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

Story Lesson 4: Telling Stories

In oral cultures, when someone wants to learn to tell stories, she or he undergoes a process of learning that is quite different from what we typically engage in in school. First, an aspiring storyteller has to listen to lots and lots of stories, and she may have listen to the same story a number of times. Without writing, she can only absorb the story into memory by receiving it through her ears, and by letting it sink into her subconscious. (The faculty of memory is, as you might expect, developed among oral peoples to a degree we would consider phenomenal.)

An aspiring storyteller will usually apprentice herself to an experienced storyteller and try to spend as much time as possible learning stories from him or her.

Next a person who wants to tell a story has to identify the elements that go into the story, and decide how he wants to combine them. Then he has to practice telling it—not in public at first, but by himself, to an imaginary audience. He has to make sure he has made the story his own before he takes it out in public.

Finally, the storyteller gets up in front of others and tells the story. Having taken it in, and made it her own, she is now ready to give it to other people.

You can see, I’m sure, that this model of learning is entirely based on learning-by-doing and that it follows these steps: receive and absorb; select and recombine; practice telling in private; tell in public. There’s no talking “about” stories, or analyzing or criticizing them, as we are taught to do in literature classes; there’s only receiving, making a story one’s own, and giving it back. Although this is a course in writing stories, not in oral storytelling, I encourage you to consider taking these steps as a framework for your learning. Here are some suggestions for doing this:

Read a lot of stories! Read what you enjoy, and notice what gives you pleasure, what has an impact on you. Notice what makes you say, “I can use that!” or I want to do that!” Remember that what you find useful or interesting will probably differ from what stands out to someone else.

Practice telling the stories you read (the ones you like). Practice in private, by telling the story out loud to the air (or perhaps, as storyteller Joseph Bruchac suggests, to a tree). Practice by rewriting the story in your own words. Every time you do this you will be getting important practice in the skills of storytelling. You may not be happy with the results; that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are building your skills through practice.

If you’re not shy, practice telling stories out loud to a friend or a child you know. “I just read this great story! There’s this lion, see, and he has a thorn in his paw, and…” When you do this, remember to tell the story, not just talk “about” it. You can learn a lot about how people respond to story by telling a story to someone else.

The more we practice reading and making stories, the more we learn about their content and the craft that goes into making them.

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