The Big Stories

“Australian Aborigines say that the big stories-the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life-are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.” Robert Moss, Dreamgates

Speaking Truth

Mural of John the Baptist, Antim Monastery, Bucharest, Romania, from Flickr Creative Commons

In yesterday’s entry in A Storied Career, blogger Kathy Johnson put a link to Jonathan Odell’s article in Commonweal, “Coming Home: A Gay Christian Speaks to Fundamentalists“. It is the story of Odell’s invitation to speak to “a Midwestern seminary with a reputation for its ‘take no prisoners’ conservative theology. It is an example of both first-rate story writing and the power of stories.

Although Odell told the caller he would consider the invitation, he had no desire to be paraded as the “for” side in a debate about homosexuality. He writes, “I saw absolutely nothing redemptive in it for me. I’ve been involved in public debates about gay rights and gay marriage in which I actually got the better of my opponent. But once the exchange was over, I came to realize few minds had been changed, and that some hearts had actually hardened.”

He reluctantly agreed to speak when a Google search turned up a despairing gay student at that same seminary, a young man who felt terrifyingly alone and vulnerable. So Odell gave the talk, anticipating the worst.

Instead, as he spoke about the scared young man, who might very well have been in the audience, and of his own journey as a gay Christian, he felt the students open to him. Fifty minutes later, they gave him a standing ovation.

Questions afterward were respectful and intelligent. Then students began telling their own stories, of brothers and sisters and friends, of their confusion about doctrine that conflicted with their own experience.

He writes, “I understood the dynamic—how story elicits story—but I had not anticipated the commonality of the stories told that evening. They were sharing with me how they had also been wounded by their religion’s intolerance toward homosexuals. Caring and idealistic, these young people still believed that love has the power to remake the world. It hurt them to be asked to mistrust their deepest instincts, the ones that had led them to ministry.”

There were repercussions, of course. Some professors complained. When a group of students decided to push for a support group for friends of the GLBT community, the dean ordered a committee to draw up a list of faculty and students who questioned the seminary’s stand on homosexuality.

Still, Odell feels he made the right decision, speaking truth to the seminarians. He writes, “But it was worth it for me as a Christian. In the most unlikely of places, I had experienced a coming home. Such a coming home is not a matter of conquest or retribution, of finally getting the love, respect, or apologies that are your due. Rather, simply by telling your story, your truth, without the expectation of gain or the dread of loss, a person is set free. I came away with a new understanding of the very old saying that while facts can help explain us, only stories can save us—and, I hope, others.”

Set us free…yes, that’s what telling our stories can do. Odell’s story illustrates this far more powerfully than this brief summary. You can read it on Commonweal’s Web site.

©2010 Cathryn Wellner

[The photograph is part of a set from the Antim Monastery.]

Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

In this extraordinary talk for TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design: Ideas worth spreading], Nigerian storyteller and writer Chimamanda Adichie begins: “I’m a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call ‘the danger of a single story’.”

Though most of the faces around her childhood home matched her own, the characters in the books she wrote and the stories she wrote were white and blue-eyed and lived in cultures she had never experienced. When she went to the U.S. as a university student, she learned that her roommate had a single story about Africa, a tribal story that had nothing to do with Adichie’s middle-class upbringing.

She says, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

This is an important and thought-provoking talk. Take twenty minutes to watch it.

Twelve Steps to Storytelling with Style

One of my favourite stories is “Letters from Frank”. I’ve been telling it for so many years the characters are good friends. When I tell the story, I get to have a visit with them. Marvin’s still working at the Post Office at 23rd and Union in Seattle. Sissy still drops by every Monday at ten to see if she’s received a letter from Frank.

Cathryn at Stagebridge Tellabration

Cathryn telling stories at Stagebridge Tellabration in Oakland, California, back in 2004

When I first started telling the story, it was longer. But every time I reached a certain spot in the story, the audience clapped. It took me a while, but I finally had to admit the audience was right. What happened after the applause was a coda, not the story.

I still tag a sentence on, but it’s short and seems to satisfy both the audience and me. The omitted part? Well, maybe one day it will still end up in a story, just not this one.

The tips below have been useful to me. I hope they will be to you, too.

1. Carefully plan your beginning and ending. The middle will flow well once you are off to a good start, and a satisfying conclusion lifts the heart of your listeners. Confidence is contagious. Knowing how you are going to enter a story and just where the exit is will give you that confidence. Once you are well launched in the story, the middle comes easily.

2. Observe yourself when you are telling stories to a friend who listens well. You may be animated, humorous, intense, relaxed, depending on the story and your inclination. The critic who whispers in your ear at other times is still. You are free to speak from the heart. This kind of natural storytelling is a key to your personal style.

