"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Storytelling: A Word Hard to Define

The following article is a merge of research as well as my views on defining storytelling. It represents a small portion of my Brigham Young University Honors Thesis of "Transformation of the Storyteller's Identity and Role through the American Storytelling Movement" in 2000. See list of storytellers interviewed at the bottom.

Journalism has a rule: ask the easiest question first. As "How would you define storytelling" was posed to twenty-four key people of the American Storytelling Movement, the open-ended question seemed like an easy one to answer. Wrong.

The storytellers usually voiced a caveat to their answer by saying it was "not a simple question," (P. Schram, personal communication, June 28, 2000) "defining storytelling is. . .daunting," (J.D. Sobol, personal communication, October 6, 2000) or "that's a big question, isn't it? (L. Pennington, personal communication, June 23, 2000). Whether they answered confidently or with hesitation, the storytellers' definitions tended to be expansive and broad.

Eight storytellers defined storytelling in seven or less words such as "whenever someone tells a story," the "act of orally telling a story," or the "live transmission of narrative" (M. R. MacDonald, personal communication, May 9, 2000; S. Norfolk, personal communication, May 22, 2000; M. Burch, personal communication, October 7, 2000).

Coming from the world of mime, Milbre Burch did not want to argue anymore with definitions and has a more "expansive view" on storytelling. A one-word definition came from storyteller Peninnah Schram: "dialogue." This dialogue links the storyteller to himself/herself, the audience with themselves, the storyteller with the audience, and everyone--storyteller and audience--with the story (P. Schram, personal communication, June 28, 2000).

When Beth Horner began professional storytelling, she saw storytelling as the "oral communication of a narrative." Now, she has dropped the word "oral," knowing that this new definition includes communication like plays and television programs. She was willing to accept these venues in the definition of storytelling (B. Horner, personal communication, August 15, 2000).

Joseph D. Sobol felt storytellers have had their "thunder stolen" by the media's use of the word "storytelling". He asserted the media latches onto the word "storytelling" because, "Everyone who wants to claim any kind of kinship with the human race will do it by calling themselves storyteller" (J. D. Sobol, personal communication, October 6, 2000). Storyteller Fran Stallings also notes that the word is "plastered" everywhere (F. Stallings, personal communication, May 20, 2000).

According to Lee Pennington, storytelling is "the way we understand ourselves and the way we reveal ourselves and the way other people reveal themselves to us." Storytelling is the "living history of human beings" (L. Pennington, personal communication, June 23, 2000). Most of the 24 interviewees viewed storytelling as a link that connects humanity.

Connie Regan-Blake and Carol Birch saw defining storytelling as comparable to defining truth, beauty, or love. Birch explained, "Storytelling is an experience. . .so words never capture--fully delineate an experience" (C. Birch, personal communication, September 6, 2000).

Judith Black found one of the joys of being a storyteller is that storytelling is indefinable. Black said, "[stories] are so much a part of who we are that I'm afraid that if we define it, we'll be creating a circle that will solidify what it is and what it isn't" (J. Black, personal communication, May 25, 2000). Birch also disliked limitations from definitions:
. . .five years into storytelling I was already tired of hearing people say, 'That's not storytelling.' As if somebody knew what it was and wasn't saying but would only say what it was not. And so for a long time, we have languished in what I have called the 'cult of personality.' 'I like him. I like his stories.' 'I don't like him. I don't like his stories.' We have nothing more informed to say about storytelling than that. We had nothing richer to say about what storytelling was or wasn't than, "I like it. I don't like it.' 'It's right. It's wrong.' 'It's good. It's bad.' So that's why I wanted to try to write something that offered people models to think with instead of prescriptions of what to do or not do. (C. Birch, personal communication, September 6, 2000)
When the National Storytelling Association (now called National Storytelling Network) attempted to create a definition for storytelling, Birch noted the tension:
People were outraged that somebody was even trying to define it. But you do need to identify some of the markers, and that is another thing that a definition is trying to do. It's to identify some markers so people have some place to begin (C. Birch, personal communication, September 6, 2000)
Long-time storyteller Kathryn Windham refused to define it. In a letter, Windham observed that storytelling should not "be dissected as though it was a scientific experiment" (K. Windham, personal communication, April 27, 2000).

Organizations still seek to form guidelines and definitions to unify their members. When storytellers cannot define storytelling, then "storyteller" becomes difficult to define. Broad definitions allow existing and new venues to fall under the category of storytelling. When Beth Horner dropped the word "oral" from her definition, she opened storytelling to the venues in theatre and television while unimaginable venues--especially with Internet on the verge--can be included in this definition.

Currently, society has grasped onto the broad definition of storytelling and has "plastered" the word across media, but broad definitions prevent many people from distinguishing storytelling as an independent art form. Storyteller Laura Simms noted that people are comparing storytelling to what they are already familiar with such as theatre and literature. If storytellers feel uncomfortable with opening storytelling to various venues, then "storytelling" and "storyteller" should be more narrowly defined.

With the diversity found in the United States, finding unifying definitions as to the roles and identity of storytellers appears troublesome. However, the binding factor among the storytelling community is the value of storytelling. Most of the 24 respondents focused on the outcomes and values of storytelling instead of attempting a definition.

Some storytellers are afraid of putting limitations on the art and excluding people from the storytelling community. Rather than being exclusive with the definition, storyteller Carol Birch suggested guidelines be established rather than emphasizing the elements of "storytelling." Discovering a unifying definition for storytelling still proves to be elusive. Yet, the human element as part of the definition serves as a common link with the various answers.

Storyteller Kathryn Windham openly refused to define storytelling because definitions shatter the charm of storytelling and bring a scientific view to the art. With the increasing number of "buzzwords" in the storytelling community, academics enter the scene. The intimacy shared between the teller and the audience can dissolve with the appearance of academics.

Common buzzwords are traditional storytelling, organized storytelling, platform tellers, performance tellers, and applied storytelling. Some storytellers are struggling to find the distinction in these terms. For example, the interchanging of traditional storytelling and traditional stories still exists. Also, storyteller Ed Stivender proposed that if there is a difference between traditional storytelling and organized storytelling; it is technology.

Buzzwords are still at an experimental stage in the storytelling community. The identification of professional or technical jargon provides a light of credibility in the academic world. Many of the 24 respondents voiced a desire for storytelling to gain respect and awareness. At the same time, technical jargon narrows the definition of storytelling. As of now, the tendency is to give broad definitions of storytelling.

Storytellers must decide if they desire to exclude people from the storytelling community by using jargon and narrow definitions or include people from all types of venues--theatre, music, dance, and recitation--by using broad definitions. A balance of these extremes would include and exclude opportunities. Storytellers should determine how they want the art to be perceived by society in order to approach the "right" balance. Storytelling may or may not be definable.

Although storytelling is difficult to define and professional storytellers have not agreed to a single definition, for the emerging storyteller, a definition is essential to guide his or her actions. For the present time, I have determined storytelling as a co-creative experiences involving the senses with an intentional storyteller and acknowledged listener(s). This definition is intended as a guideline--not to be engraved in stone--and provides an expansive view to the art form by including various styles of the art.

With continued experience and research of storytelling, the definition with evolve.

The twenty-four respondents and key people in the American Storytelling Movement:
Their insights on the transformation of the storyteller's identity and role have impacted my life. I could never fully show my appreciation to them.

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

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