Kathy A. Fitch
Winter Quarter, 2002
College of DuPage

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Storytelling

I will tell you something about stories. . .
They aren't just for entertainment.
Don't be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off illness and death.
You don't have anything
if you don't have the stories.

--from Leslie Marmon Silko's epigraph to Ceremony (1977)

  Types and Purposes of Storytelling.

  • Cultural Stories.

  • Social Stories.

  • Urban Myths and Legends.

  • Stories About "Inexplicable Phenomena."

  • Family Stories.

  • Friendship Group Stories.

  • Personal Stories.

  • And more . . .

  The Evolution of Storytelling.

  Reading as "Populating Your Inner Society."

  Analyzing Stories.

  Activities for Unit One:  Storytelling

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Types and Purposes of Storytelling

Cultural Stories:  Cultural stories, such as creation stories,  transmit values and beliefs from one generation to the next in easily grasped, easily remembered form, which is why they are generally how children are introduced to religion.  In our intellectual lives and our early lives as students, stories come first.  Only much later do we learn actively to reflect upon and analyze the narratives of which our lives our woven.

Social Stories: “Social Storytelling” is kind of a fancy way of saying “gossip.”  Gossip has a pretty thoroughly negative reputation--and rightly so--because it so often involves the mean-spirited spreading of rumors.  However, practically all of us do gossip from time to time, and our gossiping actually serves several very important purposes.   Why, then, do people gossip about their friends, neighbors, and coworkers, or about news events, politics, and celebrities?  And why might gossiping actually be good for us?  Consider the following possibilities:

Urban Myths and Legends:  Urban myths and legends are sometimes also known as "apocryphal" stories, from a Greek root meaning, "to hide."  These are stories of doubtful authenticity that are nearly always presented as true, as in "This really happened to my best friend's girlfriend's cousin, so I know it's true!"  Generally, these are stories about things we fear or things we don't fully understand.  Sometimes, they give us an opportunity to triumph over our fears; sometimes, they serve as reminders of what we should fear.  The San Fernando Valley Folklore Society's Urban Legends Reference Pages offer a rich collection of these stories for examination.  Take a few minutes to review the site's collection of college stories.  Note how many of them, particularly the "Exam Scams" and the "Homework and Term Paper" stories, concern the imbalance in the power relationship between students and their grade-wielding professors, certainly a source of much anxiety for college students everywhere.  Examining urban myths and legends can tell us quite a bit about the issues facing our culture.  As AIDS exploded into the national consciousness, for instance, the number of urban myths concerning the spread of the disease exploded as well.  "AIDS Mary," is one example.  These days, there's a whole sub-genre of urban myths and legends devoted to computers.  Little wonder!

Stories About Inexplicable Phenomenon:  Stories of ghosts, haunted houses, UFO's, angels, ESP, deja vu, near death experiences and the like are all very appealing. (There's even a very popular radio program, hosted by Whitley Strieber, entirely dedicated to inexplicable phenomenon.) Why?  Well, there are a number of potential reasons.

Family Stories:  Family stories often serve as the oral history of a family, preserving the collected wisdom of its experiences, and the passing along its traditions. Stories about our ancestors give us a way to define our family's identity:  they tell us what it means to be a Fitch or a Smith or a Jones.  Often, these stories embody the best traits of our ancestors, and remind us to live up to them and celebrate them.  Independence, faith, helpfulness, humor, toughness, and an ability to overcome even the most seemingly insurmountable obstacles might all be among the family characteristics defined and captured by a family's narratives.  For instance, my mother often told stories of her father--my maternal grandfather--who died when I was relatively young.  Almost all of her stories of him center around his old-fashioned values.  One afternoon, as she tells it, he happened to see her holding hands with a boy as they walked home from school together. Later that evening, he drew my mother aside, quietly explaining that holding hands in public wasn't something he approved of, or something that a properly modest, self-respecting young woman would ever do.  Besides offering me one small glimpse of what my grandfather was like and how my mother grew up, that story served as reminder of what my mother hoped I'd value, too.  Indeed, virtually all of her stories of him ultimately concern the importance of being both respectful and respectable.

