Women & Storytelling

I teach a class at Florida Atlantic University called Women & Storytelling. The class grew out of my involvement with the Women & Gender Studies Program at the university, but before that, it came from many years of performing with and for women, as well as helping them tell their own stories. When I remind women of the old saying, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world,” there is always someone to remind me that there is still a glass ceiling in corporate America, not to mention government.

And yet. If children’s personalities are more or less set by age six, who is it who has been doing most of the setting? More often than not, women. And how have they been doing it? More often than not, through storytelling. Maybe not formal storytelling, but I’ll bet if we could record the conversations of mothers and small children throughout the world, we would hear moms telling their kids about what happened to the little boy who didn’t look both ways before he crossed the street, or why Uncle Charlie is no longer invited to the annual family reunion.

Whether or not the stories are verifiably, certifiably true is not the point. They are true in a larger sense, in the sense of truth with a capital “T.” They reflect universal truths of human experience. That’s the kind of truth that my mother taught me, and continues to teach me, as she relates story after story of her day. According to linguists, women tend to tell stories about home, family and relationships, and the stories often demonstrate their own follies. Men, on the other hand, tend to relate tales of their own and others’ exploits outside the home. Their stories about themselves often show them to be the heroes of their narratives.  Whichever stories we tell, the communication scholar Walter Fisher argued that homo sapiens is also homo narrans, a storytelling animal. One of the defining characteristics of human beings, according to Fisher, is our ability to experience and understand life through story.

As I share storytelling sessions with women, many of whom are seniors and have lived and heard far more stories than I have, I am constantly amazed at the wisdom, entertainment and sheer aliveness of these fascinating people who too often think of themselves as unimportant, with nothing interesting or important to say. Thoreau said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. But somehow, most of the men I come into contact with either don’t know it, or don’t choose to let on that they know it. Too many of the senior women I meet, however, when I perform at country clubs and women’s groups throughout South Florida and elsewhere, have quiet desperation written all over their faces. Storytelling can change that. It can restore the sense of meaning to their lives that is so important in combating depression.

For too long, men have called women’s stories “old wives’ tales,” “bubbe mayses” or “gossip.” We know the truth. To paraphrase a famous woman writer, no one ever committed suicide in the middle of a good story. Women have been silenced, as Tillie Olsen wrote, for far too long. Through our stories, we celebrate our lives. We also combat the master narratives about women that have been perpetuated for centuries. We create our own counterstories that allow us to define ourselves.

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