My storytelling occurs most often in settings typical for a storyteller; community festivals, local museums, schools, churches, Scout banquets, that kind of thing. The stories I tell reflect the setting and audience as well, or at least I hope they do. Adult audiences get stories that might have a little more snap to them; "The Tail of the Linani Beast," a cautionary tale about male/female relationships. "The Telltale," a wonderful Japanese story about the dangers of infidelity. Little kids get more participatory fare. "Lazy Jack." Anansi stories. Other audiences, like church groups, might get personal tales, like "The Blue String," one of my signature stories about that moment in time when I realized my life's work, teaching, made a difference.
Storytelling has been reaching new and different audiences and venues in recent years. There is a whole movement of stories in the healing arts. Its practitioners might be working with hospice patients or domestic violence shelter clients. Storytelling in business is a growing trend as well. The corporate world is realizing their message can be stronger when couched in story, kind of "3M meets 'Truth and Story.'"
One place where storytelling has always been a tool, though perhaps not by that name, is in counseling. Really, what is counseling but telling one's story and hopefully changing the way it will end? I've known this, of course, but reading I Don't Want To Talk About It, by Terence Real, has made me think more deeply about the stories of our lives.
Right now, my older son is writing his hero's journey story. Joseph Campbell has written eloquently of it in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces; it's the story of the young man leaving home and facing all kinds of adversity, returning at last a better and wiser person. I'd say at this point, we're still on Episode One with our son. It hasn't been an easy journey for him or for us, and though he grew up with story on a daily basis, he probably can't even see that's his current plot. As I think back, I don't really recall having that awareness for myself until perhaps age 25. We know parenting is the toughest job on earth, yet when the big challenges come, we feel helpless. There is a reason so many of the world's cultures have hundreds of versions of this story, from "Lazy Jack" to the "Odyssey;" it's a universal tale. Some have humor along the way, others horrible tragedy. For most of us, the reality is somewhere between these extremes. Knowing that these stories have been told through millennia allows a parent to let go just a bit, so that the journey can truly begin. Knowing that most of these stories, even those with tragedy along the way, end up with the hero returning home stronger and wiser, allows parents to let go with just a snippet of comfort that this is the right thing to do.
I wonder about the stories being written today among young men and women trying to start their journeys. How many of them have even heard these tales? When I was a child and doing what children do, calling for help when none was really needed instead of just saying, "I need a hug," I knew, as did all kids, what my mother meant when she said, "Remember the story of the little boy who cried wolf?" Kids don't hear that one any more. It does give the wolf an undeserved bad image, but it also serves as cautionary tale. Those stories might have had their share of blood and false information about predators, but the wolf was never really an animal. He was an allegory, and a powerful one at that.
I tell stories to young children at school every day. Many of them have never heard of characters that were part of playground lore for me. I can only tell stories to so many children. Many more aren't hearing them at all. They haven't been given the examples for life stories to come, the sage warnings to watch out for strangers offering pretty ribbons or smooth talking gentlemen along the path in the woods. We can tell them all they want to "just say no," but when that moment comes, what story will they remember as their guide?
If the story they remember isn't the one we told, what story will help them through that dangerous path to adulthood? Words, we know, have power. Put those words into story and the power they can unleash is multiplied many times over. Consider this. One group of people, the Moken or "sea gypsies," escaped the devastation of the horrific tsunami that hit the Andaman Sea last year without a single loss of life. Why? They recognized the coming disaster when they saw the waves behave as described in one of their stories, and headed for safety on high ground.
What kind of safety net are we providing with the stories they hear today? Will they recognize impending disaster when it comes, or will they wander unwittingly right into the mouth of the dragon they're intended to slay? Next time your child asks you to tell them a story, do just that. Help them prepare for the dragons we know they'll have to confront some day on their journey through life.
8/5/06 I'm honored that this entry has been accepted for publication in the upcoming Northlands Storytelling Network Journal. I would be even happier, were it not for the fact the story my son is writing is not heading for a happy ending right now.