3. Tell the story while you are in the first flush of enthusiasm. Polishing can come later, as you discover parts of the story that need work. Find a sympathetic audience, such as a friend or spouse, and try out the story.

4. There are many ways to find just the right images for your story. Read poetry aloud for inspiration. Listen to storytellers and storytelling tapes. Play a favorite instrumental recording, and try telling your story to fit its rhythms and moods. Walk, dance, run, jump—use your body to explore the story.

5. Use simple, evocative language. The listener can’t put you on rewind so has to catch the magic the first time through. Gamble Rogers used to incorporate a mega-syllable vocabulary in his stories, with hilarious results. Most of us will do best sticking with simpler words.

6. Try telling the story from a different point of view. The cat who pulls down the Christmas tree sees the event quite differently from the person who hung the family’s fragile heirloom ornaments on it.

7. Watch other people tell stories. Imitate those things which work best. Experiment with their gestures, character voices, turns of phrases. Keep the things that work for you; discard the rest. It worked for Shakespeare, who borrowed heavily from folklore and paid attention to the varieties of human speech and manner.

8. Each story has its own rhythm. Tell the story in different ways until you have found its internal beat. This is another time when music makes a good partner. Try telling the story to the beat of a tango or a lullaby or a waltz or a march. You’ll have fun doing it and discover nuances in the story you didn’t know were there.

9. Practice with a mirror or a tape recorder unless they make you self-conscious. Try out facial expressions and gestures, dialects and character voices. Become the characters, letting your body and voice reflect the boldness or timidity or sauciness of each. Don’t hold back. No one but you is listening or watching. Then use what the mirror or tape recorder teaches you when you tell the story to an audience.

10. Stories you love reflect essential truths about you. We all choose stories that reflect some image of life as we see it or wish it might be. The stories that resonate deeply in us, whether they be serious or funny, are a joy to tell. When you crawl inside of them, experiencing them as you tell them, not holding back, your telling will be received as the gift it is. The best stories are an authentic reflection of the teller, whether they are original or being passed on.

11. The more often you tell a story, the more you will enjoy it. It’s true that sometimes stories wear out for us, no longer reflecting our view of life. Set those aside. But some stories are so true for us that they are forever fresh. The first few times you tell a story like that, you will probably be concentrating on the sequence of events. The real fun starts when you have told the story so many times you no longer have to worry whether you will remember it. You will find yourself keenly anticipating some particularly delicious passage, anxious to see the audience discover it for the first time.

12. The more stories you learn, the more easily you will learn stories. Exercising your story memory is like exercising a muscle. When you use it regularly, it becomes elastic and takes less effort. Fortunately, story learning does not require a photographic memory. What it does require is a willingness to surrender to the story, following its path rather than stopping to examine each stone along the way. Some stories, such as those of Rudyard Kipling, are dependent on words, the stones the author used to build the story’s path. Most are not. Your own words will keep you on the track, without fear of straying. The first few stories may be a struggle to learn; the next fifty will be easier.

©2010 Cathryn Wellner

Change the stories, change the community

“So storytelling is central to community building and maintenance. It can also build new kinds of community. If stories define our communities, then changing the stories would change the community.” Jay Wentworth, “Coral Atolls and Cosmic Tales”

Some Kind of Ride

Just before I launched myself on yet another adventure, dear friends gave me a copy of Brian Andreas’s Traveling Light. My life’s been richer ever since. I now have a collection of StoryPeople books and start every day with one of the whimsical stories Andreas sends to his subscribers. (Click here to sign on.) Now I’ve also become one of his thousands of Facebook fans and plan to check out his blog.

Back in the days when I was working for a large bureaucracy, loving my job but sometimes bogged down in the molasses of The Way Things Are, my screen saver was one of Brian Andreas’s little stories: “feels like some kind of ride but it turns out just to be life going absolutely perfectly.”

Here’s good advice from the StoryPeople Web site:

We believe the power of stories will bring a new world into being. It’s the work we do and it’s work that matters to us. To all of us. Tell your stories. Listen to the stories others tell. Imagine without limit. Remind & inspire & remember.

In the Hot Zone

We live in the age of citizen journalism. Stories that never reached a mass audience are now daily fare on the Web. Many of these stories lift the heart. Those told by witnesses to war sear the soul.

Last night we went to the University of British Columbia’s Distinguished Speakers series to hear Kevin Sites talk about his years of butting up against the limits of broadcast journalism. As an embedded reporter and a self-professed conflict junkie (my words, not his), Sites is passionate about waking people up to the horrors of war, for soldiers and civilians.

