Sunday, July 08, 2012

Old-School Storytelling Is the Change Agent.

I am a big fan of all the stories, all the time. Personal or folktale, they’re all true for somebody.

 Every generation believes that they invent things like life, sex, spirituality, farting, and relationships. Part of the survival of our species, I think, is to say, "Well, our (fill in the blank) is better than what they used to do. We're changing (fill in the blank) for the better."

There is a fascinating print interview over at  “Arts in a Changing America” blog that talks about the development of the Story Slam (all personal tales) model over the last few years. Shannon Turner interviews Randy Osborne, the founder of the Carapace storytelling event. It’s a good article and, while I have something to add, I think it is a good read for anyone who does any type of oral storytelling. Go on, read it. Then come back. I’m waiting……

My thoughts are below. Buckle up, this is a long one.
Back to “every generation invents…” So it is in storytelling. I enjoy personal storytelling events such as Carapace and The Moth. However, the power in storytelling to generate community, to promote change or development, to talk about the tough subjects (how about a knocked-up Rapunzel?) is not new and has always been in the realm of storytelling. Yes, the film studios have cleaned it all up to sell movies and toys, but those of us deep in the roots of oral storytelling know better. My (respectful and kind) advice to Randy is to get out more to some world-tale storytelling in the real world. There are plenty of us taking the old tales out for visceral-and-cringey spins and never setting foot in a children's library or elementary school as we present unvarnished tales to adults. The schools would get mad at me when, in my fairytales unvarnished, the children cut off their fingers or are forced to have sex with their fathers.   
So, a student had a transcendent moment in anatomy class? Good!  Learning from the dead is not new, no matter how much a modern audience wants to believe it. Dig into an Irish folktale such as "Tieg O'Kane and Corpse" (treat a woman like trash, boy, and you'll have hell to pay) to see that folks have been learning (metaphorically) from the dead for hundreds of years, too. There are plenty of others out there.  There is nothing new and everything new about this discovery that the dead can "speak.” See the homework below if you want another story of the dead speaking.
The role of world-tale storytelling is to put context to the present, grounding it on the path of the past and sending it toddling into the future. Your human experiences have already been experienced in some form (take comfort) and you will add your experience to the mix (take challenge). Your experience then is fodder for your children or maybe even the guy sitting next to your at the Story Slam, slamming too many Captain Morgans. “Resistance is futile.” (Yeah, baby, an old pop reference right there.)
Here's the real challenge- a storyteller who is willing to do the work can interweave a traditional story into a personal tale and put both modern experience and generational wisdom together. Like the older woman in the post, I often leave a modern personal storytelling event with, frankly, nothing other than the shell of the experience. We get to be familiar with people we will never know. Yeah, I laughed or maybe felt misty while a personal story was told but then I have nothing. For example, why is it important to know a single storyteller's mother was a terror? Outside of empathy for the teller, their story alone does little for the listener, but if it is put it in context of how the world has viewed horrible parents then the audience has something to hang on to and chew on. Or, put it in the context of your horrible mother and a world-tale where the mother is more nurturing and now the audience can have some confidence that their singular situation may not hold true for everyone...and in that there is hope. And, full of expectation, that the dialogue in the audience member's head becomes real conversation with trusted friends (or therapist) who can help.
Gossip is temporary. Storytelling is catalyst.
Comfort in things unchanging is only for the old? There is a Sacred Success Trilogy in these personal telling events like this. For best success, be sure to mention Sex, Drinking or Bad Relationships...just like the young people of every culture before you. Just because the Grimm Brothers couldn’t, in their culture, say that Rapunzel wanted some “booty calls” does not mean they didn’t use the cultural language for “booty call” in their stories. None of this is new as you find all these things in fairytales and folktales across cultures. None of our generations invented any of these things. I find great comfort in that we generations keep reinventing the same wheel. We are part of a whole that, paradoxically, does not change even when we’re changing it.  Cool.
As a side note, when The Moth was first emerging from the cocoon, they did make contact with us at (Yeah, we're old.) I am sorry to say that at that time the “traditional storytelling” community wasn’t ready to hear what they had to say and the slam community wasn’t ready to hear what was being said to them. We all missed the boat (or at least paddling together) on this whole “new” concept. I find myself now delighted in the success of The Moth and slams like it. These events, fun on their own, are a good way to introduce people to the greater concepts of what story and storytelling can do…just as people have known for centuries before us.  
Oh, and those stories about farting? Dig into the Arabian Nights. It's not about magic carpet rides alone.
P.S. Here's your homework: listen to Hawaiin storyteller Jeff Gere do his adult storytelling thing and take you to school. The dead speak (another story) in track #2. Find it at There's no pretense or formality in his work, only skill and a deep love for the truth of world-tales.

(7/12/2012 update: The author of the original piece (Shannon): "I do want to point out, though, that Carapace is very intentionally not a story slam. Randy speaks to that in the interview, and why Atlanta has chosen not to do our event in story slam-style." So, way cool that Shannon answered and I am happy to add this clarification.)
About the  Author:  Sean Buvala is a professional storyteller and author (and slam judge) who rarely tells cute stories with morals to children. He’s much better in business situations helping people connect their stories to the business or nonprofit organization at hand.  He’s also the creator of StoryRise that brings solid “traditional” storytelling to adult audiences, clearing up the myth that fairytales are all about helpless princesses. His Storytelling 101 manual is a great place to learn the “how” of storytelling if you are done being overloaded with storytelling theory.


  1. Excellent response, Sean. I am glad we are having these conversations in public instead of in closed groups where we can congratulate ourselves for "getting it" but have very little influence over the conversation. I would like it at some point if you would clarify in just what situations you tell dark stories with sexual content to children - and under what situations schools let you do so. But that would be worth a whole post...

  2. Thanks, Paula. Yikes...I'm not sure where anything in the post states I tell dark stories to children! I would not expect schools to do so. Now, on the other hands, shadows stories can be used with teenagers. And, that post has already been made. See

  3. Thanks, Sean. I love telling personal stories but I prefer finding stories that have been tested by time. My stories are "touching" or "funny" or "exciting" but I can't make them universal, I fail. Please post more often.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Bookkm. I think we can put personal stories in context by wrapping our own tales in tales that have been alive longer than us. I have an example of that on the front page of my site at It's a mix of personal tale and Irish folktale that I told at a storytelling festival in Hawaii. A 10-minute tale is too long for most of these personal-telling events, but I did get it down to 8 minutes for such an event in Tucson, Arizona. So, who knows? I want to say, "Go storytelling!" without having to say that, "That old stuff is for old people" no more than "That new stuff is just crazy kids." "Everybody into the pool" is much more encouraging.