Sometimes, of course,  not so admirable traits get embodied in family stories, as well.  We may, for example, tell stories about the black sheep of the family, the outcast, or the one that is somehow different.  Such stories can either serve as warnings of the negative things that can happen if one fails to live up to the family’s expectations, or can subtly remind us that it is, in fact, possible to escape from the constraints of family expectations if they begin to feel too confining.

Think, too, about how family stories define the role or the personality of each member of a family. If you can identify the stories that your relatives love to tell about you again and again--sometimes in the most embarrassing fashion--then you've likely identified one of your own role-defining narratives.  Note how many parents have the habit of introducing their children by attaching a label to their names: “This is Susie, the athletic one;  Billy, the artistic one;  and Tommy, the class clown.”  There are almost always stories to go along with the labels, so that we are bound to hear about Susie’s exploits on the court, Billy’s forays into oil painting, and Tommy’s latest pranks.  Such labels, and the stories that generally accompany them, can be either liberating or limiting.  In either case, examining the family stories that developed  in our childhoods can provide insight into our adult development, helping us both understand our pasts and weave new stories for our futures.

Friendship Group Stories:  Friendship group stories are the ones we tell again and again when we reunite with old friends.  Sometimes, it's easier to recognize these if you're not actually a member of the group.  I doubt that my husband and his old high school pals even realize that they do tell the same stories of their high school exploits every time they get together for a backyard barbecue, but I always notice, and could easily tell many of the stories myself.  Such stories preserve group cohesiveness, reminding members of their history together, and preventing them from getting too big for their britches.  You might be a doctor, a lawyer, or a successful business owner now, but your best friend from junior high will always know and remember who you were, including the time you got kicked out of cranky old Ms. McGillicutty's English class for your distinctly unique use of the English language.

Personal Stories:  We are all forever in the process of composing our personal histories.  The stories we weave about our own lives help us to remember them, to make sense of them, to find meaningful patterns in them, and sometimes to change them.  Sometimes, life can seem pretty chaotic--quite as if things happen to us without rhyme or reason.  Narratologists (those who study stories for a living) observe that human beings have a "narrative need," by which they mean a need for arranging events into meaningful patterns of cause and effect; or beginnings, middles, and endings.  Clearly, such stories really matter to us, even when they concern relatively minor things.  Think, for example, of how you might respond if you earned a lower grade than you wanted on an essay or an exam.  You might blame the poor grade on your teacher, thinking her clearly biased and unfair.  Or, you might decide that your schedule is really to blame.  After all, it isn't easy to work forty hours a week;  raise three children, two dogs, and a parakeet; *and* get straight A's.  Perhaps, though, you'll tell yourself that you're simply not good at Math or History or whichever course in which you've earned the lower than desired grade.  Maybe you'll even tell yourself that you'll never be any good at the subject in question.  Note how these differing stories will yield quite different results.  Blame teacher and you needn't accept any of the responsibility yourself.  Blame you schedule and you might decide you'll have to cut back on hours at work, or take fewer courses per term.  Blame your lack of skill and you set yourself up for future failures.  Paying attention to how we weave our own stories can really make a difference in how happily we live our lives, not to mention in how readily we achieve our goals.  

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The Evolution of Storytelling

The seven storytelling categories above obviously only begin to scrape the surface of the kinds and purposes of narrative that surround us, but they do give us a good beginning toward considering what  a central role storytelling still plays in the lives of cultures, communities, families, and individuals.  We could easily list many more types of stories, such as "fish stories," "most embarrassing moment" stories, locker room stories, stories of "firsts" (e.g. your first lie, your first kiss, your first date, etc.) and so forth.  Nowadays, there are even consultants who specialize in Corporate Storytelling. Can you think of still other categories to add?

Clearly, storytelling is neither a dead nor a dying art.  Still, it has evolved and continues to evolve as we develop and explore new methods of telling and disseminating our stories.   Walter Ong, a linguist and  narratologist, speculates that cultures move through three stages of storytelling as they develop.

First comes the Oral Stage, during which there is complete reliance on verbal transmission for all types of stories:  history, news, entertainment, and religion are all passed along orally.  

Next comes the Print Stage of literacy.  When stories are printed (via the printing press, most notably), they can be transmitted more widely, and stand a better chance of long-term survival.  Plus, the original versions of stories can be preserved.  The Grimm's Brothers famous fairly tales are actually print versions of oral stories born long before the printing press.  

