"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? 

Making a living as a storyteller...

...is not easy. I think it was Elizabeth Ellis who said, "If anything can keep you from being a full-time storyteller, let it." If nothing can keep you from this work, then and only then, should you take it on as a full-time job. So that's where I am, where I've been since 1993, wanting only to tell stories, play with puppets, teach workshops, coach other storytellers. 

Teaching teachers to use puppets in 2008

Teaching teachers to use puppets in 2008

I love storytelling. It's massively fun. It is also my business, make no mistake. I market my work, write contracts and invoices, track income and expenses, record mileage, file taxes (done, whew!) and all the rest of what it takes to keep a business going. 

Sometimes I need help. I'm fortunate to have been a participant last year and now a peer facilitator in ArtistInc, a rigorous program that trains artists and performers to be entrepreneurs. I've taken other classes like this in the past, such as Sean Buvala's Storytelling Bootcamp, but this is right here in my town. We meet for eight weeks to work on our arts businesses, and in the process, create a core group of artists in many disciplines with whom to work. We've maintained many of the friendships we made in last year's group.

ArtistInc bag and notebook. Sorry about the cat hair--it's a fact of my life, alas.

ArtistInc bag and notebook. Sorry about the cat hair--it's a fact of my life, alas.

In ArtistInc, we set goals and rely on each other for accountability. We've had sessions on budgets, taxes, writing about our work, legal issues and more. Our homework assignments are practical. This week, we're reviewing artist statements. Here's my latest artist statement:

I live in my head. A lot. I make stuff up, I borrow from old tales, I reinterpret new stories. As a storyteller, I’m a tour guide to that space in my brain. I work without a script, without costumes, without props. When I’m doing it right, listeners laugh, smile, sigh and breathe together, connected in the space of stories. I perform at schools, libraries, festivals, special events, and in my own backyard, literally. My mouthy hand puppets come along to shows for kids. I tell more grownup stories to, well, grownups and older kids. We play together. Apart from being the oldest educational method in the world, storytelling is just plain fun.

The final session is a Pecha Kucha style Powerpoint presentation, using a set of slides that advance automatically every 20 seconds. My work is usually live, so last year was the first time I ever used Powerpoint. I'm redoing my presentation for this year. When I get it finished, I'll post it here. 

Soon I'm going to roll out a new business project, one that ArtistInc has helped me refine. Watch this space!

Storytelling, storywriting and the Common Core

Rather than carp about the Common Core State Standards, that is, what students in each grade all over the country will be expected to learn, I thought it might be instructive to link the CCSS with some of my programs, in small bites. I've been working on a flyer for school systems about my writing in-services, workshops and residencies, in which I include the following useful information: 

From third grade through high school, the Common Core State Standards ask students to write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.

That's what I do in my Storytelling, Storywriting program. And if we're thinking about storytelling as a pre-writing tool (which of course we are), when I tell stories to kids, aren't I also giving examples of developing real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details and clear event sequences? Yes, indeedy! 

There, now, that connection with Common Core State Standards wasn't so painful, was it? 

On measurable outcomes in the arts

I had a great time last week in Salina, KS in part of my annual school residency. I did a wide range of performances and workshops, from telling folktales to kindergarten through second grade, to doing my new Shakespeare program for fifth graders (10- and 11-year olds), to giving a workshop for ten kids in a special high school program, to a performance of Tristan and Iseult (my longest story at 95 minutes) at a coffeehouse, to writing workshops with fifth graders. It's this last one I want to talk about.

In this workshop, which I've written about before, one of my goals is to get students excited about writing by actually writing. After I lay the groundwork, I give them a topic and say, "On your marks, get set, write!" as I start my timer for three minutes. The kids are immediately silent, intent upon keeping their hands moving, pouring words out of their pencils onto the paper. Oh, yes, occasionally they get stuck and I quietly give them a little boost of an idea, but in all three classes last week, I barely had to do that. 

