"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? 

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.

You do WHAT?!

My friend Granny Sue is organizing a storytelling blog hop (the internet answer to a pub crawl?) and she asked for blog posts about who we are and what we do. If you're a family member or old friend, you probably know this stuff, but it occurs to me that many readers don't know my background or the range of what I do. So here goes...

On a plane, at a party, in a networking gathering or in many other places, the question comes up. "And what do you do?"

"I'm a storyteller." 

"What? What does that mean?"

"Well, I tell stories." I launch in, "I tell folktales, my own stories and stories from books. I don't read the stories, I tell them. When I work with young children, I use puppets, but I also tell stories to adults and older kids." 

The next question is often, "Can you make a living at that?" Yes, I have done so since 1993. 

"How do you get your work?" I jump into the list of things I use to market my work: this website and blog, directories and rosters, postcards, e-mails and my favorite, word of mouth. 

"How did you start?" I have a couple of answers. One is that I babysat when I was a teenager and would make up stories to tell to the kids. Another is that I was a children's librarian and learned to tell stories in my job. I always tell people how lucky I am to do work I love. 

Still, these answers don't ever tell close to the whole story.

You can find me telling stories in schools, libraries and at festivals. I tell for kids who are learning English, you can find me hanging out with the stroller crowd with puppets, I might be at a school telling character ed stories, I love telling stories in Juvenile Detention, I've told stories to high school communications classes and forensics students, I teach a workshop (or series) called "Storytelling, Storywriting." Before performances for kids, I often play "Name that tune" with the listeners, playing on my harmonica. Afterwards, the puppets might greet the audience.

Is that all? Nah. I tell Medieval stories to older kids and adults, including The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, my longest story, which clocks in at 95 minutes, and Queen Berta and King Pippin, which I translated from Old French and Modern French. I was one of three co-founders of Going Deep, the Long Traditional Story Retreat. Last week I did a one-woman show for adults called Blood, Guts, Spies and Fat Naked Ladies, a wild piece of personal fiction based on truth about the year I lived in Bulgaria in the early 1980s (yup, during Communism). I've got a large collection of stories of the Turkish trickster Nasruddin Hodja, most of which I translated from various languages.

What else? I coach storytellers, I teach workshops on using puppets with young children, story stretches and songs, storytelling, writing. More? Oh, right, I give house concerts, conference presentations and keynote speeches, too. Weddings and anniversaries? Yessiree.

When not performing, I search for stories in English, French, Bulgarian and Russian or do (or avoid) office work. I travel around the world (all over the US, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Argentina to date, with an upcoming trip to Chile) telling stories. 

Some of the personal stuff: I'm a reader, a talker, an adventurer. Though I live in Kansas, I'm a New Englander at heart, the youngest of seven kids. I love to cook, eat, play around in the garden, hang out with friends, listen to music, swim, walk. I have a four-legged office assistant who is meowing at me now to feed him. 

I also like pie. I'm still looking for the best restaurant pie on earth. Fruit, not cream.

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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