Writing About Telling

photoI am the special editor of an upcoming issue of Storytelling magazine, the publication of the National Storytelling Network, of which I am a lifetime member and former chair. The topic of the special editor’s portion of the issue is Publishing Storytelling. I have invited some of the finest teller-writers (writer-tellers?) in the U.S. to contribute their insights on blogging, self-publishing, writing storybooks for children, editing anthologies, etc. My own experience in publishing storytelling extends to having been guest editor of the magazine twice before; contributing to various other storytelling periodicals and anthologies; co-founding, co-editing and contributing to Storytelling, Self, Society, the peer-reviewed academic journal of storytelling studies, and editing and/or writing two books related to storytelling. Oh, and posting on this blog, of course.

The reason I present this mini-resume is that I feel that I have something to add on the subject of the fraught relationship between writing and telling, or literacy and orality. On the one hand, the written word allows us to easily traverse vast ideological, physical and temporal distances. While tackling enormous complexity, we can be precise in a way that orality does not encourage. It is this propensity for precision, in fact, that led to the development of writing in the first place. Writing, and its younger, but infinitely more powerful, brother printing, allowed our business-mined ancestors to record and thus recall not only the bravery of the hunters, but also the exact number of buffalo hides traded for bags of corn.

Now, here’s the other side of the equation: In oral societies, listeners are able to look in the eye the person who is sharing information, narrative, opinions, history, etc. That speaker must stand by (often literally) her words. It is a lot harder to repudiate the Holocaust (for instance), impugn a political enemy’s motives, dismiss divergent opinions and generally behave with malice when a speaker has to share the same space with one’s listeners. (Note: It’s not impossible. It’s just harder.) Especially since one’s listeners can quickly become one’s interlocutors, that is, listener and speaker can switch roles. Add to that the fact that orality promotes memory and intellectual flexibility, and you’ve got a pretty important medium in its own right.

So what does this tell us about storytelling writers? On one hand, storytellers, teachers and librarians commonly pitch telling to children as a way to promote literacy. After all, stories contain words, right? It is not a huge leap to figure that a child who can tell and listen to story will have a smoother transition to writing and reading one. Moreover, for many storytellers, publications are an important income stream. People hear stories they like on the festival or theater stage, and they buy a book to bring home the experience. Never mind that reading the same story heard on stage is a significantly different experience. It’s still the same story, and it can still be a great experience.

My goal, with this magazine issue as well as with a workshop I did several years ago at the NSN national conference, is to help storytellers of all stripes, professional or not, feel more comfortable practicing what we preach. Too many of our finest, most articulate and talented storytellers see their confidence and opportunity for growth fly out the window when it comes to sitting down and putting stories and insights to paper. I’m not sure why. Maybe some of us embraced the oral tradition due to dyslexia or some unnamed disability. Maybe we simply prefer the ephemerality of our primary medium. Or maybe, just maybe, we are afraid of those gatekeepers, judges and others who may reject us, or may have rejected us in the past.

The irony is that the vast majority of people, at least in the U.S., would prefer putting themselves out there in anonymous print rather than in in-your-face public. (That isn’t to say they are dying to do either, of course.) We fear what we do not know. But it also helps us grow.

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