The Power of #OralStorytelling in #History, #Reading, and #Writing

Hello, my fellow creatives! Summer has returned to the Midwest at last. While my kids eagerly toss their backpacks into the air crying Hallelujah, I am wrapping up finals while also preparing for the next term. It’s a little scary, changing over terms, but, you know…we manage somehow. 🙂

But all this monsterly ruckus does not mean we cannot think of writerly things. In fact, I was fortunate enough to host a virtual Creative Salon for some fellow teachers about the importance of oral storytelling for its cultural, creative, and classroom significance. Let me take you through a few bits of research, perhaps a pondering or two, so that we may all remember just what is treasured–preserved–known through the tradition of oral storytelling.

The oral traditions and expressions include of many spoken such us riddles, proverbs, folklore, tales, legends story, myths, epic songs and poems, charms, prayers, chants, songs, dramatic performances and more. Oral traditions and expressions are used to give information about the knowledge, social and culture values as well as the collective memory.

Cultural Preservation: Rediscovering the Endangered Oral Tradition of Maluku

Think back to your days listening to a story a loved one tells you, or that you told yourself. “Once upon a time”… and off you go into someplace Other and New. Such a common little phrase, isn’t it? We hear it over and over in familiar fairy tells and legends. You can even trim that phrase down further to simply “Once.” Countless stories start at this very moment. These stories come from across land and time to reach us, here and now, and pull us into their “once”: stories of battles waged, quests completed, families reunited.

Or perhaps those stories come from an Elsewhere altogether different: lands of myth and magic, where the Impossible is just as real as you, or you…oooor you!

Campfires call upon that Impossible Magic, don’t they? When the words of a spoken story combine with the sparks and stars, we cannot help but fall under the story’s spell. Such was the way we and others wove with words: summer camp’s ghost stories, Dad’s evening devotions, or the bizarre fairy tales we’d tell ourselves while poking the embers with our sticks still sticky from the last of the marshmallows.

In the time of Dickens, reading aloud at home was very much a common household entertainment. The practice had become broadly accessible in Britain a hundred years earlier, with the spread of literacy and the increased availability of books and periodicals…they saw reading as a pick-me-up and a dangerous influence, a source of improvement, a way to stave off boredom, and even as a health-giving substitute…

The Enchanted Hour

But let us not be so foolish as to suppose the stories told could only be for fun. Telling tales aloud could be extremely instructive, too, for any class. From oral historians describing battles to Caesar as he dined, to the man reading newspapers to Cuban cigar-rollers as they worked, we have depended on the oral storyteller to take us outside of ourselves and witness that which we cannot experience otherwise. It is through the telling of lives that we have learned what it is like to emigrate to a foreign land, to live in a centuries-old slum, to hide in the trenches as bombs decimate the land. Countless cultures have depended upon oral storytelling to preserve their histories and customs, and it is through such practice that modern generations have been able to preserve the ways of their ancestors.

The art of storytelling was practiced by both men and women in Lakota culture and society, where a form of high culture existed prior to the reservation period. Those individuals born in the early part of the twentieth century retained memories of narratives told by grandparents who lived during this “high culture” period, which extended from the time before contact with Europeans to approximately 1850.

George Sword’s Warrior Narratives

Nowadays, Kapata is performed (sung) widely [in Indonesia]. In its development, Kapata helps to carry out the function as the medium to enrich language and literature…Another function of Kapata is a social control function. It can be found in the texts of Kapata such as in Kapata Nasihat in Central Maluku from parents to children or from kings to his people. Kapata [maintains] the sanctity of customs regulations and upholding custom laws in a particular community; and to preserve and maintain custom relations that have been established in a community for years.

Rediscovering the Endangered Oral Tradition of Maluku

Māori who participate in ceremonies and meetings there, descendants of those who composed and passed on the ancient records, know the lineage of their forebears because of often quoted genealogies, which were also preserved in the oral tradition. The words handed down from the ancestors are cherished and kept current in various ways and through new media….The literature that bears the closest relationship to the oral tradition in its original form are the texts that Māori first wrote down from memory or that were written for them as they dictated…

Maori Oral Tradition

The West had shaped the knowledge and discourse about Africa for hundreds of years and it was important to shift that power relationship. Obviously, decades of European colonial incursion and rule needed to be sorted out as it pertained to earlier scholarship….Certainly, African societies have preserved their histories, cultures, and ideas in nonverbal forms in the plastic, musical, dancing, and ritual arts, and these need to be taken into account when seeking a thorough historical picture. This also allows us to understand how earlier events have been reconsidered or even reshaped over time for contemporary purposes.

