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To Text is Simple, To Tell Divine

author: Denny Manchee / illustrator: Heather Cooper

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Finding the grace and place of oral storytelling in a smart-device world.

Not so long ago in the hills of Northumberland, a group of travellers, old and young, bearing books and colourful hats and instruments and food, made their way up the steep slope from Lake Ontario, past the stone fortress of luxury on the hill, and further north along a leafy road to a tidy house in a grove of fragrant evergreens. It was the month of June and her name was June. The house was brown and her last name was Brown. And the old and young were there to listen and tell and learn.

“New Voices and Old Wisdom” was the name of the gathering, a weekend devoted to the art and craft of storytelling. It was conceived by host June Brown and her fellow teller Brenda Byers. Forty storytellers came from as far away as the Bruce Peninsula and Ottawa to swap tales and build community and momentum among their scattered numbers.

You may well wonder who these folks are who practice this ancient art form in an age where texting and tweeting are the twin peaks of communication. And how can storytellers, with their talking sticks, possibly compete for people’s fractured attention with something as simple as a single human voice?

There is magic in a well told story, a spellbinding quality that takes us back to our childhood and the intimacy of a parent’s voice, a gifted teacher, or the collective thrill of a ghost story around the fire. We are hard-wired for stories, just as we are for music.

“For all of our modern technology, we are drawn to the campfire,” says Cobourg storyteller Marg Kropf. “We are drawn as a group to form circles around fires, whether we sing, whether we tell, whether we share. That’s something that’s universal. And you see kids love campfires and they love to be scared,” she adds, her crystalline voice rising and falling with an actor’s skill. Yes, she does that too, and before that she taught French. Just ask for her rooster imitation from the story “Chanticleer and the Fox” – en francais, bien sur!

June, a bright-eyed former camp counselor and early childhood educator, came to the art at a young age. “I had been telling stories most of my life because I was a camp counselor, then I told to my children, then started telling in the schools with my grandchildren, and kept taking more and more courses. I didn’t know you could tell to adults till 10 years ago!”

Like many people in this business, June and Marg are ebullient women of a certain age with huge hearts, a passion for the spoken word and a background in teaching. Not surprising, for teaching and sharing lessons – big and small – are at the core of this ancient tradition, a tradition that takes much practice and hard work. Just as a musician must play scales and practise, practise, practise, so too must a storyteller. Consider how you might tackle memorizing a 35-minute story!

Thankfully, June has a fabulous memory, toned from her experience with dyslexia as a child – “I found reading and writing really hard but had a great memory.” Like some other storytellers, she creates a story map to sketch the main skeleton of the story. People also use a story line with characters and events branching off to learn a piece, or learn them like studying for exams, memorizing pictures and scenes in their heads. “Then you tell it over and over and build detail on your skeleton,” says June. “You don’t have to remember it word for word because it’s a living thing and will change subtly with each telling.”

What makes this different from the written word is that the story is very pared down, like this, for example: “She walked into the room. She was very beautiful. They fell in love.”

This bare-bones narrative leaves lots of scope for the storyteller to invent and adapt on the fly. But you still have to have your wits about you to remember the chronology in a 30- or 40-minute story.

Way back, way, way, back in the day, “Irish poet-tellers studied their art for 15 years, and had to be wise in philosophy, astronomy, magic and conversant with 250 prime tales and a hundred subsidiary ones,” according to American storyteller Jane Yolen in her book Favourite Folktales from Around the World.

“Medieval troubadours,” she adds, “were expected to know the current court and countryside favourite tales as well as recite the latest in court scandals, play two instruments well, and further, to be able to repeat the noteworthy theses from the universities.” The Twitter of their times, as it were.

Nowadays, smart devices deal with the scrolling ephemera of life, but there’s still a place and an appetite for the deeper breath.

“Storytellers can be tradition-keepers, teachers, entertainers and all of the above,” says Dan Yashinsky, who was at the June gathering, and is one of the leading storytellers in Canada and founder of “1001 Nights of Storytelling” in Toronto (held every Friday night at Innis Café at U of T). Clad in hip black T-shirt and jeans and looking ever youthful, Dan says the revival of interest in oral storytelling may come from a feeling of being disconnected from the things that make and sustain community: gatherings of neighbours, good listening, living voices.

“Storytelling is like the slow-food movement,” he says in his Jewish-Detroit drawl. “Just like slow food can’t compete with a quick burger and fries, slow literature needs its own time – the time to enter the reverie of listening – and brings with it its own unique pleasures.” (To hear Dan tell a short, funny story called “My Bubbe and the Police,” follow this link: www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnJ9B6PtZwQ)

The storyteller’s relationship with the audience – be it kids, seniors, hospital patients, festival goers or corporate types – creates an energy loop that affects both teller and listeners. “You bring yourself to the story and draw energy from the audience,” says June. “You want to see their eyes, their response. The energy goes back and forth and you tell the story together.” Hence June’s particular interest in participation stories.

Back in Marg Kropf’s cosy living room in Cobourg, we’re having coffee with another storyteller, Enid DeCoe. Both she and Marg are members of the Durham Folklore Storytellers and both have been telling tales for years. Enid, a model of elegant grandmotherhood in a classic navy dress, has the measured, sonorous voice of a kindergarten teacher – which she was for many years.

The two are riffing on the relevance of this art form amid the deafening noise of contemporary life. “Stories can teach, explain and entertain, sometimes all at once,” says Enid. Where once the art of story telling was about transmitting knowledge and news, today it is more about revealing larger truths to offer context and hope in our crazy times.

One of Enid’s favourite stories to tell is “The Story of the Three Kingdoms”, by Walter Dean Myers. “At the end it says only people have their stories, and in their stories they find wisdom, and in their wisdom they find strength.

“And that to me is so powerful.”

Ah yes wisdom, universal truths, the kind you can’t find on “Grey’s Anatomy” or gawker.com, the kind that cross cultures and time, that offer perspective on today’s news-obsessed world. Point taken.

Enid goes on to talk about the value of storytelling in the school system, where she spent her career: “Stories develop listening skills, imagination, comprehension and an understanding of relationships and cultures.” That’s a good basket of skills worth promoting, and they seem to be basic tools for the culture of “presenting” that most kids will experience in the workplace.

But beyond the obvious pedagogical benefits of storytelling in the school system lies our collective need for stories to help us understand the larger human narrative. Archetypes of the trickster and fool, of love lost and won, of good and evil transcend time and place. When I asked Dan about folktales that speak to the greed of our times and the likes of Bernie Madoff, he said: “All of the world’s folktales teach us that greed, hoarding, self-interest and exploitation of others, particularly the poor, are destructive forces. In folktales, the perpetrators of such evil acts usually pay for their greed in satisfyingly extreme forms of punishment.” Like a lifetime in prison, for example.

Still, the audience for this art form is relatively small, so what does the future of storytelling look like in Ontario? As the “New Voices and Old Wisdom” gathering wrapped up at June Brown’s Rivendell-like property north of Grafton, she and Brenda were heartened by the connections people had made and were forging ahead with a plan to launch a travel-and-billeting program this fall to allow storytellers to move around the province at little expense and continue to learn from each other, share their wisdom and expand their audience.

Dan, ever the storytelling ambassador, would smile at this. “What I hold onto is the passionate belief that knowing good stories by heart and telling them to a circle of listeners makes a haven for the human spirit. I have seen a genuine renaissance of this art all around the world. I guess people are discovering they just can’t double click on wisdom.”

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