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Writers and Editors (RSS feed)

Storytelling, Part 1

At the Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD, I recently participated in a panel on oral storytelling of true stories as a way to work out a story before writing it. Panel co-organizer Ellouise Schoettler, a nationally known storyteller, has a sign hanging in her office: "Tell your story before someone else does it and gets it wrong." She currently performs two one-woman shows about women in the military who served in France during World War I.

Panel co-organizer Solveig Eggerz's process for developing true stories is to tell the story first, then write it--or tell it, then develop it, then write it. Oral stories are typically 8 to 9 minutes long. Important factors in good storytelling are voice, gesture, and facial expression, she says (and demonstrates). Solveig uses storytelling as a pre-writing activity in her memoir and personal stories workshops

Many workshop participants value "writing prompts" as a vehicle for summoning memories and stories around a particular theme. Sometimes they don't remember a story until they reflect on how a particular theme crops up in their life.

Likeability is important, says Len Kruger. And conflict. Nobody wants to hear about a happy wedding. They want to hear a good story about how a wedding went wrong. And good storytellers avoid self-aggrandisement and pompous language.

Professional oral storytellers don't memorize their stories, says Ellouise. You want to remember "beats" and actions. She quoted Donald Davis as telling people to think of stories as crossing a creek -- you need to get six stones across the creek. You need to know what's supposed to happen -- what series of actions occur. You don't need to remember all the words. Davis offers workshops and has published two books (see below). For more info go to www.ddavisstoryteller.com/.

Panelist Jessica Robinson founded Better Said Than Done, a venue for true-story-telling evenings and good storytelling workshops in Fairfax,Virginia

Jessica mentioned finding stories through themes and soul-searching--and being on the lookout for stories. For example, if an important occasion goes wrong, think about how you can turn that into a story. She tries to loosen people up. These are stories about real-life people, she says. It is okay to use bad language. You can start a sentence with "and."

I use writing prompts but I also encourage my memoir writing students to try to find the names of the people and the stories behind old family photos. These can be particularly helpful if you are trying to collect stories from people who may be shy or inarticulate. I often interview nonwriters at great length to gather the material for the stories within the larger story of a memoir.

When I am collecting stories from experts, I do NOT (as journalists do) deeply research the subject before an interview. I ask dumb questions (What is an X?) because I want experts to explain their field in their own language, not assuming that their audience understands the jargon of their field.

Here are some great resources, recommended by the panelists:

Storyteller Donald Davis has helped many storytellers get started, both as a model and through workshops and books

Donald Davis:
• • Writing as a Second Language by Donald Davis. From experience to story to prose. When we talk about language arts in our school, we focus on reading and writing instead of nourishing the whole oral and kinesthetic package that is our spoken language. Davis argues that we must step back into our familiar “first” language―the spoken word―as our creative medium and learn to “translate” into that new foreign language called writing. He argues that talking and writing need not be mutually exclusive in language development.'
Telling Your Own Stories (a small book of story prompts)

Kevin Allison's Risk is a podcast of true stories told aloud.
Before people try out for that storytelling venue it is helpful to hear the storytelling training seminar available through his website:

Panelist Dario Battista recommended Neil Hilborn, Spoken Word, who tells stories of mental illness, lightening heavy themes with his self-deprecating sense of humor and willingness to not take himself too seriously. He emphasizes the importance of having a range of emotions. One of his stories, OCD, went viral. You can hear it on YouTube:
Here is his wonderful poem, OCD

These books were recommended by panelists:

From Plot to Narrative by Elizabeth Ellis (a step-by-step process for creating and enhancing stories)

Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking About Difficult Stories by Loren Niemi and Elizabeth Ellis. A difficult story can powerfully alter not only s/he who tells it but also they who hear it.

In the Narrative Nonfiction section of my website, Writers and Editors, you will find a partial list of venues for stories told aloud to a live audience
and another on digital and radio storytelling
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