As personal historians, we’re usually focused on saving stories, not just telling stories. But my experience as a professional storyteller is inextricably intertwined with the work I do now as a writer, so I called on many tricks I learned when I was performing to teach a summer writing class for children at my local library. A good storyteller holds her audience in rapt attention, adding detail upon detail to familiar old tales. She knows just when to draw a story out and when to bring it to a satisfying close. Doesn’t this also apply to a good written story?
My storytelling background helped me to draw the kids in and teach them not only to tell their stories but write them down.
Story starters, open-ended questions or suggestive sentence fragments that got the kids thinking about a story, were the backbone of each class. We explored ten story starters each week, and from those ten choices moved into the “telling” part of the class. When each child had thought of a story, I divided them into pairs to tell their stories to a partner. After they had finished, they had an opportunity to tell their story to the whole group.
Next we moved to the “write it down” phase. They didn’t need much encouragement—I was surprised at how enthusiastic these twenty children were about writing. I found I was merely a guide, suggesting they try adding some details: setting, time of day, time of year, other people involved with the story.
Another day, besides working on story starters, we played pantomimes with a twist. I gave them slips of paper with different actions on each paper. Instead of trying to guess what the person was doing I challenged the group to watch what the person was doing, then write down what they saw using active verbs. Facial expressions, the sounds a person’s feet made, motions of their hands, etc. It was difficult for some to move beyond guessing what the pantomime was to strictly describing what they saw, but others quickly embraced the difference. They soon noticed how different people observed different things, even when they are seeing the same event. What does that tell us about our memories of past events?
I challenged the children to take home each week’s story starters to share with their parents. Many returned with delightful stories of adventures their parents had experienced—usually stories the children had not heard before! Parents seemed to delight in recalling stories that included the child who was interviewing them, and the children clearly felt a real connection to their parents as they participated in this activity. I hoped these families would continue to talk and share stories long after the class was over.
We invited the parents to join us at the end of the last session and each child shared one story they had written. By this time they had become accustomed to standing and telling stories in front of a group, and they behaved as seasoned performers.
Long before writing was invented, people told stories. As personal historians, this is a model that fits wonderfully with our work. Listen to your client, encourage the telling of his or her stories, then transform those oral stories into writing. The telling brings the story to life. The writing documents the story and provides a way for the event to be passed on. It’s not an either/or situation —it’s both!
~APH: Life, Story, People~
About today’s contributor: Now living in Bellingham, Massachusetts, Marjorie Turner Hollman comes from a long line of Southern storytellers and draws on her own past-life experiences as a professional storyteller (as pictured here) when helping personal history clients tell and save their stories. A freelance writer and APH Chapter Coordinator for MA-RI-CT, she has started a community history project, publishing one episode a month in the Bellingham Bulletin.