Thursday, December 27, 2007

What is Storytelling?

I caught up with the discussion sbout the definition of storytelling at Priscilla Howe's blog, Storytelling Notes.

The discussion has ebbed and flowed for a long time--it was a hot topic when I joined my fist online storytelling listserve in 1996. Just what is this thing we call storytelling? Is it art, craft or skill? Priscilla got me thinking about it again.

Every time I try to answer the above questions, I find myself seeing Ray Hicks. I experienced his simple, straightfoward, classic delivery of a tale on the street in Jonesborough, Tennessee, a few years before he passed away.For me Ray Hicks defined storytelling clearly and eloquently as he told us a Jack tale in front of the old log cabin, standing easily in his bib overall and felt hat.

What was it about that experience that remains so vivid in my mind?

  • His inclusion of every listener in the tale. Ray used eye contact and gestures to make a connection with each person in the circle around him--not singling people out, but looking at each one directly and intently to be sure they were following along with the story.

  • Pacing. He didn't hurry, he didn't drag the story out for effect (something I've observed other tellers do, trying to make a 5-minute story into a 20 minute telling). He paused when the story called for a dramatic stop, hurried when Jack was hurrying. The pace was natural, like that of a conversation on a summer evening.

  • Voice. Ray's voice sank low, rose high, got louder and softer as he told the story because he was in the story with us, not presenting it. He knew all the people in the tale, where they lived and who their people were. He wore the story like a favorite coat.

  • He loved the story. His enjoyment and interest in what he was telling us was evident with every word he spoke, and with those he didn't. He didn't use extra words--he let his eyes, voice and gestures say things for him. And we understood.

Okay, so what is my definition, given the above?

Storytelling is sharing experience, through word and gesture, with listeners.

I can hear you thinking, "experience? What about folktales? Ray Hicks didn't experience that Jack tale!" Ah, but he did, every time he told it. He was right there in the story, experiencing each and every thing that happened, seeing it all unfold as he told it, and making sure his listeners were right there with him. That is storytelling.

And that is the kind of storyteller I want to be. I'm not dramatic, or artistic. I don't know how to do mime or how to dance. Others can do those things and for them it expresses what they want to say, adding different ways to communicate with their listeners. Sometimes I sing the story in a ballad. It's one more way to use words, to use my voice, to share the experience of the tale.

My goal as a storyteller: Tell--from my heart, from my life, from my experience--tell stories.

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