The elder storyteller has an image - village rememberer, family entertainer, perhaps even the picture book "quiet old lady, whispering, Hush." The idea of storytelling is simple - sharing a narrative without the benefit of notes.
But tale-tellers are often made, not born. When grandchildren finally arrive on the scene, making good on the role requires, for many people, a little initial help.
Los Altos resident Enid Davis worked in the world of children’s librarianship for more than 45 years before retiring, and she now leads storytelling workshops and events for everyone from young children to seniors. She has been offering a series of classes for seniors at Avenidas on how to learn and perform stories. The Palo Alto-based nonprofit organization serves seniors throughout the region. At an event hosted there last year, attendees focused on how to become a storyteller for one’s own grandchildren.
How to pick a story
Berna Davis, one of the Avenidas participants, said she had always loved making up stories and telling them to her younger siblings.
Erica Lann-Clark said that as a child, making up stories provided escape from a life that wasn’t always easy for her poor immigrant family. That pastime grew into work as an actor and writer of plays. She now has five grandchildren she wants to include in the play of storytelling.
They and other participants sorted through a range of American and ancestral storytelling traditions that might provide inspiration for their stories. Davis, who honed her own skills on grandchildren, said picking fairy and folktales from a tradition with family resonance can bring special meaning, whether it’s remembering the Old Country or using indigenous American fables to celebrate a new family, with blended ancestry, founded on American soil. The stories all share common features, stretching back a thousand years or more with authorship lost to the anonymity of time. Such stories are "the gems of universal truths," as Davis put it. As such, they offer a powerful place to start - resonant human ideas, whittled down to the bare bones of fable.
For adults interested in building their storytelling confidence, Davis offered a few easy places to start. After picking a short folktale that resonates with your heritage or interests, learn to tell the story - not read it. A told story differs greatly from a text read aloud. Fables can be very short, making the learning process easier, but even in brevity their ideas are often sophisticated.
Adding the spoken word to a family repertoire has special payoff. Telling a child a story just for them provides a singular kind of connection, but it also builds skills of the imagination and learning to see into other worlds, Davis noted.
"You’re kind of acting - but there is no fourth wall," she said. "The communication between you and the child never gets broken, and that’s very powerful."
Davis said local readers can find simple tales in the 398.3 section of Los Altos’ libraries, where the folktale books dwell. Authors Paul Galdone and James Marshall both wrote easy folktale books that are particularly good for young listeners. She said Joanna Cole’s "Best-Loved Folktales of the World" (Doubleday, 1983) should be in every grandmother’s house, and possibly Jane Yolen’s "Favorite Folktales from Around the World" (Pantheon, 1986) as well.
How to learn - not memorize - a story
Read the story to yourself - including out loud - at least four times. If you get tired of it, find another story. Try telling it again, this time using your own words.
Memorize only the signature rhymes or phrases, such as "Mirror mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?" It’s hard to memorize, and only gets harder the older you get it - but that just makes Davis’ insistence on spontaneity more helpful. A tale-teller drops the detail of a literary story and focuses on plot and action - the essential elements that are most memorable.
Drawing simple pictures can help you see the story in your mind’s eye and learn the plot. Jotting down scenes helps you remember. Some people like to record the story and listen to it while driving, Davis said.
Don’t concentrate only on the beginning - a strong ending is essential.
"The audience needs a clear ending and then silence, so they can float comfortably back to the real world," Davis said.
You can consciously plan to vary your voice, emotion and speed, but other aspects have to come naturally.
"You can’t plan gestures - it’s just your instinct," Davis added.
If you aren’t visual or feel uncomfortable drawing, you can write out the narrative - remember that you’re memorizing only the plot, not the precise words. You fill in the details with your own voice. Note the patterns in your narrative, which will help you steam ahead as well as plan for drama. For instance, fairy tales almost always repeat themselves three times.
For those willing to scrawl a little but shy of their skills, a story web provides a visual compromise, using the hub and spokes of an idea map to show a story’s key elements - the three visits from a wicked witch, the three houses built by little pigs, and so on and so on.
A final option involves a storyboard, the film strip or graphic novel panels that show a story rather than telling it, using a smattering of words. A visitor to Davis’ class practiced sketching out the Norwegian tale of three unlikely assistants interviewed by an unwise shepherd, with one panel each for bear (gruff!), wolf (snarl!) and fox (gently singing - how beguiling). By the time a penultimate panel showed a denuded herd and suspiciously satisfied fox, the story seemed simple and the drawings rudimentary, but adequate to the task.
"The whole point is to drive the story deep enough that it will come out," Davis said of the storyboarding process.
Nailing fundamental emotions of a tale - snarls, beguilement and betrayal - provides the rubric around which you improvise.
"You won’t say your story the same way, no matter how many times you tell it," Davis explained, and that’s what makes it great.
Avenidas continues to host classes with Davis, including oral memoir composition and creative writing. For more information on upcoming storytelling events and classes, visit storyfriends.org. ❀
How to tell a story
• Introduce yourself, state the name of the story and explain where you found it.
• Relax. Pause. Take a deep breath.
• Make eye contact with the entire audience - don’t stare over their heads.
• Speak more slowly than usual, and speak up.
• Vary your pitch, speed of voice and volume - monotones get boring.
• Use your hands to help the audience visualize aspects of the story, such as the size of an object.
• Slow down at the end. Let the story’s ending sweep over the audience.
• Smile - the audience will love you by now.
- Enid Davis