How Stories Found Me
Among the Limba (African) there is no word for ‘story.’ Story means ‘from the dead.’ Storytelling was integrated into the culture, it was not an isolated activity. To be a good storyteller meant one was a good mime, dancer, or dramatist, or musician. When I tell stories I remember this definition, ‘from the dead’ and remember the stories I tell rise up from my family roots, my cultural roots, and even deeper, across time and space into the story I am telling.
In western fairy tale tradition, a teller may begin a story with the words, “Once upon a time.” Upon hearing those words, the listener knows what kind of story will be told; one’s breathing may slow. This phrase, “Once upon a time” may be considered an opening formula. In oral tradition storytelling occasions often began with opening formula. Here are a few of my favorites. The first one illustrates the storytelling experience which although guided by the teller expresses the storyteller and listener relationship. They work in concert- the story between them drifting, riding above them, as their psyches and imagination create the story even together:
The storyteller: Soup?
The listener: Bones!
The next opening formula I want to share with you is from Tanzania.
Listener: See so that we may see….
Storyteller: I went and I saw
This opening formula expresses a difference in how cultures perceive stories. In western culture, we ask our friends, “Do you want to hear a story?” We consider stories to be made of words. And of course they are made of words- but words do not make the story. A storyteller often sees the story – the mental images form an itinerary of the tale. Seeing the story as a film in one’s head has been documented by researchers of oral narrators in Scotland and elsewhere. Next time, ask your friend, “Do you want to see a story?” The act of seeing a story is an internal act because the story exists in the minds of the listener and teller. The teller is a seer, a word that brings with it connotations of a diviner. The seer brings the story to life so that the listeners can also participate in this magical celebration of characters and their lives and foibles.
Now the third element of storytelling stems from another kind of story- the stories we grow up hearing and telling about ourselves and our families. The stories we hear about ourselves as we grow up form our identities. Children who don’t have records or photographs or anyone to tell them stories of when they were young are missing a vital mirror. Years ago at a conference I first heard of the word ‘life book’. Volunteers research police records, take photographs of homes where the child has lived, and retrieve any other available documents. This collection of materials is put in a scrapbook. The volunteer helps the child write the text that goes with the scrapbook. The child becomes the author of her life story; this act can give confidence and the determination to write and create a hopeful future.
Now I want to share a story that shows how stories help create identity. Here is a story about Isaac.
How Isaac became a Great Harpist- (I can’t remember where I found this story. If anyone knows, please contact me).
Isaac lived in the country. He came from a long line of farmers. Ever since the family remembered, they had always lived on a farm. This is terrible said his father who loved music. We should have a musician in the family. We all love music. So he bought a harp for his son Isaac. He even gave him lessons. Isaac tried hard to please his father. But he wasn’t very good at playing the harp. He kept popping strings. His father bought him more strings. Time went on. Isaac learned to milk the cow, plant the seeds, harvest the corn, but he still wasn’t a very good harpist. His father died, Isaac still took lessons. His mother bought him new strings.
Isaac married. He brought his harp to his new house. He thought he would improve if he got a different teacher, so he did. He bought a different harp. He began a harp collection. His harp teacher died, he got a new harp teacher. Isaac became an old man, and he died.
Years later, ninety-seven to be exact, descendants of Isaac were playing in his house when they discovered a dusty old harp. No one really knew anymore. They though they harp had belonged to Isaac. Other relatives looked in the lost places in their houses and found more harps. The children were amazed- what was Isaac like they wondered, a farmer who owned so many harps!
I don’t know much about Isaac, their parents said, but I am told he was a great harpist, a very respected musician. And so, nearly a hundred years to the day, Isaac had fulfilled his father’s wishes and had indeed become a great harpist.