Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Power of a Personal Tale

There’s an ongoing debate in the world of professional storytelling. It regards the use of personal story vs. sticking to the ancient folktales. The argument goes that the folktales have endured for centuries – thus they are tried and true – simmered down to the essence of what a tale should be - and are consequently most powerful for learning and telling solid story structure.

I agree they are powerful tools to use and maintain in the quiver of every storyteller. Most of my residencies and festival performances begin with such tales. However, I have come to believe that there is a hunger in the world that must be fed by personal tales. Perhaps it’s due to the lack of front porches and traditional sit down dinners, but it seems few are being heard or listening anymore. Humans are social creatures. If the opportunity to share personal experiences is blocked - community is harmed. This isn’t merely supposition on my part it’s based on actual experience.

I was performing at a festival accompanied by my 20 something daughter. I’d told folktales throughout the festival with positive results. I was feeling good about my performances, until my daughter looked at me and said, “When are you going to tell what you’re best at? When are you going to tell them a personal story?” I was somewhat taken aback, but I decided to listen to my story-savvy daughter. My next set I told a personal tale. This is the performance where people rose to their feet! From 3 year olds to 90 year olds, audience members lined up afterwards to thank me for sharing such a moving piece of my life with them. I was stunned.

I decided to take this exercise into the class room. Every residency I have done this year has been focused on telling personal tales. I’ve seen storytelling transform lives before, but nothing like this! The stories I’ve heard are amazing. I’ve heard a former gang member share the moment he realized his choices were destroying the friendships he cared most about. I’ve witnessed a pregnant fourteen year old tell how the day she became pregnant was the day she became invisible. I agonized with a student who told of a field trip to court the day her father was on trial. I’ve mourned with a 12 year old who shared the details of her grandma’s passing. I could go on and on.

My point is this. Everyone has experiences they need someone to listen to. Everyone has a vast supply of memories pushing at the floodgates to be shared. I’ve found starting the novice storyteller out with the sharing of personal tales has empowered them to begin in a place that is comfortable. I’ve also found that real community and trust is created when beginning storytellers share their lives with each other. Later, when they move on to folktale, they are better suited for guiding one another because of the trust that was formed before.

Ultimately, I think this is the way folktales evolved. Personal experiences shared within intimate circles which had staying power expanded and evolved in the retelling until they crossed continents and cultures and became traditional tales. Could it be the personal stories of today will become the folktales of tomorrow? Could it be the fabric of a successful community is woven first from the thread of personal story? I believe the answer is yes.

Everyone has stories they need to tell – let me help you tell yours!

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