It’s a scene as old as history itself.
Flames shimmer and dance as sparks take flight, swirling and spiraling upward until they dissolve into the velvet black of night. Gathered around the fire pit, the listeners draw closer, the better to hear, as a single voice rises and falls and a story unfolds.
Everyone around that crackling fire hears the same words, but as the story comes to life, each imagination paints a different picture. It’s the ageless appeal of storytelling, and it’s been part of our DNA since the beginning of time.
Whether it’s a story that makes you laugh, reminisce or sends a shiver down your spine, a good tale stays with you.
“As human beings, we are hardwired neurologically for narrative. It’s how we communicate, how we process things, how we envision things. Stories are universal. It doesn’t matter who you are or what culture you’re part of, we all can relate to stories,” observes Kaye Byrnes of the Mt. Dora-based Florida Storytelling Association.
“Storytelling is very much part of the human experience, no matter who you are or where you live. People intuitively connect to stories,” adds Byrnes. “It resonates with them in ways that lecturing and left-brain information just doesn’t. Storytelling is very much from the right side of the brain.”
Professional storyteller Doug Lipman describes the art of storytelling as the “experience of helping people listen together, each in their own way, gradually becoming part of something larger than themselves.”
Fuel For Imagination
Among the homework Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist considered the “father of psychoanalysis,” gave his students was to read fairy tales. He was in good company.
After all, it was the brilliant physicist Albert Einstein who said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
Doug Lipman majored in mathematics in college but craved the connection of poetry, literature and history. In 1970, he took a job teaching math and science to emotionally disturbed children.
“When I tossed ‘pearls of wisdom’ to them, they just grunted and turned away, because they didn’t trust me or my intentions,” Lipman shares on his website, storydynamics.com. “Then, one day, by accident, I told them a 10-minute story. For the first time, they gave me their complete, active consent to talk to them. They allowed me to take them on a journey of the imagination. I learned in the course of those 10 minutes that stories can help people trust one another. They can lead to a sense of sharing without coercion.”
Lipman became a performing storyteller and today is also respected as a teacher of storytelling.
For Jessica McCune, a nurse, mental health counselor and professional storyteller who lives in Ocala, stories offer the perfect combination of art and healing.
“I am drawn to the stories that heal, that help us find our way and give insight and awareness,” says McCune, who has gleaned much from Diane Rooks’ book, Spinning Gold Out of Straw: How Stories Help Us Heal.
“Scientific studies back up the fact that areas of the brain respond to words. After U.S. Representative from Arizona Gabby Giffords was shot in the head and therapy was not working, her mother started playing songs from the ‘70s that she knew Gabby had memorized. When Gabby heard the lyrics she knew by heart, it was like it unlocked the tumblers in her brain.
“Reading a story to your kids is light years away from storytelling,” McCune adds. “Storytelling is like a concert; someone is standing up telling their story, not reading from notes or a book. Neurological studies prove that storytelling fosters imagination and fires the brain. Kids can sit still and listen to a story, unlike sitting listening to someone trying to teach or just read to them.”
McCune explains that storytelling connects information to emotion so we can remember and retain it.
“That’s the beauty of storytelling,” she says, “and that’s why you can remember something from 30 years ago.”
In our technology-intense world, storytelling is enjoying a renaissance. McCune doesn’t think this is a mistake. Although many stories are about getting the listener to laugh, a good story is often about survival.
This is where the hero story comes into so many of the fairy tales,” explains McCune. “The hero starts out to find his or her fortune or fame. There’s a crisis, and the hero makes it through that crisis and returns home a changed person with wisdom and/or experience. Stories help us survive and find our way.”
This theme resonates with the vast majority of listeners because everyone is on their own journey and finding their way through life.
Types Of Stories
Think back to your favorite stories from childhood. You may not have realized they fell into particular categories, but just as there are book genres, there are definite storytelling genres. Among these are:
•Folklore: Encompasses stories that reside in the oral tradition, including folktales, fairy tales, myths, legends, fables
•Historical narrative: Encompasses original stories crafted from events and people of the past
•Personal narrative: Encompasses original stories crafted from the teller’s life experiences
•Literary: Encompasses stories from published literature, adapted for spoken word
•Tall tales: Stories that seem believable into which the storyteller inserts something fantastic beyond belief, which is often humorous
For the most effective, memorable story, the storyteller chooses a genre based on his or her specific venue and audience.
“There are a multitude of storytelling applications,” says Byrnes. “Schools and libraries often focus on literacy development. Business venues may focus on leadership or team development; care facilities may focus on nurturing cognition or emotional healing.”
McCune recalls one story that made a lasting impact on her, Something for Nothing by Ann Redisch Stampler.
What appears to be a simple tale about a dog and “a gang of howling and yowling, hissing and screeching cats” that terrorize him, is really based on the true story of a German soldier and a clever Jewish tailor during World War I.
