The Storyteller Within
by Jim Weiss
"I'd like to introduce you to two friends of mine. Their names are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson."
That's how I feel when I begin to tell a story. I consider these literary characters friends of mine and I take great pleasure in introducing them to my audience. Parents can have the same experience.
As in any shared activity, storytelling is one wonderful way to share your true essence with your children. You can start when your child is very young by using a picture book of some familiar tale.
Instead of reading it, tell it in your own words as you turn the pages. This gives you a chance to keep eye contact with your child and also explore tangents with him/her, which is sometimes the most productive way to teach as it provides for the personal meaning that parent and child bring to the story itself.
I would never imply that storytelling should take the place of reading in general. Reading to children validates the written word and secures the process of thought to paper in a powerful way. Storytelling reinforces reading and provides a rich communicative channel of affective language arts. Children whose parents storytell and/or read to them from an early age turn out to be better readers and students later on. In fact, scientists have found that either of these activities helps your child physically activate segments of his/her brain that are involved with visualization, imagination and creativity.
Long after the "read to me" stage of a child's development, another form of storytelling to share is your own family stories. Sharing incidents from your own life, or those of your parents or grand-parents, serves two purposes. First, it gives the message to your child that s/he is important enough to merit the sharing of the family history, and in so doing, it also imbues your child with a sense of her/his own roots.
Of course, as with any storytelling, you have to remember the operative rule: whether fiction or non-fiction, original story or traditional, it has to be fun
What was the difference between the uncle who bored us silly with his reminiscences and the grandmother who held us spellbound? The former talked for and to himself, while the latter really wanted us to understand, and took the time to shape the story as entertainment. Oral history, and for that matter any subject, can be dry and didactic or it can be fascinating and passionate. One has to remember his/her audience.
You don't need the skills of a Laurence Olivier or Meryl Streep to tell your version of a storybook or of your ancestors' arrival to America. Start simply with what you know, and tell it in your own words. Think about what you most want a listener to remember. If you make a mistake, say so. Kids love to hear this. They find it endearing. Just say, "I forgot to tell you that.." and go on. Another way is to say, "Now what Aunt Joan didn't know was that Uncle Bill had already bought the tickets." This presents the information you forgot as a dramatic element of the tale.
In addition to telling stories to your child, a wonderful activity is to tell with her or him and to create the story together. Don't be surprised if it goes off in wild directions you didn't anticipate. Enjoy the ride. If you reach a dead-end, you can always say, "I don't know what happens next, do you?" If your child doesn't, suggest going back in the story and making a different choice: "What if Cinderella hadn't lost the glass slipper?" Then go on from there.
My father used to tell stories to my brother and me in front of a roaring winter fire, or on the porch in summer with the fireflies weaving circles of gold in the gathering darkness. Because he loved literature, many of my father's stories were based on literary classics, mythology and poetry. His stories made us want to learn to read so that we could personally acquaint ourselves with the characters of his tales, which he had simplified for our levels of understanding. Later, he altered his tellings as we matured, always keeping his audience in mind..
When I became a professional storyteller, I followed this pattern. I couldn't remember my father's style, or the exact content of his stories, but I wanted to bring this same kind of excitement and interest in the classics.
In addition, I felt that the classic stories and myths provided a central core or commonality in a society which too often lacks a common set of references. Stories which last do so for a reason. They reflect certain needs in our psychological and emotional make-up. Stories from many different cultures and times provide insight into the multitude of ways we humans live. What is most fascinating, however, is that behind the different customs and lifestyles are wonderfully similar drives and desires. These desires for food, a real home, companionship, love and so on, are the common heritage of all humans. By drawing out these common human traits as we tell stories of different countries or times, through the eyes of our own ancestors or fictional characters, we lay the groundwork for understanding and friendship.
Even my most serious stories have an element of fun, and it is the characters more than the action that fascinate me as a teller.
Each teller will give a new "spin" to telling, drawing out different facets of the characters. Here a parent can employ the professional storyteller to expand the boundaries of storytelling, whether in person at stores or libraries, or on a recording. Even indirectly, your own essence prevails both in the selection of material and in the shared listening and discussion between you and your child.
We all live at such a hectic pace. "It takes all the running you can do," said Alice in Wonderland, "just to stay in one place." Storytelling allows you to slow down for a little while, to focus and present what matters most to you in a way that neither threatens nor preaches. In the end, it allows you to share the greatest gift one can give to one's child: one's self.
Jim Weiss has been a storyteller for over 30 years and is the recipient of 80+ national awards. 2009 marked the 20th anniversary of his “storytelling business,” Greathall Productions, Inc. Greathall Productions has thus far produced 43+ storytelling recordings with enticing titles from classical literature and history: G.A. Henty titles; unabridged readings; Story of the World, I, II, III, and IV; and more. Jim travels extensively internationally and throughout the U.S. presenting at homeschool conferences, schools, stores, libraries, community events, and national organizations.
Contact Jim Weiss when reprinting this article, firstname.lastname@example.org