What is Storytelling — June Barnes

What is story-telling? That’s easy! It is the art of telling a story!

Hmm, wait a minute… that includes telling a story with the use of the written word, with the use of song, acting, mime, dance and other mediums. I’d better examine this more closely. Firstly I’d better define the terms Story, and Telling. Story: includes narrative, prose, poems, news items, told, written or shown. Tell: to make known by speech or writing.

The term storytelling is broad! But it’s oral storytelling I am concerned with. So what is oral storytelling? That’s easy: it is the art of telling a story through the medium of voice, no more, no less.

Wait a minute, the art of telling a story. Am I telling the story or is the story telling the story? Or is it both? Am I one with the story? Yes that’s it, when a story works well for me it’s because I have taken the time to learn the story, and then I have taken the time to listen to the story, and then I have taken the time to get to know the story. During each of these processes changes have taken place and the story and I have become partners. So this is like a marriage! I thought I was through with all that!

But that’s not the end of the process! Now that we are married we have to start a family! Now others will become a part of this relationship.

Listeners will get to know us and and during that process changes will occur. The partnership will develop and mature and become a strong unit and a powerful member of our community.

Actually this is great! I can have many different marriage partners!

The only thing is, am I ever an equal partner in any of these marriages? The story always seems to be the dominant partner. Oh well that’s OK. I didn’t want to be boss anyway. At least I have the pleasure of knowing I can have lots of different partners. Wait a minute, so can the story. Hmm… so I can’t really get the upper hand here, can I?

Ok I’11 go along with that for a minute. So the story has all the power in this relationship. How does that work?

Well, the story reaches out and touches each listener in a different way. Like an omniscient, it knows each individual’s needs at any given time. It will either speak to a need in the listener or brush by with a caress, or a tap on the shoulder.

The story can act as a catalyst in commencing the process of solving an emotional problem, enlightenment, preserving a culture,helping another, bonding families or communities. The story can generate the healing power of laughter and assist in the education process. Sometimes the story is a trickster, it pretends to entertain just to get inside the psyche, and then it jumps up at the listener with a timely message.

It seems there is no end to the power of the story to seek out that searching part of an individual’s psyche and touch it.

But do I, as the storyteller, know what the story is giving to each listener? No, I am not extended that privilege. Only the story and the listener know this. But wait, sometimes the listener doesn’t even know. The story sneaks in and finds a place to rest and then awakens at the appropriate time in that person’s life. So the story IS the dominant partner.

What about me then, the storyteller, what contribution do I make in this marriage? Well I provide a vehicle for the story to come to life. But the same can be said for singing and other mediums of presenting a story. How am I, as an oral storyteller, different? Am I different? Please say Yes! Well… as an oral storyteller I do act as a personal communicator, I form a personal relationship with the listener. The listener knows me, or a part of me, through the story. Is that my contribution, to assist in preserving the personal relationship in society? Is the listener more (or less) receptive to the story because of the personal nature of the relationship between teller and listener? Is that what makes oral storytelling unique?

Perhaps not! A singer, musician or dancer also establishes this personal relationship.

But do they allow the story to develop and mature because of the interaction between the teller and the listener. In other words do they give the story the freedom to live. Do those other methods of presenting story allow the story to change, in the way a living organism changes, according to the circumstances and community it finds itself in?

Perhaps this is the element which allows oral storytellers to claim their medium as unique. Perhaps, as the storyteller, my role in this marriage is not so passive after all.

Then again, perhaps I’m just clutching at straws. Is it just that as an involved partner this relationship seem very special to me.

I don’t really know. All I know is… I’m not ready for a divorce yet. I’m still walking on air!

June Barnes © 1997,
Australian Storytelling Guild (Vic).