“The Yiddish tradition turns human characters into animals so the story could become a cautionary tale and less horrific,” notes McCune. “Stampler took an oral tradition story told to her by her grandmother and returned the story to the written word. Thus, I was able to find this great children’s story and return it to the oral tradition.”
Across the country, storytelling is becoming more and more popular; many urban areas in particular have caught “the fever.” There are workshops and seminars to learn how to become a storyteller or, if you already are, how to improve your craft.
“It’s a path of learning. Master the Possibilities at On Top of the World this semester even has a winter session on storytelling,” says McCune.
Most people wouldn’t connect stories with a musical event like Woodstock, but McCune explains that this era of folk music concerts was a boon to the age-old art of storytelling.
“People stood up and told folk tales at folk concerts during the ‘70s; storytelling festivals were spawned from this,” she notes.
Today, storytelling festivals take place across the country, celebrating the magic of well-told tales and mesmerizing audiences of all ages. They offer opportunities to learn and are especially great venues to hear amazing stories from some of the nation’s best tellers.
The National Storytelling Festival, which takes place in Jonesborough, Tennessee, begins the first Friday each October and in 2017 marks 45 years. Recognized as one of the Top 100 Events in North America, it’s often heralded as being the center of the storytelling movement that continues to spread.
Closer to home, the Ocala Storytelling Festival is an annual fall event, held each November.
Fortunately, you’re just in time for the Florida Storytelling Festival, slated for March 30 through April 2 in Mt. Dora.
“If you’re just curious about the art of storytelling, joining us for one of the concerts would be a wonderful way to dip your toes in the water,” says Byrnes. “During each concert, all five of our featured tellers take the stage.” (McCune is one of those storytellers this year.)
Tickets are just $10 for the concerts, but the festival also offers plenty of opportunities for people to come listen for free. On the veranda at the Lakeside Inn, where the festival takes place, you can enjoy front porch storytelling at mid-day on Friday and Saturday.
“These are free and open to the public; anybody can just sit and listen to the storytellers,” says Byrnes. “On Friday and Saturday afternoons, we have our ‘open mic swappin’ grounds’ for anyone who wants to tell a story.” (A seven-minute limit precludes longwinded tales.)
Those interested in learning the ins and outs of telling their own stories will want to sign up for one of the numerous workshops throughout the event.
A highlight of the festival is the Youthful Voices Concert, featuring the state’s finest young tellers in grade 12 and younger. Two past national winners of the Youthful Voices contest have hailed from Marion County: Jeremy Evans and Gwendolyn Pollock.
“Most people assume stories are just for children, but one of the goals of the festival is to reintroduce adults to the joy and power of stories,” says Byrnes. “People come for the first time, and once they’ve experienced it, they want more.”
Florida Storytelling Association, Florida Storytelling Festival flstory.com, (800) 327-1796
National Storytelling Festival, storytellingcenter.net, (800) 952-8392
Ocala Storytelling Festival ocalastorytelling.org
Storytellers’ Websites to Visit and Listen to Stories:
Donald Davis: ddavisstoryteller.com Elizabeth Ellis: elizabethellis.com Andy Offutt Irwin: andyirwin.com Bil Lepp: leppstorytelling.com Syd Lieberman: sydlieberman.com
Jessica McCune: jessicastoryteller.com
Kim Weitcamp: kimweitkamp.com
Tell A Better Story
Want to try your hand at storytelling? Follow these tips to get started:
Choose a story you love, making sure it’s appropriate for your target audience.
Know your characters. Live with your story long enough so that the characters become real to you.
Visualize. You can’t bring a story to life for your listeners until you can see it clearly yourself.
Map it out. Every good story has a beginning, a body, a climax and finally, a resolution.
Prepare and practice. Record yourself or have a friend video you so you can get comfortable with the process. You don’t have to memorize and recite the story word for word, but you should know it forward and backward, and you should know your beginning and ending lines by heart.
Make eye contact. Your listeners will feel like you’re speaking directly to them.
Use expressions and gestures to add to the story. Practice so these seem natural, not artificial.
Watch your pace. Don’t rush, but don’t dawdle; speak in a confident tone and at a pace that carries the story along.
Don’t ramble. When you’ve finished the story, stop! Avoid the cliché “moral of the story” wrap up and don’t feel you have to explain every detail. Listeners will always find their own take-away from a well-told story.
Area Storytelling Groups
There are more than 20 storytelling groups across the state of Florida, including the following ones in our area:
The Villages Story Group Contact: Pat Crigler, (352) 391-9279, [email protected]
Gainesville Story Group Contact: Ann Scroggie, [email protected], (352) 332-6502
Storytellers of Central Florida (Winter Park) Contact: Pete Abdalla, (407) 699-8790, [email protected]