Just as print altered the nature of storytelling, so do our modern media.   In this third stage of literacy--what Ong calls the Media Stage--both oral and print transmission survive (Ong refers to the "secondary orality" of the late media stage, which though literate returns in many ways to a reliance on oral/aural transmission and consumption of narrative), but are largely superseded by things like radio, television, and film, which become our fastest, most efficient, and most popular means of telling and consuming stories.  Even family and personal stories don't escape the impact of new media.  Consider, for instance, what a huge impact video cameras have had on how we preserve the most important moments of our lives.  Weddings, births, graduations, recitals, and holidays are all routinely preserved on film.  Indeed, there may be at least a few parents out there who have never seen those events without looking through at them through a lens!  Think about the differences between remembering a wedding and watching the taped version of that wedding, or between telling a child about how you remember his or her first steps and simply popping in the video so that child can witness the event for him or herself.  On a larger scale, satellites mean that we can watch history in the making rather than reading about it or seeing footage of it days or weeks later.  Now, we watch as wars, trials, hostage crises, natural disasters and the like actually unfold.  How do you suppose that changes how we react to such events?  Are the changes positive?  Negative?  A bit of both?

We might also ask what will come next in the evolution of storytelling.  Computers, certainly, are already changing the nature of the story, and will likely continue to do so for quite some time.  Multimedia or hypermedia stories, for instance, bring together text, graphics, and sound in ways that are often fresh and original.  Even hypertext itself changes the nature of stories by refusing to fulfill our expectations about cause and effect, and challenging our desire for linear stories that have neat and tidy beginnings, middles, and endings.  Because readers choose where to enter a hypertext story, and how to proceed through it, they have much greater control over shaping its course than they would with a typical book.  Interactive software, too, invites reader participation.  In interactive mysteries, for instance, the reader becomes the sleuth, and can only figure out "who done it" if he or she can correctly locate and interpret the clues.  Ultimately, though, whether storytellers take fullest advantage of this relatively new medium to shape their stories in new ways may matter less than the very fact that the internet offers a new forum for telling stories, preserving them, and transmitting them widely.  Already, there's a movement afoot called "Digital Storytelling," whose practitioners do consciously explore the new possibilities of hypertext and hypermedia.  Conversely, for one good example of  how the internet can be employed simply to gather and disseminate online stories without necessarily transforming them into cutting-edge hypertext, visit the Center for Life Stories Preservation site.  The Library of Congress's "American Memory" site provides another good example of how we preserve our pasts--our stories, and our histories--in this digital era.

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Reading as "Populating Your Inner Society"

No examination of storytelling could be complete without taking into consideration the stories we read, and how they, too, influence us.  As a child, I read everything from Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales to now classic children's books like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Then, I made my way through all of the Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables books before progressing, as I grew, to horror, fantasy, science fiction, cyberpunk, and so on.  Since I'm an English teacher, I guess it's no big shock that I still love to read every bit as much and every bit as widely as I did as a child, but now it's time to turn your attention to what you used to read, and what you read now.  Do you still recall your favorite books from childhood?  How did they influence you?  What sorts of things do you enjoy reading now?  Fiction?  Biographies?  History? Since stories transport us to other worlds, and allow us to climb inside the psyches of other characters, they truly do "populate our inner societies," as Russell Hoban writes in "Thoughts on a Shirtless Cyclist, Robin Hood, and One or Two Other Things," with people, places, dreams, desires, and possibilities we might never consider otherwise.  Indeed, Hoban argues that those who don't regularly immerse themselves in stories suffer a kind of inner poverty, for their minds, hearts, and souls are never enriched with that magical variety of perspectives that they might internalize and ultimately bring to bear on their own lives. 

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Analyzing Stories

Exactly how might one go about the task of beginning to analyze a story?  Well, in many ways that's a question you probably already know the answer to, even if you've never consciously or formally set out to do so.  Think, for instance, of the kinds of discussions we routinely have with family and friends after we've attended the latest "must see" film.  We consider plots, themes, characters, motivations, symbols, conflicts, clichés, and cliff-hanger endings. Sometimes, we even hotly debate the merits of a given film, wondering how anyone could love something we found so thoroughly pretentious, or fail to love something we found so deeply moving.  Written analyses of narrative not only require many of those same skills, but also often involve similar disagreements.  As always, the key to developing a solid analysis is to express your position as clearly and logically as possible, supporting  it with evidence from the story.