The story told in his book is horrifying. Sites hopes it will change the way we look at war.

Links to each chapter of Sites’ searing video, A World of Conflict, can be found on YouTube. Prepare to be disturbed.

10 tips for turning students into storytellers

Someone said to me the other day that good storytelling can’t be taught. People are storytellers or they aren’t, and no amount of coaching can change that.

The same could be said about the best dancers, musicians, and painters. Some have such innate talent that, when they move to music or pick up an instrument or brush, inspiration seems to flow from them.

On the other hand, I’m reminded of the oft-quoted Henry Van Dyke, “Use what talents you possess, for the woods would be very silent if no bird sang except the best”.

I would argue that what Barbara Ueland, in If You Want to Write, says about writing is also valid for storytelling: “Yes, when you get down to the True self and speak from that, there is always a metamorphosis in your writing, a transfiguration.”

When someone tells a story from the “True self”, both the teller and the tale are transfigured. Sometimes all a person needs is permission to be her true self or to speak from his deepest wisdom.

When I began teaching storytelling, I tried all these tips with students. I soon found they were just as successful with adults.


Heather and her grandmother were part of an intergenerational storytelling class I taught at the Naramata Centre in British Columbia.

1. Use pantomime as a means of preparing students to tell stories. Push a heavy box across the floor, up a hill. Walk on a log high over a rushing river. Eat a banana. Be a slug, a seagull. Learn to ride a bicycle.

2. Do action-conversation skits. Be three fish and a heron in a polluted inlet. Be a garbage can, being filled, being emptied, standing in the rain. Be a car with a nail in its tire. Be the tip of an artist’s paintbrush. In each case, accompany the action with the character’s verbal reaction to the situation.

3. Convey impressions through gestures. What kinds of gestures, motions, poses, and facial expressions convey confusion, concern, friendliness, gregariousness, boredom, shyness, tension, fear, joy, confidence, uncertainty, surprise, interest?

4. Tell a story solely with gestures. Have a partner mirror them.

5. Use a painting or photograph as the basis for a story-building session.

6. Pose a character and a conflict, and do a story in the round. The leader starts the story; each person adds a few sentences, and on through the conclusion. Have students rewrite their own versions, letting their minds free for wild flights of imagination.

7. Make up excuse stories: Why I didn’t do my homework. Why I can’t clean my room. Why I lost the library book. Why I’d rather eat with my fingers. Why I can’t comb my hair.

8. Tell personal experience stories: I was so embarrassed… I’ve never had a pet like that before… That was my best birthday ever… I was so scared… I really got in trouble for that… I laughed until I cried… I’ll never forget my favorite tree…

9. Tell stories into a tape recorder. Listen to them. Improve on them. Add vivid description, lively dialogue. Record them again. Tell them to other students, to your family, to the class.

10. Tell folk tales. Learn the story as a series of images rather than as memorized words. Read the story over and over. Draw pictures of the important scenes. Use them to tell the story, then just tell the story.

NB: In my opinion, Barbara Ueland’s book on writing is still one of the best. I’m delighted to see it is still in print.

See also:
Storytelling in the Classroom
10 ideas for bringing storytelling into the school day
15 ideas for expanding students’ understanding of a story

Scott Simon on how to tell a story

In just three and a half minutes, NPR broadcaster Scott Simon offers simple tips on how to tell a story in a way that captures your audience. His advice cuts to the heart of what makes a compelling story and adds a few caveats for audio and video storytelling.

I particularly like his final thoughts: “And absolutely, finally, have fun, because if you have fun discovering a story, if you make surprising discoveries in the course of telling a story, that’s going to communicate no matter how you’re telling the story, and the fun and the spirit that you’ll bring to that is something that will keep the audience coming back.”

Watching this short video, I’m reminded of a storytelling student who taught me an important lesson. I was teaching an Experimental College class through the University of Washington. This was early in my storytelling career, when I still thought I understood The Rules of Storytelling.

She broke every one of them, with a quiet tale of a deer that came into a clearing where she lay on a blanket. The deer walked over and touched its nose to her. That’s all. No starting hook, no character development, no problem to solve, no build-up, no rising and falling action, not even rich detail. But from her first quiet words, she wrapped us in magic.

So I know there’s more to telling a good story than Scott Simon tells us here, but this short film gives some advice I still find solid.

15 ideas for expanding students’ understanding of a story

The tips below can also be used as writing prompts and not just in schools. I started using these years ago, when I taught a group of third-grade students to become storytellers.

