“I’d like to introduce you to two friends of mine. Their names are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.”
That’s how I feel when I begin to tell a story. I consider these characters friends of mine, and I take great pleasure in introducing them to my audience. Parents and teachers can have the same experience.
Storytelling is one wonderful way to share your true essence with others, whether that means your children or a theatrical audience. You can start with picture books of familiar tales: read aloud or retold in your own words. This gives you a chance to keep eye contact with your child and also explore tangents with him or her, which is sometimes the most productive way to teach, as you can explore meanings and the choices the characters make.
I would never imply that storytelling should take the place of reading. Reading to children validates the written word and secures the process of thought to paper in a powerful way. Storytelling reinforces reading and provides a rich channel of effective language arts. Children whose parents tell and/or read stories to them from an early age turn out to be better readers and students later on. In fact, scientists have found that either of these activities helps your child physically activate segments of his or her brain that are involved with visualization, imagination, and creativity. So, in addition to the story’s content, you are helping build the ability to learn and create.
Another form of storytelling is family stories. Sharing incidents from your own life, or those of your parents or grandparents, gives the message to your child that he or she is important enough to merit the sharing of the family history, and also imbues your child with a sense of his or her own roots.
Of course, as with any storytelling, you have to remember the operative rule: Whether fiction or nonfiction, original story or traditional, it has to be fun. One has to remember his or her audience and “translate” the material to that listener’s level.
Start simply with what you know, and tell it in your own words. Think about what you most want the listener to remember and shape everything around that central point. If you make a mistake, say so. Listeners find this endearing. Just say, “I forgot to tell you that … ” and go on. Another way is to say, “Now, what Aunt Joan didn’t know was that Uncle Bill had already bought the tickets.” This presents the information you forgot as a dramatic element of the tale.
Another wonderful activity is to create a story together. Don’t be surprised if it goes off in wild directions you didn’t anticipate. Enjoy the ride. If you reach a dead-end, you can always say, “I don’t know what happens next, do you?” If your child doesn’t, suggest going back in the story and making a different choice: “What if Cinderella hadn’t lost the glass slipper?” Then go on from there.
My father used to tell stories to my brother and me. Because he loved literature, many of my father’s stories were based on literary classics, mythology, and poetry. His stories made us want to learn to read, so that we could better acquaint ourselves with the characters of his tales, which he had simplified for our levels of understanding. Later, he altered his tellings as we matured, always keeping his audience in mind. When I became a professional storyteller, I couldn’t remember my father’s style or the exact content of his stories, but I wanted to bring this same kind of excitement and interest in the classics.
In addition, I felt that the classic stories and myths provided a central core or commonality in a society that has become deeply divided. We need to share stories that reflect our culture and how we’ve reached this point. Stories reflect the needs in our psychological and emotional make-up.
At the same time, stories from many different cultures and times provide insight into the multitude of ways that we humans live and the way humans share similar drives and desires. These desires for food, a real home, companionship, love and so on, are the common heritage of all humans. By illustrating these common human traits in stories from different countries or times, through the eyes of our own ancestors or fictional characters, we lay the groundwork for understanding and friendship.
Even my most serious stories have an element of fun, and it’s the characters, more than the action, that fascinate me as a teller. Each teller will give a new “spin” to telling, or drawing out different facets of the characters. Your own essence shows both in the selection of material and in the shared listening and discussion between you and your child. Ask “What else could she have done?” or “Do you think he did the right thing?” and you’ll get some amazing responses.
We all live at a hectic pace. Alice in Wonderland said, “It takes all the running you can do just to stay in one place.” Storytelling allows you to slow down for a little while, to focus, and to present what matters most to you in a way that neither threatens nor preaches. In the end, it allows you to share the greatest gift one can give: one’s self.
Author and storyteller Jim Weiss has performed all over the world. He has received more than 100 national awards for his recordings of stories from history and classic literature. For more information, see JimWeiss.com