Try your hand at analyzing the following brief story, entitled "Jade", from Gene Olson's Sweet Agony II:  A Writing Book of Sorts: 

A boy in old China wanted to become an expert on jade, the gemstone much prized in that country.  Hearing of a very old man who knew most of what was known about jade, the boy sought out the ancient expert to learn.

At their first meeting, the old man put a piece of jade into the boy’s hand.  “Hold it tight,” the teacher said.

The old man then began to talk softly about life and air and water and sunlight and birds.  After an hour or so, he took the jade from the boy’s hand and gently told him to go home.

The boy returned on the following day.  The procedure was repeated--the jade in the boy’s hand, the old man’s quiet discourse, the taking of the jade.  Days passed, then weeks, with the boy growing more impatient.  He was hearing much about the earth and the stars and such things.  When we he learn about jade?  But he dared not question his revered teacher.

Then one day the ancient one put a stone in the boy’s hand and the boy said immediately: “That’s  not  jade!"

The old one smiled.  “Now you know about jade, my son.”

 

Once you've read the story through several times, consider the following questions about it: 

1.      What does it teach?  (didactic)

2.      What other activities or aspects of life does it parallel or suggest?  (symbolic)

3.     What does it try to make me believe?  How does it try to persuade me to   behave? Or, how does it try to make me change my beliefs or behaviors? (persuasive)

4.      How do I respond to it on an emotional level?  (emotional, psychological)

5.      What events or experiences in my life does it remind me of or seem similar to? (evocative, analogous)

6.      What events or experiences in my life does it shed new light on, or cause me to think about in a new way?  (illustrative, enlightening)

7.      What is the overall tone of the story?  (serious, spooky, comic, sarcastic, argumentative)

8.      What is its structure?  (form, pattern, repetition)

9.      Who is the intended audience?  (assumptions, expectations, commonalities)

10.  If oral, where and when is it told, and by whom?  (delivery)

11.  How does it help populate my “inner society”?  (influence)

In this case, it might help to know that Olson considered writing students and teachers to be his audience, and that he uses this story to illustrate the point he is attempting to make about writing:  namely, that writing is something we can only really learn about by doing.  Do you think Olson's application of the story is appropriate?  Can you think of other purposes to which the story might be put?  Once you've developed the habit of asking and answering questions about stories, you're well on your way to learning to actively analyze them.

 

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Activities for Unit One:  Storytelling

  1. Participate in class discussions on the purposes of storytelling, and how to identify and analyze key stories.  

  2. Complete questions and invention exercises posted to the ConnectWeb class site.

  3. Develop, compose, workshop, revise, and polish an essay in which you do one of the following:  

  Briefly tell and thoroughly analyze one--or more, if you can demonstrate how they are closely related--story from one of the categories we've examined.  

Analyze how some specific aspect of technology is contributing to the evolution of storytelling, for good or ill.

Examine the role one or more of your favorite books has played in "populating your inner society."

Propose an additional classification of story that we might have included here, and argue for it's inclusion.  For example, you might consider the animated children's holiday stories so many of us have no doubt recently seen again.  Why the sadness running through so many of them?  (Note, for instance, that Rudolph is made fun of for looking different, that Frosty melts, that Charlie Brown is ignored and humiliated.)

Choose some currently popular genre of storytelling to examine and analyze.  Why, for instance, are The Chicken Soup for the . . . books so popular now?  Conversely, why was the nation so riveted by the Survivor at first, and why is interest now apparently waning?  

Or, propose a topic of your own!  I'm always open to alternative possibilities, and would welcome hearing your ideas.  Also, keep in mind that you are always free to compose your essays as hyper-essays or webbed-essays if you wish.  If you think you'd like to go that route, but aren't yet an experienced web-spinner, just let me know and I'll offer as much direction and support as I can.

I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke in me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.
                                   --Malcolm X 

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Kathy A. Fitch
Winter Quarter, 2002
College of DuPage

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FitchK@cdnet.cod.edu · Disclaimer ·06 January 2002