On the Status of African Oral Tradition Since 1970s: An Interview with Robert Cancel

But what does oral storytelling mean for us in the here and now? Since the professionals cannot make up their minds about listening to stories vs. reading them, let’s just focus on what we get out of oral storytelling as both readers and writers of the present.

Reading becomes a priority again. One of my university colleagues broke down the current literacy plight as an inevitable consequence of the “multimodality” of our entertainment. Once radio and film came to Main Street, people no longer needed newspapers and books like they used to. A representative of Wisconsin Literacy concurred, noting that a child is not raised in a home where reading matters, that mindset is carried into adulthood and passed on to the next generation. This mindset propels that vicious cycle of low-literacy onward: no motivation to read = inability to decipher and synthesize text both simple and complex. Forget research–low-literacy means being unable to properly fill out a job application or understand a medical prescription. Studies shared in The Enchanted Hour show that the majority of a child’s neurological development occurs in the first five years, and when a child watches a video instead of listening to a book being read, that development suffers greatly.

Listening to a picture book being read, however, helps children connect the pictures and words they see with the words they hear. They hear how the words sound, how the sentences sound, and are therefore able to use those words and sentences themselves with confidence. And this isn’t just for kids, by the way. I have recommended my adult learners reading fun stuff for years, and the response is overwhelmingly positive. Reading for fun makes reading for school a smidge easier. Reading for school makes writing for school a smidge easier. Writing for school makes writing for work a smidge easier. Put all those smidges together, and you’ve got yourselves a broken vicious cycle.

If a child sees something in a parent that that child aspires to, he or she will copy that parent and be content.

The Reading Promise

This is another reason why I started my podcast last month: in all my encouragement to students, I was neglecting myself. Story Cuppings became a way for me to not only sample and study stories through reading their first chapters, but to read aloud and experience new language again and again. If you’ve a book–be it one you love, wrote, or both–you’d like me to share on Story Cuppings, just let me know!

Passion swells to share one’s life experience, the struggles here and now. “Once upon a time” is not limited to Past Days or Elsewheres. “Once” means “now” as much as it means “then.” “Once” there is a group of people who struggle, not struggled, against adversity. That “once” takes us to the accounts of individuals in Hong Kong, in the United States, in Myanmar, in Poland, in Mexico. It is through the words of an individual—what they see and hear, what they experience at the hands of others—that we learn of the epic quests and battles of today.

And do not assume “epic” must mean “global stakes.” On the contrary, the most epic victories can be one family, one person, living life one season to the next. Such are the stories we hear at family gatherings, be they around a campfire, kitchen table, or fence post. As fellow Wisconsinite storyteller and documentarian Jeremy Apps explains:

My father and my uncles were storytellers, and so were several of the neighbors in the farming community where I grew up in central Wisconsin. Family members told stories when we gathered for celebrations, birthday parties, anniversaries, and at Christmas and Thanksgiving family affairs. Our farm neighbors told stories during threshing and wood sawing bees, while they waited at the grist mill for their cow feed to be ground, and when they came to town on Saturday nights and waited for their wives to grocery shop. These stories were always entertaining, as many of them had a humorous bent to them, but they were also filled with information—how the cattle were surviving during the summer drought, what price Sam got for his potato crop and how he managed to get that price. How the weather this year was not nearly as bad as the weather twenty years ago. Many of the stories were also sad, such as how Frank was making it on his poor farm since his wife died and left him with three kids to fee and care for.

Telling Your Own Story

When I read App’s words and see his work like A Farm Winter, I see the shine of the pivotal truth he wrote in Telling Your Own Story….

Click here for more on this documentary.

Your stories are snippets of history.

Never, EVER, sell your own story short. Whether you weave your experiences with imagined elements or you stitch the raw details together for all to know, YOUR story matters.

