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Talking Storytelling: Book Reviews

Introduction to storytellling.jpg

Christine Willison (ed.) (2018) An Introduction to Storytelling

I am an inveterate scribbler in books. Most of the time these markings are pencil lines down the margin which go from a single line (hmmm... interesting) to three lines (write this down, now!), and sometimes they are notes which draw parallels with other reading, or with my own experience. The fact that my copy of this collection of papers about the nature of storytelling, and its application, now has a lot of pencil lead scrawled over it is, therefore, a good sign.

Under the title to this book it says, ‘By storytellers from around the world’. While this is true, with contributions from Jack Zipes (USA), Jackie Kerin (Australia) and Klara Miller-Fuhren (Germany), among others, there is (perhaps a little disproportionately) a rather strong representation from Wales. Now, I am very proud of my own Welsh blood, but there is a danger  that ‘The Land of Song’ is, perhaps, also claiming the title, ‘The Land of Story’. Whatever the origin of its author, however, each  chapter is short and easily digestible, with the writer demonstrating how  to make the most from a short word-count. What follows, then, is a personal response to some of the chapters that stood out for me.

As someone who works in education, I found Gary and Linda Kuntz’s anecdotal chapter, ‘Using Storytelling to Teach Special Needs Students’ compelling in the way they demonstrate how oral storytelling can provide a context for all kinds of information that we need to function in society. Although an important message regarding the power of contextualised learning is also at the heart of Chip Colquhoun’s chapter on storytelling in the classroom, I was less convinced by his assertions about the importance of quantitative data to establish the usefulness of storytelling in supporting learning – I feel that it’s always dangerous to judge the efficacy of an educational tool by scoring children’s ability to recall isolated facts.

Some well-known names in the UK storytelling scene are contributors to the book, including Taffy Thomas, Michael Harvey and Hugh Lupton.  In the latter’s chapter, ‘Word Magic’, Lupton’s voice can be clearly heard,  as he explores how storytellers can ‘sing’ their stories and bring other worlds into existence through their words.  The shaping of reality through story is a theme that is picked-up by several authors, including Deb Winter. As she describes her development as a storyteller, she recounts how she has seen the powerless gain their voice through the narration of their life experiences, many of which were painful. Not completely unrelated is Eirwen Malin account of how storying her own experience of Parkinson’s Disease has allowed her to find imagery and metaphor that has enabled her (and her audiences) to explore what this life-changing diagnosis has meant for her.  Moving from stories of empowerment to the accounts of the powerful, ‘Honest Liars: A Challenge for Our Times’, by Michael Wilson, is a timely commentary on the ways in which ‘alternative facts’ are used to create stories that shape reality to the benefit of the privileged. Wilson calls on storytellers to transform such narratives, arguing that ‘storytelling allows us a different way of knowing and understanding the world and of challenging the idea of a simple objective reality’. 

Finally, I am going to mention Jackie Kerin’s chapter on ‘Kamishibai in Australia’ simply because I love watching and performing storytelling as Kamishibai (which is the  Japanese word for ‘paper theatre’). I commend this short introduction (supported by pictures) to this form of storytelling, and suggest searching YouTube for examples of Kamishibai performance.

It is well-worth having a copy of ‘An Introduction to Storytelling’ on the shelf – both for the experienced storyteller and the teller who is just starting out. For the former, it provides short and easily digestible chapters which go some way to exploring the breadth of the practices that we call ‘storytelling’; for the latter, it is a sound introduction to the range of approaches taken by established tellers, and the purposes to which storytelling is put. 

Geoff Mead (2011) Coming Home to Story: Storytelling Beyond Happily Ever After

We humans are storytelling creatures. We spend most of our waking lives exchanging stories and anecdotes - at home, at work, at play. Telling stories is the primary way we make sense of our experience and give significance to our lives.' (p3)

I read about this book online, was sufficiently intrigued by the chapter 'Men and Storytelling' to order it and, unusually for my reading habits, enjoyed the very personal journey that Geoff Mead narrates. Probably, the opening passage of the prologue (above), in which which he locates his understanding story in the way that we make sense of the world means that I knew that he would not be so far from my own convictions about the importance of storytelling, and I wasn't let down. 

Mead's journey from a high ranking role in the police force to storyteller is deeply personal, and he shares stories of relationship breakdown and finding both himself and love in his fifties. As hinted above, I am not always comfortable with this kind of approach, and there are moments in which I felt like a voyeur, but these points of personal transformation are important to illustrate how, through story and storytelling,  Mead renewed his life - and each the theme of each chapter is illuminated with his own well-written version of a traditional tale. 

In addition to a career in the police, Mead completed a PhD and is not frightened of including theory (linguistic, psychological and narrative) as he discusses the impact of storytelling on him and others. This should not put readers off, as his method is to weave the theory through his own story so that it feels a natural part of the discussion. The inclusion of such references is always going to endear most texts to me, but a slight niggle is his introduction of one anecdote with the words, 'I once heard...' as if it is part of oral tradition, when 30 seconds on Google revealed it to be an invention of Umberto Eco (The Limits of Interpretation (1990)).  

All in all, this is a good read, which is thought-provoking for anyone who is a storyteller (or is interested in storytelling), and who wants to think about what stories can bring to their own personal development and, at the same time, what they can and do for those with whom they share their tales. 

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