I love this point in the workshop, where the kids are deeply focused.. 

Writing so fast, the pencil is blurry!

Writing so fast, the pencil is blurry!

This is the point in the workshop where I see the most value. The students are excited about writing, about learning, about their own innate creativity. It was at this point last week when in one session, a seasoned teacher whispered to me how she could see using this exercise when they had only a few minutes to fill. It was at this point, in a different session, when the young teacher in charge of teaching writing to the fifth graders whispered a question: "How would you measure this? How could I write a rubric for this activity?" 

I was gobsmacked. How could I answer this? A rubric is educational jargon for "a standard of performance for a defined population," according to the National Science Education Standards. I wanted to shake this teacher and say, "Can't you see that these kids are actually learning that writing can be fun? Can't you feel their excitement?" I use an abridged version of Natalie Goldberg's "Rules for Writing Practice," from the book Wild Mind. The last rule is "You're free to write the worst junk in America." I want the kids to write without being graded, judged, measured. If they know they're being graded by the teacher, they'll self-censor (thanks, Kelly Werts, for that insight). They won't write freely, which is the whole point. 

It's not the teacher's fault. The last many years, starting with No Child Left Behind, have forced teachers into this business model of requiring "measurable return on investment." Maybe the Common Core Standards will shift this, as there's a little more emphasis on creativity, but as far as I read them, they're still locked into measurement. The arts don't fit well into this model.

I told the teacher I didn't have a good answer to her question. If I had to grade those kids, I would give them all top marks, for the joy of their own creativity. What they learn when they're able write what's inside them is that they are interesting, creative, worthy human beings with something to say. Let's celebrate this, instead of trying to force it into a rubric.

Valuing the arts

Last week I went to a talk given by Nnenna Freelon at the Lied Center of Kansason the importance of arts in education. I'm already a convert, but there was a moment in the Q and A that I loved. One of our local politicians who has always been a strong backer of the arts asked the loaded question: "Should government support the arts?"

Photo by Ann Dean. For those of you not in Kansas, this cardboard cutout is a take on the mural of John Brown in the Kansas Capitol painted by John Steuart Curry. It was seen at a demonstration for arts funding in 2011, when our governor defunded the Kansas Arts Commission.

Photo by Ann Dean. For those of you not in Kansas, this cardboard cutout is a take on the mural of John Brown in the Kansas Capitol painted by John Steuart Curry. It was seen at a demonstration for arts funding in 2011, when our governor defunded the Kansas Arts Commission.

The audience, knowing the situation in Kansas and knowing this particular senator, laughed a little. Nnenna's response was great. Instead of the expected "Of course!" she took a long pause and said, "That's not the question. The real question is, who do we want to be?" 

She's right. Who do we want to be?  I want us to have the possibility of being interesting, creative, funny, engaged, connected problem-solvers, with a wide emotional vocabulary. Will everyone be that? No, certainly not, but I want the possibility, and I believe the arts can allow that possibility. 

I recently came across this fabulous list, Ten Lessons the Arts Teach, by Eliot Eisner: 

1. The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships. Unlike much of the curriculum in which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts, it is judgment rather than rules that prevail.

2. The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.

3. The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.

4. The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem solving purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity. Learning in the arts requires the ability and a willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.

5. The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor numbers exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.

6. The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects. The arts traffic in subtleties.

7. The arts teach students to think through and within a material. All art forms employ some means through which images become real.

8. The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said. When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.

9. The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling.

10. The arts' position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important.

SOURCE: Eisner, E. (2002). The Arts and the Creation of Mind, In Chapter 4, What the Arts Teach and How It Shows. (pp. 70-92). Yale University Press. Available from NAEA Publications. NAEA grants reprint permission for this excerpt from Ten Lessons with proper acknowledgment of its source and NAEA. A .pdf of this list, in pretty form, is found on the NAEA site. 

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