Now, tell it aloud.

Hear the sounds of the words you choose, the rhythm they create like the genealogies repeated by the Maori over and over as the story is told by the teller. Listen to the nuances of your characters’ voices–what words embody the tones you use when your voice dresses up as each character? What words bring sensory feeling to the settings you describe?

There is beauty in your story’s language, my fellow writers. Share it with the sparks and stars, and see its magic pass from one generation to the next.~

~COMING SOON!~

Would you believe I’m actually working on a humor writing workshop for my university this summer? I’m still working out how I got roped into that, too. Plus we need to FINALLY talk about the process of choosing character names. Let’s not forget studying those character archetypes that cross time and culture! There’s lots of literary fun to share over the coming months, not to mention some more kickin’ author interviews.

Read on, share on, and write on my friends!

A #Classic #Fantasy for this #Podcast: #TheHobbit by #JRRTolkien

Happy Wednesday, everyone! The Fantasy fiction celebration Wyrd and Wonder continues, and so shall we, this time with a timeless joy: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Everyone has their opinions on this story, sure, but I’d love to share a sip with you to discover what it is about the voice of this novel that brings readers and writers back time and again.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

I have written about The Hobbit’s worldbuilding before. If you’d like to read about that, click here.

If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories. I keep discovering more and more fantasy books I’d like to try, so perhaps we’ll stick with fantasy? Or perhaps not! I’m enjoying the promise of possibility far too much. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#LessonsLearned from #JohnLeCarre: Always #Write a #Setting of Quality.

Welcome to February, my friends! Sunlight is rare in Wisconsin these frigid days. The snow has frozen, and mothers–well, this mother, anyway–cruelly refuse to let children hurl ice at one another for fun. This has led to lots of running about the house, blasting imaginary baddies while flying off on dragons, Transformers, and Federation star ships. So long as their epic battles do not end with more stitches, we’ll be fine.

Tales of action and adventure have been long been a part of my life, and Bo’s, too. James Bond is a mutual favorite–the suave rogue against impossible villains, constantly in daring chases across the world, winning all the women and destroying all the doomsday devices. That’s what spy films are all about, right?

And then I discovered John le Carré through a whimsical selection of the library: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring the late great Sir Alec Guinness. Bo, ever the student of all things related to cinema, told me Le Carré wrote the George Smiley novels as a literary retort to Fleming’s Bond.

Image from Bond on the Box. Click the link for more information on a fascinating debate between Anthony Horowitz and David Farr about the spy-worlds crafted by Fleming and Le Carré.

The two authors did actively serve their country in the Intelligence realm, so considering how each approached the world of spies, I’ll leave the idea of a rivalry up to you. Personally, when a character describes protagonist Smiley with “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for,” I can see how one could perceive Smiley to be the antithesis to the debonair 007.

In celebration of the incomparable John Le Carré, let us visit the postwar England of his protagonist, George Smiley. Let us see how one author transforms the landscape for a story dark and full of danger…oh, but this is not a tale of international espionage. Oh no. This is but a humble tale of a village murder.

Yet even a village murder can be filled with secrets and lies. Even a village murder can be a story of quality.

In the spirit of SJ Higbee’s Friday cover comparisons, let’s see a few covers. while I love the ornateness of the Q, isn’t it a shame the back color is a drab white? The gold is practically lost to it.

We begin.

Chapter 1: Black Candles

The greatness of Carne School has been ascribed by common consent to Edward VI, whose educational zeal is ascribed by history to the Duke of Somerset. But Carne prefers the respectability of the monarch to the questionable politics of his adviser, drawing strength from the conviction that Great Schools, like Tudor Kings, were ordained in Heaven.

“Ordained in Heaven.” Already, Le Carré establishes Carne School’s feelings of superiority over the rest of the masses. Not only is this school connected to the throne and the aristocracy, but to God himself. Surely no common man would think himself better than such a place.

