"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? 

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.

Travel projects

I write this from Belgium, where I'm performing and visiting friends for a couple of weeks.  I have several days free and had good intentions of working on two specific projects: 1) cleaning up the translation of the story of Berthe Aux Grands Pieds, which I call Queen Berta and King Pippin and 2) finishing the first draft and beginning the rewrite of my National Novel Writing Month novel from last November. 

Today I sat down with my laptop, ready to begin the first project. Alas (or as I might say here, 'Hélas!'), just as in this picture Queen Berta is sitting forgotten in the forest, far from Paris, where she should be, the translation is sitting cozily in my external hard drive at home, far from Belgium, where it should be.

Source : acoeuretacris.centerblog.net sur centerblog.

I'll have to work on it when I get home. In looking for a good picture to use for this post, I came across an excellent summary in French, so I'm doubly wishing I had brought my work with me. That story deserves to be known.

So I'll be plowing ahead on my novel. I find it good to have a limited number of projects when I travel for extended periods. In 2008, on a month-long trip to Brazil, I took only one book, a collection of Grimm Tales. I had been hired to perform my programs Grimm for Grownups and Cheerfully Grimm for the first time a few weeks after I returned, so I spent my free time working on the stories. In 2009 when I came to Belgium, I sat in my friend's kitchen by the hour working on the translation of Queen Berta and King Pippin. Now, I'll turn my attention to this short novel for older kids. Having a smaller pool of projects makes it easier for me to focus.

I wrote most of the first draft of this novel as part of National Novel Writing Month in November. I succeeded in the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month, but I didn't finish the story. I think I only have a couple more pages to wrap it up, and then it will be time to rewrite. I admit it: I like beginning projects and often get bogged down with the hard work of editing and rewriting.

Before I begin, it might be good to take advantage of the rare sunny weather here. Quite often when I'm here in February it's raining or spitting snow. For the past four days it has been cold and clear.

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