Don’t Polish Your Stories

A client talked about telling only polished versions of her stories yesterday and I jumped in to correct her. Not great manners, it’s true, but this is a topic I have big feelings about.

There are no polished versions of stories you tell. Every story you tell is always a story in progress. It’s a story that will change at every telling, sometimes for the worse but usually for the better.

Storytelling, whether you’re telling personal stories or folk tales, is not the same as writing. You don’t edit endlessly a la George Saunders until you get a version that’s as good as you can make it and then publish it in order to fix it in time.

Storytelling is a performance art

Storytelling is a performance art. That’s equally true for stories told in classrooms, meeting rooms, over meals, and on stages. Stories constantly change and that’s a good thing.

I have told the Little Red Riding Hood to live adult audiences over fifty times. Over the course of those tellings, my version of the story has changed. Some of the most memorable changes have come on days I was feeling a little punchy and added my commentary to the narrative. Each addition was spontaneous and got immediate feedback from the audience. In other words, if I said something that worked well, the audience would laugh or lean in. If it didn’t work, I might lose their attention for a moment or see confusion on their faces. The feedback loop with an audience is immediate and powerful. I created a free worksheet you can use for analyzing your audience feedback.

The changes aren’t just a result of my changing moods, though. As I told the story over and over again, different parts of the story would catch my attention. Most recently it’s been the weirdness of deciding to enter a lone house in the woods with people inside screaming. I mean, if I really heard that, I don’t think my first impulse would be to go inside and slay a potential wolf. Would yours? And yet, we have long accepted this as normal behavior in fairy tales. So, I comment on this in my telling.

I also like to include the audience in my telling, to address them directly to include them in the story. If you tell a room full of adults with international backgrounds and advanced degrees that you’re going to tell them a fairy tale, you will encounter a bit of skepticism. Including them in the telling gets them involved, invested in the moment. It takes them back to a time when storytelling was fun and not something for a different generation.

Storytellers are not authors

The primacy of the printed word, whether it’s a book or on your screen, has made us wary of stories that change. It’s probably why so many powerpoint presentations are scripts instead of visual aids. We are afraid of not saying exactly the right thing.

When it comes to fairy tales, we’ve been fooled into believing in definitive versions. But there are no definitive versions of fairy tales. The versions we know today are moments of storytelling tradition frozen in time. 

The story we know as Cinderella has a history that spans centuries and continents. Most of us  know it through the Disney movie that came out in 1950, but the earliest version was recorded in China nearly 1100 years earlier. It’s the story of Ye Xian. The first European version was recorded in 1697 in French by Charles Perrault, followed by the German Brothers Grimm in 1812 and a British version by Arthur Rackham in 1919.

There are significant variations between the European versions. Perrault’s Cinderella is so good natured that she marries her step-sisters off to lords of the court after her own wedding. In the Grimm version, a juniper tree provides her dress for the ball and the step-sisters mutilate their feet in an attempt to fit the lost slipper. In the Rackham version, Cinderella’s bereft father sends her off to boarding school after his wife dies and doesn’t visit for years until he picks her up to come home to his new wife. 

How can we even call these the same stories? It’s because they retain the same essential elements of a kind girl, treated poorly by her step-mother and step-sisters, a ball, she isn’t allowed to go, a magical transformation, and love. I’ve written about this before.

So, don’t worry about getting your story right for your audience. There is no right or best or final version of your story. There’s only the version of your story that you’re going to tell today, and that’s the best one to tell, for now.

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