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Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Art of Storytelling

A couple of nights ago, my favorite Book Store Cafe, hosted a Storytellers night.  I had never been to such an event before so had no idea what to expect.  When I arrived the candles were lite. The room was full with a very "assorted" audience.  We were just starting to get outer bands of a fast moving hurricane and the air was tropical, muggy, and just starting to rain really hard.  The perfect night for a story.

I settled into my chair and had a really reflective moment.  I realized I was completely relaxed and ready to just sit back and listen.  I knew that nothing was expected of me.  I wasn't going to have to speak, formulate a response, or judge in any way.  I truly came to be entertained.

And entertained I was.  The stories were fabulous.  The storytellers were animated, their voices changed as they told the story from different characters' point of view.  There was just enough description that I could "see" it all in my mind.  Many of the stories were from the "one-room school house era" and I could place myself back there, imagining the characters as ghosts from my own past. The stories became very real to me but not as my stories, only that I could see the story through my own eyes- very different perspective. I didn't re-live my own past, I just, for a brief moment, clearly enjoyed someone elses'.  Most of the stories were personal accounts of something that had happened in the past.

Even though there was drama and trauma in some of the stories, I didn't have any angst as I listened.  I guess because the person telling it  is right there in front of you, you understand that somehow this story turned out okay. I didn't judge what was real or fabricated, it totally didn't matter to me. It was just a good story and if there was fiction mixed in there with fact, "mores the better".  No judging, sorting through, or analysis required.

Afterwards, I got to thinking about my experience.  It occurred to me to wonder why I couldn't take that same "entertain me" approach when listening to friends over coffee. So often when listening we are thinking about our response, or placing ourselves in their shoes, judging the teller, formulating how we think it will end, or what the teller might do differently. Many times it seems, we are waiting for our turn, and instead of listening we are thinking up our own story.  We try to come up with a story along the same lines, perhaps as a way to compare experiences or provide our input in order to relate and therefore "have a conversation".  Maybe we should tell stories more often than we "enter conversations". 

All those drama tornadoes are going to make great stories if just told for their entertainment value.  If we aren't judging the characters, taking sides, protecting ourselves, or worrying about the outcome, they will be fun to just listen to. Perhaps, years from now, some of those tornadoes will be folklore, myths or fables?

During the story telling session there is no interruption from the audience.  There is no discussion afterwards.  The story is presented, the teller "has the floor" and then you move on to the next story.  The stories don't have to be similar or flow as a reflection of the one told before. The story doesn't even have to be  the same every time. They don't have to be true, and the teller doesn't have to provide context or explanation as to whether or not they are true.

Bary McWilliams, in "Effective Storytelling" (available on-line ) says that one of the principles of storytelling is that once you finish the story - you stop!  He suggests you don't ramble on, try to tie up loose ends, or explain everything. You tell the story and let the audience draw their own meaning from it. Hmm..

Maybe that's what we should practice more.  Just telling our stories and moving on.  Maybe we don't need to hear the audience's interpretation or critique. Perhaps all we want to do is to tell our stories with sincerity and enthusiasm and then move on...

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