And indeed its greatness is little short of miraculous. Founded by obscure monks, endowed by a sickly boy king, and dragged from oblivion by a Victorian bully, Carne had straightened its collar, scrubbed its rustic hands and face and presented itself shining to the courts of the twentieth century. And in the twinkling of an eye, the Dorset bumpkin was London’s darling: Dick Whittington had arrived. Carne had parchments in Latin, seals in wax and Lammas Land behind the Abbey. Carne had property, cloisters and woodworm, a whipping block and a line in the Doomsday Book–then what more did it need to instruct the sons of the rich?

“Rustic hands.” “Bumpkin.” A school of the country, nestled in the dirty rural life, yearns to be a part of the “courts” and be “London’s darling.” Classism flows through the novel with a powerful current, the kind that grabs you by the foot and pulls you under if you’re not careful. We must tread on, carefully, for the students are arriving.

This cover tells me I am in a school, but that’s it. The font for title and author are equally vague. Blech.

And they came; each Half they came (for terms are not elegant things), so that throughout a whole afternoon the trains would unload sad groups of black-coated boys on to the station platform. They came in great cars that shone with mournful purity.

They came to bury poor King Edward, trundling handcarts over the cobbled streets or carrying tuck boxes like little coffins. Some wore gowns, and when they walked they looked like crows, or black angels come for the burying. Some followed singly like undertakers’ mutes, and you could hear the clip of their boots as they went. They were always in mourning at Carne: the small boys because they must stay and the big boys because they must leave, the masters because mourning was respectable and the wives because respectability was underpaid…

Oh, this imagery! All the vibrant energies equated with youth have been cloaked with black and contained with piety.

But more on that in a moment, I just want to pause here on the importance of connecting what is “normal” in one setting is not always normal elsewhere. Sending children away to boarding school is not a common thing in the United States; I did so in high school (that is, for ages 14-18), and even for my religious boarding school, life was nothing like Carne. At first read, I couldn’t help but think of Ripping Yarns by Michael Palin and his episode all about poor Tomkinson’s transformation from a lowly first year to…well. You can watch the episode. It’s brilliant. 🙂

For those who did not send or attend a boarding school for children, this idea of youth forced to attend a starkly religious place for education completely justifies this procession of “black angels” and “little coffins.” But Le Carré also says the boys look like “crows,” and this hints at something a bit more malicious, a bit more sinister. After all, crows are the mediators between life and death, and feasters upon the rotting flesh of others.

Crosshairs! Well now, that is exciting. 🙂 But why the pea green?

We’re not two pages in, yet we are already keenly aware Death is afoot in this place.

…and now, as the Lent Half (as the Easter term was called) drew to its end, the cloud of gloom was as firmly settled as ever over the grey towers of Carne.

Gloom and the cold. The cold was crisp and sharp as flint. It cut the faces of the boys as they moved slowly from the deserted playing fields after the school match. It pierced their black topcoats and turned their stiff, pointed collars into icy rings round their necks.

“Gloom and the cold.” I love that this is a sentence fragment after such lines about gloom over “grey towers”–for an institution that considers itself divine, Carne certainly has no physical sense of light or hope. But gloom can be a different thing on warmer days, when sunlight is not so rare. In the wintry days of Lent (Carne can’t even refer to this time as the Easter Term, Easter being a holiday of light, resurrection, glory, HOPE!), when the Divine is at its lowest point in preparation for crucifixion, the cold has a physical power to “cut” the innocents of this school.

Carne isn’t the only gloomy place

in England on this day. London, too, struggles beneath foreboding.

Who the bloody hell designed this?! There are no mysterious men in sunglasses, no sexy dames with their thighs hanging out. Just because a spy is in the novel doesn’t make it a spy novel! You are a very stupid boy, Tomkinson!

Abruptly [Brimley] stood up, the letter still in her hand, and walked to the uncurtained window…She looked down into the street, a slight, sensible figure leaning forward a little and framed by the incandescent fog outside; fog made yellow from the stolen light of London’s streets. She could just distinguish the street lamps far below, pale and sullen. She suddenly felt the need for fresh air, and on an impulse quite alien to her usual calm, she opened the window wide. The quick cold and the angry surge of noise burst in on her, and the insidious fog followed. The sound of traffic was constant, so that for a moment she thought it was the turning of some great machine. Then above its steady growl she heard the newsboys. Their cries were like the cries of gulls against a gathering storm. She could see them now, sentinels among the hastening shadows.

