"What are the differences between writing and oral storytelling?"

This was a question a participant in a storytelling workshop asked the other night. My answer then was nowhere near complete, just as what I write here also will miss some salient points. Here's what occurs to me now:

Oral storytelling 

  • Is an older artform than written.
  • Does not require that the listener be literate.
  • Requires teller and listener to be in the same place (hmm, unless it's on a recording, which places it closer to written).
  • Is not in set form. The storyteller may change the story depending on the audience, circumstances, time allotted, mood of the audience, mood of the storyteller, venue. 
  • May be more concise--too much detail can bog the experience down.
  • The storytelling/story listening experience is usually shorter. Of course there are exceptions for cultures in which epics may last over days, or with serial stories.
  • Depends on nonverbal as well as verbal communication--facial expression and body language, volume, pacing, attitude, etc.
  • May use repetition and mnemonics to help the audience remember people, places and action.
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Written storytelling

  • Requires literacy. Even with a read-aloud, somebody is reading it. 
  • Is usually experienced by the reader without the writer being present. The writer is unaware of the reaction of the reader.
  • Is in set form in each edition (with some exceptions for online experiences).
  • Requires the writer to show attitude, emotion, etc. using words.
  • Have a wider range of length, from flash fiction to multivolume sagas. 
  • The reader may flip the pages back to remind herself of something that happened earlier. 
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Of course, a good story is a good story. One artform is not better than the other. Oral storytelling can enhance writing and writing can enhance oral storytelling--I often write about the stories I tell, in order to understand them.

What did I miss? 

Community

My friend Kareen King prompted me to choose a theme for the year, a word to focus on. Almost immediately, it came to me: "community." In truth, I've been thinking about this word for a little over a year, since I moved back from KC to Lawrence. I moved back mostly because I missed my community. I live on the same street I moved from in 2010, just a half block east. I'm close enough to downtown that I can walk and often when I do, I run into friends. 

How can my storytelling add to this community? One way is through the Story Nights I do in the backyard. I had five last summer and will do more this next year.  

 My cat Frankie even attended!

My cat Frankie even attended!

I'm also thinking about how the stories we tell can build up or tear down a community. I want to tell the stories that build up community. Sometimes that's through shared laughter, sometimes it's through specific ideas the listeners get from the stories. Last week I told Grandmother Bear and the Hurtful Words to a group of 2nd graders. We talked about what one might say after using hurtful words. I explained that "just kidding" isn't kind. One little girl raised her hand and said, "But what if you were really just kidding." That gave me pause. I suggested that it might not be a good way to kid, because it could truly hurt somebody's feelings. Sometimes the stories we tell can encourage kindness in a world that doesn't always feel kind.

I'm going to veer off topic from storytelling but still on the topic of community. I've been the recipient of great kindness from friends and family, that is, from my community, in working on my house. Some has been moral support, some financial, much has been actual hands-on-let's-make-this-place-livable work. I'm deeply grateful. Here are a few pictures of the results: 

 The freshly plastered yellow wall, freshly painted trim and green wall of my office, thanks to Kate, Tim, Samrat, Mary, Andy, Marie, Paul and Janelle.

The freshly plastered yellow wall, freshly painted trim and green wall of my office, thanks to Kate, Tim, Samrat, Mary, Andy, Marie, Paul and Janelle.

 The freshly plastered dining room, thanks to Thomas, Kate, Tony and his guys, Sarah, Mark, Tim. 

The freshly plastered dining room, thanks to Thomas, Kate, Tony and his guys, Sarah, Mark, Tim. 

 The painted living room, thanks to Kate, Paul and Anthea.

The painted living room, thanks to Kate, Paul and Anthea.

 The bedroom, with help from Kate and Deborah.

The bedroom, with help from Kate and Deborah.

 The puppet room (they're just out of sight)--oh, I did this room myself.

The puppet room (they're just out of sight)--oh, I did this room myself.

 And most recently, the bright and clean kitchen, thanks to Kate, Thomas, Paul, Marie, Robin, Susan, Bonnie, Aaron, Jamie, Diane and Tim.

And most recently, the bright and clean kitchen, thanks to Kate, Thomas, Paul, Marie, Robin, Susan, Bonnie, Aaron, Jamie, Diane and Tim.

I had immeasurable help also from Mary, Rick, Mary W., Andy, Jeanette, Mike, Bob, Kareen, Tzveta, Marie G., Joanna-banana, Dave, Steve, Tom O., Sarah, Joyce and all of you who listened to me drone on and on about the house. I hope I haven't left anyone out.* Thank you all. You matter. WE matter. Community matters. 

*I also had professional help from Earl Moise of Rising Son Plumbing, Jeff Hardie of Electric Plus, Andy Martin of Martin Hardwood Floors and Tony Backus. They all did a great job!

The power of quiet

I'm not a loud storyteller.  I prefer to invite listeners in to my story world, rather than grab them by the lapels and drag them in. I'm an introvert, so maybe that's why this is my style. Oh, sometimes I get loud, sometimes I wind the kids up, sometimes the decibel level gets high, but I like to bring everybody back to a calm state where we can all enjoy the story connection. I love seeing kids really listening to stories.

This past week, I had the pleasure of working with individual classes of second-graders (7-8 year olds) at Quail Run Elementary School in Lawrence, KS on the Learning about the environment through the arts program, through the Lied Center of Kansas. This was the project on lifecycles, dragonflies, puppets and storytelling. I've worked with these teachers before and was impressed once more by their powerful classroom management skills. All three teachers spoke quietly and calmly with the students, giving instructions without raising their voices. On top of this, they were kind. The children were attentive. They weren't automatons, they weren't stressed, they were just enjoying the sessions without getting wild. The teachers understand the power of quiet. I don't know if this is a school attitude or just these three teachers, but it's a wonder to watch. Afterwards, I was talking with one of them about this. She laughed and said she thought the kids were a bit wired. She also mentioned that when she has a student teacher, she often has to tell them to take the intensity and volume down a notch, as the kids will always ramp up higher than the teacher. 

Another way this teacher used the power of quiet in her classroom management style was at the end of the session. She needed to tell the kids what was going to happen next. She said something like, "Okay, everybody, now look at me. Put your hands on your head. Good. Put your hands on your knees. Good. Now put your hands on your ears. Hands to your sides. I'm going to give you the instructions for what's going to happen next. I'd like you to walk back to the classroom without saying anything. Put your puppets on your desks and line up for gym." She only had to remind one kid that it was time to follow instructions. 

Children don't need to be yelled at all the time. Quiet works. Respect works as well. 

Thanks to the teachers, Peggy, Shawn and Paula, for using the power of quiet.

P.S. One of Peggy's students came back about an hour after the session with a story he had written about what we had done. Fabulous!