One child in particular stands out in my mind. Robbie was a shy boy, the kind who can easily be overlooked because he never speaks up, never acts out, always does his homework. I was stunned when he applied to join the school’s first storytelling troupe.

Cathryn Wellner in Belfast

Though she had never met me, Irish storyteller Liz Weir, welcomed me into her home and set up a storytelling tour for me. This was back in 1988. Liz was a librarian at the time and has gone on to a distinguished career as a storyteller and writer. Here I

I was a school librarian at the time and asked his teacher if she thought Robbie could learn to be a storyteller. I can’t remember her exact words, but it was on the order of, “If you can teach a dishrag to dance.” She wasn’t being mean, just honest.

Still, Robbie’s mother was my best volunteer. I’m not proud of myself for having approved Robbie’s request to keep his mother onside.

Within a few weeks, Robbie not only chose and learned his own story. He learned everyone else’s. He became the troupe’s coach. When a storyteller froze on stage and couldn’t remember the story, Robbie quietly fed her lines until she recovered. When another fell ill, Robbie stepped in and told his tale.

And Robbie could spin stories like a master. He didn’t just recite the stories. He became the stories. You could see it on the enthralled faces of his audiences, children and adults alike.

Robbie telling stories

Robbie telling stories as a member of the Longridge Elementary Storytelling Troupe

At the end of the year, his mother told me she had been shocked when Robbie asked her to sign his application. “Why do you want to be a storyteller,” she had asked. “You’re too shy.”

Her quiet son had replied, “I think it’s time I stopped being so shy.”

I’ve no idea if Robbie’s life was changed by his transformation from invisible boy to animated storyteller, but I know mine was. If I’d had the slightest doubt of the transforming power of storytelling, I lost it as I watched Robbie take the stage.

1. Identify the beginning, middle, and end of a story. Draw pictures for each. Retell the story using the pictures.

2. Act out scenes from familiar stories. Crawl right into the characters. How would a troll rise from under a bridge? How would a wolf speak to a child in a red cape? How would a chicken run from a falling sky?

3. Compare as many variants of a folktale as you can find. Choose variants that come from different cultures. In a study of world cultures, folktales reveal both similarities and differences. The Cinderella story is a good example. Similar stories are told around the world: Aschenputtel in Germany, The Magic Orange Tree in Haiti, Vasilisa the Beautiful in Russia. Nancy Keane has put together a list of many of these variants.

4. Write a different ending for a familiar story. Supposing the queen had not guessed Rumpelstiltskin’s name? What if the frog had never turned into a prince? What if the three bears had lived in a city apartment?

5. Retell a story from the viewpoint of one of the characters. How would the witch tell the story of Hansel’s and Gretel’s nibbling on her house? How would the oldest step-sister tell the story of Cinderella?

6. Write imaginary conversations between characters. Have Jack and the Giant talk about the magic beanstalk and all the things Jack stole. Bring together characters from different stories. Molly Whuppie and Jack could compare notes on their adventures with giants. They could write letters to each other.

7. Have students retell a familiar story in pairs. One begins; the other takes over when you call, “Switch.” This is a challenge to listening, sequencing, and memory skills.

8. Change the motivation of a central character. Rewrite the story from that point of view. Make Snow White’s stepmother into a sympathetic character. What if Rumpelstiltskin was trying to save the queen from a king who only wanted to marry her because she could spin gold?

9. Describe characters in a story. What does little Red Riding Hood look like? The Frog Prince? The giant who confronts Jack?

10. Describe the landscape of a story. What does the Three Bears’ house look like? What kind of a forest surrounded the house of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother? What was the weather like when the goats came tripping over the bridge?

11. Read pourquoi (how-and-why) tales that contemplate the origins of natural phenomena. Then have students write their own. What are rainbows? How did skunk get his special weapon? What formed the mountains? Why do koalas sleep most of the day?

12. Experiment with body language. What one gesture could characterize the princess who slept on a pea? How would the Beast stand and move in the presence of Beauty?

13. Have students write in a journal as though they were a story character. What would one of the dwarfs write in his on the day Snow White appears? What would a robber write in his after being frightened by the Brementown musicians? What would Cinderella have to say about her stepsisters?

14. Publish a newspaper with folk tale headlines and articles. “Chicken leg fools witch.” “Blowhard wolf meets his match.” “Hundred-year sleep ends with kiss.” (Imagine how the Personals column would read!)

15. Ask students to write a song or chant for the characters in a story. What does Jack sing as he climbs the beanstalk? What does the princess chant when the frog asks her to take him home?

©2010 Cathryn Wellner

Storytelling in the Classroom
10 ideas for bringing storytelling into the school day
10 tips for turning students into storytellers