This theme of proper mourning flows downwards from the school to the nearby village. For instance, Le Carré has readers picture the village’s hotel as “sitting like a prim Victorian lady, its slate roof in the mauve of half mourning” (24). When a policeman meets with George Smiley about the murdered wife of a teacher, he wastes no time in establishing the set-apartness of Carne School:

“Funny place, Carne. There’s a big gap between the Town and Gown, as we say; neither side knows or likes the other. It’s fear that does it, fear and ignorance. It makes it hard in a case like this….They’ve got their own community, see, and no one outside it can get in. No gossip in the pubs, no contacts, nothing…just cups of tea and bits of seed cake….”

“Town and Gown.” What a phrase. Now this definitely recalls something of my own boarding school experience. We were all of us outsiders to this small Midwestern community. We weren’t of their earth, we teens of unknown backgrounds. And with all the rules dictating where we could go and when, we rarely connected with any peers of town. Where no one knows the other, ignorance will take root, and in Carne, those roots run as deep as the currents of classism. All are beneath the sanctity of the School, worthy only of “bits” of seed cake and tea. Not even seed cake–bits of seed cake. It hearkens to the Biblical image of dogs begging for scraps from the Master’s table, and that such scraps of Gospel Truth are the key to salvation.

Now this one I rather like. The red threatens, the long shadow looms. The boy on a bicycle looks to the side as if worried (as he should be). The text size and color aren’t ideal, but they do stand out without detracting from the boy.

Yet clearly Carne School does not feel the rest of the town is worth such truth, as one teacher proves in a conversation with Smiley:

“The press, you know, are a constant worry here. In the past it could never have happened. Formerly our great families and institutions were not subjected to this intrusion. No, indeed not. But today all that is changed. Many of us are compelled to subscribe to the cheaper newspapers for this very reason.”

It is quite a surprise to Carne School’s faculty, then, when the new teacher’s wife refuses to follow the rules and restrictions that keep Town and Gown apart. After this same wife is found brutally murdered in her home late one snowy night, both Town and Gown are suspect because, as another teacher’s wife put it, “‘Stella didn’t want to be a lady of quality. She was quite happy to be herself. That’s what really worried Shane. Shane likes people to compete so that she can make fools of them.’ ‘So does Carne,’ said Simon, quietly.”

Let us close this analysis with Smiley’s glimpse of the murder scene.

[Smiley] glanced towards the garden. The coppice which bordered the lane encroached almost as far as the corner of the house, and extended to the far end of the lawn, screening the house from the playing fields. The murderer had reached the house by a path which led across the lawn and through the trees to the lane at the furthest end of the garden. Looking carefully at the snow on the lawn, he was able to discern the course of the path. The white glazed door to the left of the house must lead to the conservatory…And suddenly he knew he was afraid–afraid of the house, afraid of the sprawling dark garden. The knowledge came to him like an awareness of pain. The ivy walls seemed to reach forward and hold him, like an old woman cosseting an unwilling child. The house was large, yet dingy, holding to itself unearthly shapes, black and oily in the sudden contrasts of moonlight. Fascinated despite his fear, he moved towards it. The shadows broke and reformed, darting swiftly and becoming still, hiding in the abundant ivy, or merging with the black windows.

We return to darkness, slick and liquid, seeping into all the cracks seen and unseen. We return to the imagery of a woman from a bygone era and the doomed youth. In this place ordained by heaven to protect and enlighten, the pure innocence has been stained black and red. Beware the Town. Beware the Gown. Beware the Devil flying with silver wings.

Such are the details that catch the reader’s breath in their throat. Hold it there, writers. Take a lesson from the Master of Subtlety and Method, whose Slow Burns creep so delicately the reader never notices the licking flames until it’s too late. Use the details of the setting to bind actor, atmosphere, and action together, leaving no chance for escape until the final page is read and the reader can breathe at last.

~STAY TUNED!~

Along with more lovely indie author interviews, I’m keen to share my process in worldbuilding for my own fantasy fiction. We’ll have a go at a little mapping, a little digging, a little thrill-seeking. 😉

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!