"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

Monday, December 01, 2008

Asking for Directions: 3 Maps for the Storyteller

We, as storytellers, may not always ask for directions in the stories we create. The images of the stories' settings and perhaps the characters allude us though we have the map of the story as an outline.

The stories I share seem bare-bone until I immerse into the world itself in which the action takes place.

One of the reasons storytellers build repertoire is so they can be more flexible and choose stories that connect best with their audience at a moment's notice. By expanding your view of the story's setting, this, in many ways, expands the possibilities and the spontaneity within one story.

Three maps help storytellers:
1. Map of the Landscape
2. Map of the Mind
3. Map of the Place of Story Development

Map of the Landscape
The Greek storytellers remembered their epic tales by walking throughout the countryside. This promotes a type of body memory in which your feet and legs provide as much memory as your brain. Even your nose, hands, and eyes take part in the memory as the senses pick up details that may be lost otherwise.

Sometimes a journey to a zoo or a botanical garden is enough to open the mind to animals and plants that may be common to the story you are sharing. You might scan a map and find out the lay of the land in regards to mountains, rivers, plains, and other remarkable features.

The story could be historical or even a folktale from another country. If the opportunity arises to visit the actual or similar place of your story, then take it. Sometimes places are imaginary or are difficult to go to even if they exist.

"The Once Upon A Time Map Book" by B.G. Hennessy and illustrated by Peter Joyce introduce you to six lands: Neverland with Peter Pan, the Land of Oz with Dorothy, Wonderland with Alice, the Giant's Kingdom with Jack, Aladdin's Kingdom with the Genie, and the Enchanted Forest with Snow White. Aerial views are shown complete with a compass and a key of special paths. For example, the Enchanted Forest has the hunter's path, the dirt path, the miner's trail, and the winding stream.

Some of the landscapes are labeled even if in the original stories they are not named. Storytellers have as much right to name places as authors. Mentioning these names may not be important to the story, though it does make the places more real and thus more tellable.

At times the location may be your own home as the main character could be you, childhood friends, or relatives. I enjoy drawing my home as if a giant walked by and ripped off the roof and then he placed me on his shoulder so I could look into the rooms from above. Adding color dramtically increases recall ability. Then, when completed, it is time to give a "tour" by pointing out what moments and memories happened in the rooms.

It is not enough to say "Here is the kitchen" and "Here is the hallway". Rather, one could say, "Here is the drawer in the kitchen where Dad kept the flashlight and he didn't know I knew it was there" and "Here is the hallway I had to sneak down and every so often the ground would squeak and I would freeze until I thought Mom and Dad didn't hear me." Storytellers Kevin Cordi and Karl Behling as well as many others use this technique to teach others to find the stories within.

Any maps you draw or create are wonderful to keep in a binder for future reference.

Map of the Mind
Every character has their own back story that often is never known to the audience. Maybe it was not even known to whoever wrote the story in the first place. This has the idea of playing with perspectives that may develop the attitudes, facial expressions, or postures that you decide to use for the actual telling.

The storyteller can ponder on the personalities anyone they may encounter. I say "encounter" because you know you have developed a strong character if he or she reminds you of someone you know--someone you may "encounter" in the grocery store, on the football field, at work, or in the home.

A starting point may be as simple as wondering what the character's favorite color and why that is the case. I recommend having a partner come up with questions so you do not have the pressure of thinking of questions and answers.

I like considering what a character may do in their spare time. As stories tend to focus on action and not necessarily on the "down time", the answers can be whatever you want them to be. I like to be a little accurate in my guesses by delving into the culture from whence the story came from.

Map of the Place of Story Development
Lately for my "Family Famine: Hunger for Love" narrative production, I have gained specific story buddies. I meet every Friday afternoon with Holly Robison to focus purely on "The Gardener's Wife" story from Colombia while I meet every Tuesday morning with Julie Barnson to dedicate time to an Ojibwa tale of "Forsaken Brother". By stepping into their homes, I am reminded of whatever story I practice there.

Upon the stage, if there are moments I fade or forget, then I may take a mental journey through their homes and remember where I was when certain ideas came concerning the story. My mind would have made an imprinted map.

With some maps now in tow, you can find your way through any story. The trick is to transfer your map to your audience. That is something entirely different.

At least you were willing to ask for directions for yourself as a teller.

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