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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 2: The World of Story

Imagine, if you will, a world where there is no print. No books. No newspapers and magazines, no billboards, no road signs.

Now imagine that there is no writing at all: no letters, no diaries, no notes passed in class.

And now imagine that there are no letters, no alphabets of any kind.

And now, if you can, imagine that this world without books and writing and letters is not one where those things have been wiped out, but one in which they have never existed, in which they have never even been imagined.

See if you can spend a few moments in this world. What do you notice?

Perhaps you found it impossible to imagine your way into such a world. That’s not surprising. These days, especially in our society, most of us are so used to the constant presence of written or printed words (or their electronic equivalent) that we can’t conceive of a world where they don’t exist. For us, words have become so fused with their physical representation on paper (or on-screen) that we can’t even say a word without having it register in our brains in its printed form. (Try this: Say a simple word, like dog or book out loud a few times and notice what happens in your mind. Chances are high that you will see there, if only faintly, that word in print.)

But if you were able to get even a small mental glimpse of a world without letters and writing, then you entered the world that humans everywhere inhabited for over 90% of the time our species has lived on Earth.

This is the world of oral cultures, a world where everything people needed to know was passed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth. This is the world where story began.

Now imagine, in this world, that you are in a tent, or a small, cozy house, at night. Imagine that there is a fire burning in a hearth, and a group of people, adults and children, gathered around it. They are all waiting, and they are looking expectantly at one person in the group, perhaps an old woman or old man. Finally the old woman or old man begins to speak, spinning words out into the firelit darkness, telling a story….

What happened when you put yourself into this scene? What did you notice?

When I do this exercise, I am aware of a kind of spell being cast over my mind as the storyteller speaks (or sings), as the story unfolds. I am aware of sounds—of the hiss and crackle of the fire, of the distant cry of an owl, and most of all of the sound of the storyteller’s voice and of the impact in my mind as her, or his, words enter through my ears.

If you had this kind of experience, in your imagination, then you and I have both entered the oral/aural world that humans lived in for most of their time on this planet, a world where words had tremendous power.

For most of us, these days, making things out of words is an activity dominated by the eye, not the ear. As Walter Ong has observed in his book, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, the “technology” of writing and print actually created a shift in human consciousness from the aural to the visual, a shift that has been made even stronger by the visual technologies of television, film, and computer.

Living in this hyper-visual age, we can write our stories and see them in print (on-screen) immediately. Our tales can go directly from our minds to the page without ever going through the air where they can be heard by other people.

Certainly there are advantages to this way of writing: as Ong points out, the invention of writing and printing technology enabled writers to address inner experience in ways unavailable to storytellers in oral cultures.

At the same time, though, I believe that our obsessively visual culture has disadvantages for writers: it has made them lose touch with the roots of making stories, roots which lie in the oral world. And, I believe, when we lose touch with these roots, we are cut off from sources of tremendous power for our stories.

In these lessons, we will explore (in a practical way, not theoretically) some of the ways in which stories in oral culture have power. We will look at content, at the materials that can make up a story, at some common themes and motifs. We will look at craft: at how stories can be shaped, at the ways they can be told. And, perhaps most important, we will look at the relationship between the teller and his or her listeners. The goal of our exploration is not to become oral storytellers, but to develop some of the skills that give oral stories their power so that we can use those skills in our own work.

To this end, we will spend time, as I’ve said, practicing some of the skills of oral storytellers (ones that can be used on the page). We will also read stories from oral tradition, as well as stories by writers who have made use of oral content or craft to write their own stories. And we will apply what we learn, as we wish, to our own stories.

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