Monday, March 7, 2011

Storytellers Retreat Post 2: The Stories

Jane commented that she wanted to hear about the stories we told this past weekend, and since the retreat was all about stories, there were plenty of them. Where to start?

Friday night's swap might be the most logical place, since that was also the first night of the retreat. We stayed in the Rose Tea Room, where we had eaten dinner, to discuss our plans for the next day. Dd I mention how informal the plans were? Basically I wrote up what I thought we should do and how to do it, shared my ideas with a couple other storytellers for their feedback and that's how it was planned. As I said in yesterday's post, the basic idea was to go into small groups to work, providing praise, brainstorming and suggestions for each teller's story. So we reviewed the plans and then settled down to tell and listen to stories.

One of the best things about storytelling is the wide variety of stories and styles to be found in any gathering of tellers. We heard a good story accompanied by Otto's accordion and  a story one teller created with a student on a canoe trip--an "alternate" story of Santa Claus that stretched into the tall-tale realm. I told one of the first stories I learned to tell called Turtle of Koka, which I learned from a collection of stories by Margaret Read MacDonald called Storyteller's Startup Book. It's still one of my favorites to tell. Some people didn't tell on this first night, preferring to listen. In the comfortable dining room, surrounded by friends, it was a nice time to just sit back and enjoy.

In our morning sessions the next day, each person was allotted about 30 minutes to tell and work on their story. The time was a suggestion--if the group wanted to spend more time on one teller, they did so. In my morning group we had a nice range of stories: an original fiction tale for children based on family history and a memory of a family reunion and an old homeplace, a ghost story with some good historical links, a humorous bird story and my story about my parents.

Here is how my sessions worked: our first teller read most of her story because it was very new and she had never told it yet. Then she told briefly how the rest of the story would go. We told her what we liked: strong sense of place, good imagery and character development, etc. Then we had questions because we needed to know more about the background of the story and why she had chosen this one to tell. A person's reasons for choosing a particular story can be surprising, and often lend insight into the teller's perspective.

With the bird story, the teller was looking for more ideas on how to expand the story. We brainstormed, coming up with all kinds of bird references that he can develop to add more humor and depth to his story. The ghost storyteller told a story he'd told before, but thought he could make it better. After discussing what we liked about the story, we continued with questions and made several suggestions, such as adding more biographical information about the main person in the story so that she was a more rounded character, and to add more historical information for those not familiar with the Civil War and the particular raid that was part of the story.

I needed help finding the over-arching universal theme of my story about my parents. I have told the story once before and it went well, but I was not sure why it went well, if that makes sense. I knew it was a big story, one of young love, war, immigration, good times and hardship, children, maturity, the 60's---so much in one story! I thought perhaps it was the real story of history, almost the backstory in a way because my parents weren't famous or in books, yet they, and so many others like them, actually lived the events that made their times. But I knew there was more, and I could not get to what that more was. I brought some things with me--photos of my parents and my Dad with his unit, Mom's luggage tags and the customs declaration that said her luggage consisted of one brown canvas carryall--imagine starting a new life in a country where you knew only one person, and having everything you owned in one brown carryall. The ephemera I brought with me added something to the story, and we also discussed its role and whether or not it was necessary.

In the afternoon our group changed slightly and we added three new members, and lost one. Those who remained retold their story from the morning and gained additional feedback from the new members. The new members brought a historical story of a family and a farm, a tall tale, and a telling of a Raggedy Ann story. We followed the same process of providing praise and feedback, brainstorming or asking questions as needed. It was in this session that enlightenment came to me through the insight of one group member: my parents' story follows the marriage vows--"to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part." That was what I was looking for and now I know what I need to do with this story.

The evening swap moved into the parlor in front of the Inn, which proved to be a good place for storytelling. We sat in a large circle and everyone told at least one story. We started with a funny story about moonshine, which led me to sing a moonshine song called Kentucky Bootlegger (or Boozefighters, take your pick)  that was just a perfect fit, which led to another moonshine story from another teller. And that's how it went--one story reminding someone of another story, or someone just remembering one they wanted to tell. I sang a ballad I am learning called The Outlandish Knight and told the ghost story about Gamble's Run which is located not far from Sistersville. We heard the story of how the chipmunk got his stripes, a few funny family stories, a haunting but wonderful story of how salvation came to a family through a train wreck and one teller even recited Little Orphan Annie --of course we all had to chime in on the chorus. A tall tale rounded out the evening.

So, many good tales told, and a new story created for our guild with our first ever storytellers retreat.


momalizzie said...

Gosh, Susie!!! What a packed weekend you had! I love how you came up with our parents following the marriage vows. Also, you made Sistersville sound like a place I would want to visit! Glad you had such a fun and busy weekend.

Granny Sue said...

Liz, it was another teller who noticed the connection to the marriage vows--I didn't even see it until he said it! But he was right, and you know how important those vows were to Mom and Dad. So it's a very good way to arrange the story for telling--not necessarily having to say that's what I am doing, but using those vows as an outline. That helps me organize and focus on key parts of the story. That process will strengthen it and deepen it, I think.

Nance said...

I enjoy reading about your storytelling and the workshops. I can speak in front of a 1000 children but put me in a group of "big people" and I stutter and stammer and my knees shake. I think that is why I enjoy my writing . . . but sure wish at age 60 I would outgrow my stage fright.

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