"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Monday, December 15, 2008

Personal Stories Matter: Connecting with Others

This was a paper I wrote on July 6, 2006, which was before this blog was created.

Many people deny that they have personal stories that would be of value for others to hear. As a result, significant moments in time are either forgotten or ignored. Despite our uniqueness as individuals, we share universal experiences. With the proper support and guidance, more people would be willing to share their own stories.

Requests from friends and audience members influenced storyteller Nancy Wang to experiment with autobiographical stories. Normally, she focused on folktales with her tandem partner and husband, Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo, through Eth-Noh-Tec. She hesitated because, ". . .I struggle with my fears of being boring and mundane, self-indulgent and self-righteous" (Wang, 2004, p. 18).

Wang is not alone in her feelings as storyteller Donald Davis shared how many people wonder what makes their life so important (1993). Davis continued that we determine our "identity maintenance" or our view of ourselves through the personal experiences we relate.

People tend to know themselves better than any other subject. Writer Henry David Thoreau expressed, "I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience" (Thoreau, quoted in Writing Life Stories, p. 1).

As Nancy Wang had grown up as an Asian American, organizer Susan O'Halloran insisted that Nancy tell at the Just Stories: Asian Voices Storytelling Concert. Wang was tempted to tell a folktale and then decided to tell her personal tale. She noticed that people from other ethnic groups confirmed her experience as one of their experiences. She discovered what Joseph Campbell, author of The Power of Myth, had already observed:
Furthermore, we have not even to risk the journey alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to slay another, we slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world" (1988, p. 151).

In The Power of Story, storytelling is recognized as a folk art form. This art is daily performed throughout the world. Relationships are built between people when history is shared. We become more "real" to each other. For example, when a student discovers that their teacher was once a child, the child realizes that the teacher does not sleep in the classroom (Collins & Cooper, 1997).

Visualization is one key to capture the audience's attention to a personal tale. Donald Davis shared the importance of all the senses and says that the term "visualization" can be misleading as one usually thinks of sight. He encouraged the other senses such as smell, sound, taste, and touch. These senses provide a path for the audience to follow and the plot can be understood.

One way to have clearer images could be through maps through childhood or present places. These maps could be inside a home or the entire neighborhood, which trigger scenes like a movie. Knowing the place means you can know what happened in that place (Roorbach, 1998).

Caroline Feller Baur shared that the best way for her to create a personal story is to tell it out loud before writing it down. In fact, she prefers to delay the print form as the written form may freeze the style of the performance and "lose the charm of everyday speech" (Feller Baur, 1993).

Before the stories reach an audience, Bill Roorbach suggested conducting a self-interview and pretending that the personal experiences are worthy of newspaper headlines or the top story of a television station. With an interviewer like Barbara Walters, how would the tough questions be answered? What moments would cause the listeners to talk about it the next day? Roorbach advised that if interviewing yourself is difficult, then have a friend interview you. This way, you can discover what your potential audience will want to know about your life (1998, p. 117).

Roorbach considered the delving into the soul as "research". He knew this was a word that people cringe to hear. Yet, he insisted that through personal research, as done through the self-interview, you find the pieces that are missing. One missing piece could be the question of world events that happened at the same time as your personal event.

Donald Davis believed that rather than looking at your stories from present time on backwards, he felt it was easier to think of your earliest memory. When it is time to tell the story, the "cradle-to-grave chronology" as discussed in You Can Write Your Family History, could repel the listener since you do not often meet a person on the street and rattle off vital statistics like birth and marriage and death. It is most common to start in the middle of an event and then go back in time (DeBartolo Carmack, 2003, p. 96).

Ultimately, you know if the story works for the audience by the response given when shared. Laughter is a good sign of understanding and your story progresses. Other times, the audience may look confused because an event that seems so clear to you is in need of details by them. When the audience is bored, then you must recapture their interest (Davis, 1993).

Boredom may come if the audience does not understand the purpose of the story. Storyteller Bill Harley explained:
We are not free to share our psychodramas with an audience unless what we are really talking about is the human condition. Every storyteller has an ego, but it should be kept in check long enough to make sure you are not talking because you think everything you say has value. Most often, personal stories are boring because it is not clear what the story is about" (2004, p. 15).

The search for meaning may take years, as was the case when Harley had a story of his friends and himself in the cafeteria and piling peas and carrots on one tray. Finally, he realized the story was about how children overcome powerlessness with adults. The story became clearer to him and, in turn, became clearer for his audience.

Barbara Clark echoed Harley's thoughts and shared that if the point was unknown to the storyteller, the point was also unknown to the audience (Clark, 2003). The stories that have the deepest meaning for you may have already been told as you met family and friends around the kitchen table or on the porch.

As we continue our quest to tell personal stories, then we notice we are not alone. Most people are not comfortable in sharing their lives for an audience yet we tend to share intimate things to our friends. When we hear the applause for telling our stories, then we will come to realize that personal stories matter.


Campbell, J. (1988). The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday.

Clark, B. H. (2003). "Developing Personal Stories". A Beginner's Guide to Storytelling. Jonesborough, TN: National Storytelling Press.

Collins, R. & Cooper, P.J. (1997). The Power of Story, teaching through storytelling. Scottsdale, AZ: Gorsuch Scarisbrick.

Davis, D. (1993). Telling Your Own Stories for family and classroom storytelling, public speaking, and personal journaling. Little Rock, AR: August House.

DeBartolo Carmack, S. (2003). You Can Write Your Family History. Cincinnati: Betterway Books.

Feller Bauer, C. (1993). New Handbook for Storytellers. Chicago: American Library Association.

Harley, B. (2004, July/August). "Crafting Childhood". Storytelling Magazine. Jonesborough, TN: National Storytelling Network.

Roorbach, B. (1998). Writing Life Stories. Cincinnati: Story Press.

Wang, N. (2004, July/August). "Just Because". Storytelling Magazine. Jonesborough, TN: National Storytelling Network.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Former Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
Tel: (801) 870-5799
Email: info@rachelhedman.com
Performance Blog: http://familyfamine.blogspot.com
Other places to find me: Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Professional Storyteller


Tim said...

Nice job, Rachel, with your thoughtful analysis on the process of developing personal stories.

I especially appreciate the Campbell and the Collins/Cooper quotes, as I continue to puzzle over the popularity of the personal memoir as a genre with American storytelling audiences.

Professional Storyteller Rachel Hedman said...

Dear Tim:

I am glad you enjoyed the paper. I stumbled on it and had forgotten that I had wrote it.

My 2006-self had to remind my 2008-self the importance of personal stories as I, too, struggle on why it is popular these days on the storytelling circuit.

I prefer a balance of types: personal with folktale with original with music and/or other arts.

As for Campbell and Collins/Cooper, it was nice to list the references and give credit to such wonderful people.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman