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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Telling Stories

In recent years we have seen a resurgence in the art or craft of story telling in the west. This at the same time as these forms are being neglected and lost in what we euphemistically call the developing world.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist (Purple Hibiscus) talks of a sense of loss because of the lack of a bridge between the dying oral traditions and the novel in Nigeria.

Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) regards himself as coming from the oral tradition of Sri Lanka.

Perhaps a nation that is developing (from one thing into another) needs to lose as much of the old as possible in order to gain space for the new?

At first glance story telling is a performance art, like poetry, but on closer examination one has to remember that poetry is actually closer to music, which leaves story telling in the realm of theatre.

I have not been successfully initiated into this oral tradition since the days of my childhood. I love the novel and often find myself involved by poetry. There is something about the written word that stimulates me to life, that wakes me up and sets the blood coursing through my veins. But oral story-tellers just put me to sleep.

I was told that I should only watch out for the best story-tellers, that I had been subjecting myself to story-tellers without talent, without experience. So I went only to those story-tellers who were claimed to be the best.

I’ve stopped going now, because even the best ones put me to sleep. I don’t want to be told stories any more.

Am I missing something?

8 Responses to “Telling Stories”

  1. Andrew says:

    I think you’d have to elucidate your position a bit more, John. Are you saying, for example, fiction in general is leaving you unsatisifed or plot centred literature or specific, much lauded authors?

    jb says: No, I’m talking about oral story-telling.

  2. Imani says:

    I suppose plays wouldn’t be considered a proper form of oral story-telling? It is tied to the text, the script, but I find it hard to imagine a bona fide bard of sorts, with all the stories in his/her head, sharing tales.

    I am trained to read the written word and so gain a richer experience from it because I can take the time to stop and ruminate, whereas listening takes everything beyond my control and, I imagine, I would gain only the most superficial understanding of the story. But I suppose that stories created to be spoken rather than written would be formed with that in mind. I am reading “Paradise Lost” at the moment and wish, regularly, that I had an able performer who could read it to me, in person. (But not the whole thing at one time, I think I’d fall asleep. :p)

    jb says: Hi Imani. I also wondered about theatre. But, again, it’s hardly the same thing. It would be best if we could get someone involved in the story-telling renaissance to chime in.

  3. Andrew says:

    I needed to read a bit more closely. I suppose in the civilization of Western Europe which we now move in, the necessary directness and simplicity of the story-told is quite a leap. Maybe if whoever are the best writers were engaged in oral story-telling, then it might grab you, but instead talent or genius not exactly everywhere, then the few people concentrating on the oral tradition are just not particularly great talents. If for example, a Homer lived now & was an oral story-teller…However it seems much more likely a Homer now would be a novel-writer, or at least he would up till recently. Now perhaps he might attempt to realise his vision in film.

    jb says: Hi Andrew. Yes, I also thought that storytelling might be closer to film. I suppose it is in a way. If you leave out the production costs and Nicole Kidman. (Like my mum would say, ‘I bet she could tell some stories. . . .’)

  4. M.E Ellis says:

    I’ve never listened to a book being read, as I know i’d fall asleep too.

    You can’t beat reading it for yourself. I’d read a book over watching TV any day. And the best thing happened last week. Hubby took to reading The Godfather and has got right into it. We lay side by side in bed reading our seperate books, and I smiled to myself as he’s finally, FINALLY ‘getting’ what I mean about the book being better than the films…

    The written word is so wonderful. One of my fears is going blind so I can’t read or write.


    jb says: Hi Michelle. That happened to my grandfather. Going blind so he couldn’t read. Long time ago now. But this isn’t about people reading books aloud. There are no books involved. This is just people telling stories. They’re called storytellers. And there’ll be some of them around where you live. They look like normal folk, but at night they go out and tell stories to a (usually) voluntary audience. Then everyone goes home again. Last time I went everyone went home and left me sleeping in the front row. I woke up with a crick.

  5. Andrew says:

    Though Aldous Huxley did go fully blind in his late teens & being a voracious reader, he of course learnt braille. He said the best thing about going blind was he could read in bed without his hands getting cold.

  6. Paul says:

    The world is so different now, with newspapers, radio, television, cinema and books. There’s little need for the old story teller. But they’re still there. We’re all story tellers.
    We make up stories for our children, reminisce over past events to our parents. We tell people we meet, things that have happened in our past; on our last holiday, shopping trip, visit to the doctor. We make decisions based on “what if” scenarios that we conjur in our minds. We give presentations in work often embelished with anecdotes and jokes. We use internalised story telling to make sense of our lives. We tell stories to friends to help them through a problem, or to strengthen friendships and improve common understanding. Then, at some stage in our lives we decide to use that ability and start to try writing.
    If you’re looking for examples of a story teller who performs for an audience – what about the stand-up comedian? Jokes are just stories with funny endings. Or vicars/priests with their readings/parables and koans?

    jb says: Hi Paul. Thanks for this. But I do understand the importance of the story in our lives, the hunger we have for it, and the enormous gap it fills for us. I was trying to address a phenomena which is none of the above and is quite specific. Why have some people turned back to the role and function of the old story teller when there are all these examples you have given, and many more I’m sure, of the successful ways that story is delivered in the 21st century?

  7. Paul says:

    John – Part of the answer is given in Beth Webb’s blog – “The joys of NOT being published” – Thursday 28th June – Guardian Book Blog.

    It’s just very difficult to get published nowadays so some writers look for other outlets. Some even, I suspect, enjoy the performance element more than the writing.
    Many literary festivals now have “live” writing events and workshops where writers read their work. There are thriving competitions for story tellers – I heard one recently on Radio 4.
    As to the audience, I think there is a growing demand for “live” entertainment as illustrated by the growth of comedy clubs. Along with what we have gained in terms of leisure, we have also lost – variety shows, music halls, traditional pubs etc and many other outlets that have left a gap.

    jb says: I read the Beth Webb article last week. Quite controversial, if I remember rightly from the comments . . .

  8. I have to admit I avoid readings even of authors I like because my mind tends to wander when being read to. Besides, many authors aren’t very compelling readers. But as for the written word, yes, it’s everything. And there’s something to be said for the intimacy it offers in this time of endless broadcast distractions.

    jb says: If the reader isn’t a complete dodo, I can take up to about 15 minutes of it. After that, though, I lose concentration.