crit­i­cal of myself, I thought I would want more cri­tique, but the pos­i­tive com­ments are encour­ag­ing and inspir­ing. A final note … I love lis­ten­ing to all of the sto­ries. I find myself being caught up in them, but I also note the faces in the audi­ence and the emo­tions that are revealed in the their expres­sions. It is amazing.

Appli­ca­tions and Use of Storytelling

I think I have already cov­ered my desire to develop my sto­ry­telling skills for the edu­ca­tional set­ting. It is such a pow­er­ful medium for teach­ing. I also see sto­ry­telling as a nat­ural part of the heal­ing process. In my coun­selor train­ing practicum, I worked with a lit­tle girl who was severely trau­ma­tized (PTSD) after a ter­ri­ble car acci­dent. She would barely speak and when she wrote, the let­ters were so tiny you could hardly see them. She had turned her­self inward. I was already a par­ent with three chil­dren and the only teacher in the pro­gram, so she was my client. She didn’t feel com­fort­able talk­ing, so I brought in a huge box of art sup­plies and asked her if she liked to tell sto­ries. I will tell you about the magic that happened.

This lit­tle child and I spent hour after hour on the floor, cut­ting, past­ing, col­or­ing and cre­at­ing. The lit­tle girl who was so dam­aged, cre­ated a cast of char­ac­ters and super-heroes who could fight any bat­tle and con­quer any chal­lenge. I fol­lowed her direc­tions. She would let me cut and shape char­ac­ters … she dic­tated the specifics. It was the most remark­able expe­ri­ence. A the end of 12 weeks of ses­sions, this child had a mobile of all her char­ac­ters that she took home to hang in her room. Through those char­ac­ters, she spoke of fear, anger and hurt. She was able to lash out at the peo­ple (the car) that caused her pain, and she found her voice. She walked out a whole per­son, laugh­ing, talk­ing and being a child again. Her exit inter­view form revealed hand­writ­ing that was bold and round. All of this hap­pened through story. I was dumb­founded by the suc­cess and every­one, includ­ing the PHD can­di­dates and the pro­fes­sor, couldn’t believe what had hap­pened. The lit­tle 2-way mir­ror room was always crowded dur­ing my ses­sions. Please don’t think this is brag­ging on my part. It was not my incred­i­ble skill … it was the magic of cre­ative expres­sion. The “experts” kept ask­ing me how did I do it, what books did I read? I didn’t do any of that … I let it unfold and trusted the process. The story dic­tated the results. It was that per­fect blend of story, cre­ativ­ity, love and com­pas­sion. I just facil­i­tated. I see this expe­ri­ence in a whole new light now. It is still just as mag­i­cal, but I see its power and the appli­ca­tion of story to the heal­ing process. I hope to find a way to work in this capac­ity again … teaching/counseling/expressive ther­apy. Story. Perfection.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>