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

Story Lesson 3: Listening to Story

The Value of Story
In oral cultures, the storyteller was highly valued. That’s because, in addition to entertainment, he or she preserved in story the traditions and values of the culture. The storyteller was cultural historian, teacher, and repository of wisdom. Jane Yolen points this out in her introduction to a collection of folktales from around the world:

Storytelling (she says), that oldest of arts, has always been both an entertainment and a cultural necessity. Laws, news, customs, even royal successions encapsulated within the bodies of tales were passed on and on, down through the years. As the stories were kept alive by this process of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the storytellers breathed life into human cultures.

Yolen goes on to explain that, because stories were so essential to people in oral cultures, those who could remember and tell them were venerated:

Except in times of war, the Irish shanachies were second only to the king. In Siberia, skilled tale tellers were hired by cartels of lumbermen, fishermen, and hunters to tell stories to while away their leisure hours. Ivan the Terrible…required three blind old men to tell him folktales before he fell asleep. The African griot, a key member of his society, chanted genealogies, advised rulers, and told stories that recorded history.

In our highly literate culture, by contrast, a writer who is a skilled storyteller is often treated with contempt by academics and literary critics: Oh, so-and-so is nothing but a storyteller. That’s in part because stories don’t provide much fodder for the kind of intellectual analysis which academics and critics love. It’s also because academics and critics have intellectualized themselves out of the realm of ordinary life, where most people live—a realm where people still delight in story. And so writers who are looking for guidance and inspiration are often lead into writing highly intellectual fiction and never shown the door into the world of story.

Although most of us no longer live in oral cultures, the world of story is still there: all we have to do is open that door. And when we do, I firmly believe, we gain access to what I think of as the “underground tradition” of literature: the tradition that began in oral cultures, survived into literacy, and informed and inspired the writing of many writers, some well-known, others not. The American novelist, John Barth, for instance, once wrote that he discovered his “great teachers” during the hours he spent at his student job filing books in the Johns Hopkins library: “Scheherazade, Homer, Virgil, and Boccaccio; also the great Sanskrit taletellers”—all of them storytellers.

The Canadian literary critic, Northrop Frye, one of the few modern critics to recognize the value of story, has written that the three sources of English literature are the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, and oral folklore—all essentially collections of stories.

One of the questions writers often struggle with is “Where do I belong?” If you have found a place for yourself within the world of contemporary literary fiction, then please know that I have no intention of trying to dislodge you. But some of us don’t feel comfortable in that world, and we seek a different tradition to belong to. I have found that the world of story offers a tradition that satisfies me deeply, for the roots of story go deep; they sink into ground that is probably as old as human intelligence. And at the same time, there still exists a vast population of readers who hunger for good stories, just like their counterparts in oral culture, and who will reward writers who can tell those stories.

It is with this belief in the value and the power of story that I invite you back into the oral world where stories began…

Once again, spend a few minutes imagining yourself into an oral world. Let yourself be a listener and imagine a speaking voice that you are taking in through your ears. If you like, let yourself be the storyteller, and imagine that you are sitting with a group of people telling them a story, putting your voice out towards them.

Then take a few minutes to reflect, on paper: What happened when you did this practice? What did you notice?

If this made you panic—Oh, no! All those people listening to me! —don’t fret: you won’t have to actually get up in front of people and tell a story. Many writers are shy and inarticulate in front of groups (that’s probably one reason some of us become writers!) But the relationship between storyteller and listeners is at the heart of powerful story-making. And if you can learn to imagine yourself telling a story to others, knowing that you don’t have to do it in person, you’ll be able to tap into that power. We will be exploring this source of a story’s power in more depth in a later lesson; I just wanted to give you a taste of it now.

You may want to get into the habit of taking a moment now and then to imagine yourself back into the oral world through this practice. It’s a practice that encourages grounding, I find.

The World of Living Words
In oral cultures, all around the world, words are considered to be living beings, and beings of power. There’s a song-poem from the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic that says:

That was the time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance
might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
and what people wanted to happen could happen…
— from Edward Field,
Eskimo Songs and Stories

In this world, words are not read and written, they are spoken and heard. That is, they are not taken in by the eye, but by the ear; they are spoken by the voice.

Later in this course we will spend more time with this power of words in making stories. For now, I want to encourage you to begin to relax, a little, your approach to words and stories through your eyes, and to see if you can take them in through your ears.

As we enter the world of story-making in oral cultures, I encourage you to learn to listen to stories.

This means (or it may mean, depending on how you presently read) slowing down as you read, taking in the story through your “inner ear.” If you like, you may want to read stories out loud (great if you have kids) or take turns with a friend reading them out loud to each other. Many tales from oral tradition are available in recorded versions, and you may want to explore these as well.

Find a story from oral tradition or your favorite storytelling writer. Read part of it out loud, slowly, trying to listen to the words. What do you notice?

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