Cathyrn Wellner: The Art of the Story
James Thiele stood on a small stage in a Seattle coffee house and shifted nervously as he began his story. "I have a mild form of cerebral palsy," he said, answering the audience's question before they could form it.
With that statement of openness and vulnerability, he began telling of a goal he had set for himself: to run the 2.8-mile path around Green Lake. We felt his tug-of-war between determination and dejection, as some runners passed him twice while he loped for a quarter-mile, all he could manage at first.
In the escape of laughter he allowed us through humour, we were safe to struggle with him. When he reached the goal even he had thought improbable, we were all winners. The personal had become universal.
James's story came during open mike in that coffee house. I was living in Seattle and the Seattle Storytellers' Guild had encouraged my work. On this evening I was one of several tellers who had been asked to perform. James had taken a workshop from me. This night was his debut performance before an audience of strangers.
The audience had given each of us the attention that allows stories to soar. They had given the kind of support Barbara Ueland talked of in If You Want to Write, "Everyone knows how people who laugh easily create us by their laughter, making us think of funnier and funnier things." About half the audience were regulars at the semi-monthly series for adults. The others were new faces. For a couple of hours, they were not strangers in a large city but a small community, sharing a space and time made intimate by storytelling.
The urge to tell stories is universal. When a day has passed, we select those events that stand out in our minds, rearrange them in story form, and tell them as part of the ongoing narrative of our lives. In longer form they become the stories that shape our cultures. Although history in school and news on television are presented as if these versions were Truth, they too are stories, reflecting the biases of those who compile and tell them.
Television has usurped the place of traditional storytellers who knew their listeners and shaped the tales to reflect common experiences, ancestral stories, and shared values. Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, wrote, "Television is our culture's principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore - and this is the critical point - how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off-screen the same metaphor prevails."
In part a reaction to the limited metaphors of mass media, in part an answer to innate hunger for connectedness, storytelling began re-emerging as a cultural form. Not just backyard storytelling, family tales, or office anecdotes - all of which occur everywhere in some form or another - but storytelling as performance. Audiences are small; but under the spell of a good storyteller, they are woven together in ways that release stories even in those who think their own lives too insignificant to weave into a tale.
For many years librarians kept the torch lit, telling stories as a means of bringing children and books together. As a result, even people who respond positively to the word "storytelling" often think of it as something appropriate for young children but certainly of no interest to adults. Every professional storyteller has anecdotes of men and women being visibly moved by a powerful story and saying afterward, "Oh, if only my three-year-old could have heard your stories." Though visibly moved, they negate their own experience, as if being transported by a story were somehow childish.
The intimacy and trust that are fundamental to the art may be lacking in our daily interactions at work and as we do the errands required by our consumer lifestyles, but our need for connection remains and is perhaps most poignant amid the anonymous interactions that characterize a day in a city dweller's busy life. So perhaps it is no wonder that in Canada few storytelling events occur outside major urban centres.
In The Passionate Life, Sam Keen wrote, "We create isolated individuals and a philosophy of 'self-realization' because our mythical system requires that our prime loyalty be given to the abstract world of professionalized labor rather than the intimate world of family and community."
Storytellers challenge this mythical system, reaching beyond it to address our need for community. They understand, often on an intuitive level, that communication is at the heart of community; that the place where we live and work should lower the barriers between us, not erect them. Both through the stories themselves and through the act of gathering to hear and tell them, barriers fall. Listeners and tellers enter a timeless space in which they can safely explore themselves and each other.
Storytelling is like the African story of a man who had a herd of black and white cattle. When the milk of these wonderful beasts dried up, he stood watch in the night and discovered they were being milked by women who climbed down from the sky. He took one of them for his wife. She made him promise he would never lift the lid of her basket. One day curiosity overcame him. He opened her basket and found nothing inside. She sensed his betrayal and returned to her sky-people, because he was blind to the things of the spirit she had stored in her basket to share with him in good time.
Storytellers lift the lid of the basket, sometimes wisely, sometimes foolishly. Sometimes they see in stories those things of the spirit that hide within the layers and tell them with an awareness of how important the stories are to those ready to hear them. Sometimes they see only emptiness and tell the stories as if they were nothing more than a lovely container.
Stories shape reality. Storytellers, when at their best, accept the responsibility that concept implies and try to create through their stories an environment in which all can flourish.
Cathryn Wellner is a community developer currently working as food and health project leader with Interior Health. She has performed and led storytelling workshops in Canada, the US, the UK, and Europe and incorporates a storytelling approach in her work with organizations.