This summer, I travelled with my children by train from the Netherlands, under the English Channel via the Channel Tunnel to London and then south to Forest Row, in Sussex. There, we attended a week-long event at Emerson College. Among other things, I took part in a storytelling workshop led by the gracious and talented Janice Witherspoon.
I went to Forest Row seeking a traditional storytelling experience. For me, that meant an around the campfire, entranced listeners mode of storytelling. This is the image that the word “storytelling” conjures for myself and others. I’ve immersed myself in storytelling theory and methodology but always kept traditional storytelling at arms’ length. My work is rooted in a contemporary, academic setting and I’ve struggled to find an opening for traditional storytelling.
The setting was perfect for the experience. Emerson College is a small campus of buildings that range from the large and formerly stately to the nearly ramshackle. My daughter’s play camp was in a yurt. It’s home to the International School of Storytelling and its nearest neighbor is Tablehurst Farm, a biodynamic farm.
The workshop was called Seeds to Stories and Janice taught us about both biodynamic gardening and storytelling. She introduced us to the biodynamic garden she started at Emerson. Beyond the gate and just behind the two-meter-tall hedge, we saw rows of potatoes, beans, and chard. We discovered clumps of beets, their bulbs resting together on the damp earth. The lettuces were planted in repeating patterns and the flowers accented the edibles. The wonder of a healthy, productive garden transported me out of my everyday mindset and created space in my heart for a seed to grow.
The seed Janice planted was the idea that a story is not fully formed when it is words on paper. A storyteller cultivates a story text by spending time with it, digging deeper into its emotions, visualizing the plot, and telling the story over and over again. Each telling reveals more about the story. I received a story to work with that I found disappointing at first. But after working with it for two days with a group, we uncovered emotions and meaning that lead to a deep connection with the story of cooking with salt water.
As the week went on, I realized that I want to find a way to combine traditional storytelling and contemporary communication styles like the TED talk. I have an allergy to any kind of notion of storytelling that is smooth and superficial. Where the TED talk and brand storytelling aim to inspire action, traditional storytelling encourages reflection and looking inward. I’m looking for real people and real stories. Stories with problems and struggles and failure as well as beauty and success. These are the stories I want to listen to and the stories I want to tell.
Traditional storytelling techniques that requires the storyteller to find an emotional connection their story should be a part of all types of storytelling.
Real emotional stories enable both individuality and community. When you tell your story, it’s a story that only you can tell. It’s not the same if told by another person. It doesn’t matter what kind of story it is, whether it’s your research story, your discovery story, or your personal story. When you tell your story, you separate yourself from the crowd. The crowd is the opposite of individual. A crowd is the average of all its participants and your story is not average.
A story that the storyteller relates to on an emotional level is an offering in the purest sense. The storyteller offers up a story to the listener in a vulnerable, beautiful act of sharing. This act creates a space for real connection.
As the workshop went on, I questioned my own relationship with storytelling. I hadn’t considered the possibility that I like telling stories in front of a group. Before this summer, I thought my interest in storytelling was impersonal, perhaps vaguely academic. I was wrong. The storytelling workshop was a journey during which I discovered a path towards a deep emotional connection not only with my material but also with the people around me.
Moving forward, I’ll be looking for ways to bring these two concepts closer together: the campfire and the TEDtalk. I wonder how that will work, whether it’s in the creating, the digging, or perhaps the telling. I will also be telling more stories and taking more care with the stories I tell. This journey continues.
If you’re in the Nijmegen area and interested in participating in a Storytelling workshop, I’ll be giving a free workshop through In’to Languages to celebrate their Lustrum (anniversary). The workshop is on Tuesday, 19 September 2017 from 14:00 – 17:00 at the Radboud University campus. Visit the In’to Languages website for more information (in Dutch) or email firstname.lastname@example.org to register.