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Learning Stories

Compiled by Tim Sheppard from posts to Storytell

For a guide to other advice, see The Storytelling FAQ on How do I learn a story?.


Karl Hallsten <storytell@COMCAST.NET>

Members of my new guild asked for help in how to learn a traditional story to tell. What I am looking for I guess are practical tips or approaches - obviously there are many right ways to do this. Let's hear them! Thanks.


Jean Jackman <jljackma@DCN.DAVIS.CA.US>

Fold a paper into 6 sections. Draw a picture, no matter how primitive, of 6 main actions in your story. This is a good beginning activity.

Sit down and watch your story as a video in your head.
Go for a walk where people can't hear you and say your story out loud. You could carry notes. I think motion helps get words the way I like them.


David Joe Miller <deejum@USIT.NET>

I "rehearse" and learn my stories while walking my dog late at nite... telling the story out loud on the streets of downtown Jonesborough... It works great for me.... glad I'm not the ONLY one...


Priscilla Howe <phowe@storyteller.net>

I've told people in workshops that if they see me walking down the street mumbling, I'm just working on a story.

Another thing I've discovered that works for me is to tell a story while pacing and bouncing a small rubber ball. Stories often have a particular rhythm, and I find that the bounce helps me get the story into my body a bit more.


Sandy Farley <farley@SPONT.COM>

The longer we tell, the shorter our learning time grows. Why? Perhaps we've categorized stories into groups--the add on story, the three challenges story, the story that revolves around a play on words, the cause and effect story. So mainly what we have to learn are the particulars: Names, formulas, passwords and the like.

We tell in tandem, so we divide up the roles. It is now possible for us to hear a story once, retell it to each other while driving home and a week later recall it, talk about it on the way to our story group and tell it without ever rehearsing.

There is such a thing as over rehearsing--which is why we have difficulty telling the stories we write. We rewrite a lot adding here, subtracting there, picking just the right turn of phrase. When we go to tell it we have all those edits in our heads!! Our audience doesn't want just the right turn of phrase, they just want to have the tale spun for them.

Poems are the exception. They have to be learned verbatim. I look for the logical connections, the sonic connections, the rhythm. You just have to do it out loud a lot. The shower is a good place.


Rosemary Cutrer <rcutrer@attglobal.net>

One of the best ways for me is first to find the right story. Anything I am considering I always read it out loud to see how it sounds. If I like the way it sounds orally I then read the story (out loud) once a day for two or three weeks (I was amazed at how much I retained of the story after hearing it orally for a two week period).

When I think I am ready to start telling it out loud in my own words I'll sit down and make cartoon drawings of the main scenes in the story. I'll then get up and start walking around the house bouncing a ball or playing with a Yo-yo while telling the story out loud with out looking at the printed page. This physical movement seems to help stimulate some creative juices in the brain I don't know how but I guarantee that it works.I might refer back to the printed page or reread parts that I'm fuzzy on what happened but for the most part I try not to look at the paper again.

The positive part of this method is that it only takes five to twenty minutes a day to do, depending on the length of the story. Another positive aspect is that doing it this way really makes the story yours--its become part of you---and much easier to bring up again later after you haven't done the story for several months.

The negative part is that you need three to four weeks total to make the story part of you (not so good if you need a story by next Tuesday.) Most of these ideas I got from the Carol Birch book The Whole Story Handbook: Using Imagery to Complete the Story Experience. She has many other ideas on how to make your storytelling more vivid but you really need to read the book or attend one of her workshops to learn more.


Karen Chace <Klprecious@AOL.COM>

I also read the story a few times silently then a few more times out loud so I can feel the rhyme of the tale. I also rehearse out loud, usually driving in my car. I record my telling on the tale on tape and listen to it whenever I can just to solidify the sequence.

I once took some workshops with Maggi Pierce and she said, "You should be able to break a story down into five words." I try that with my tales, picking out the most important features and put them on an index card. I also type up the bones. I find that typing it also helps to imprint the sequence in my mind.

After I have the story details in my mind I begin to practice in front of a mirror. I tend to talk with my hands and I know too much gesture can distract from the story. I watch myself for gestures that can be added or deleted and of course I usually pace around the room at some point while telling the tale to the air. :)


Angela Davis <yarnspinner@MINDSPRING.COM>

I memorize the story by "telling" to my sixteen year old daughter usually in the car while we're on the road. She prompts me with parts I've missed. Then I share them with my friends at the guild--testing them out on the adults. Since most of my work comes from working in schools, I improve my stories by volunteering to tell at a school not able to pay for a performance. These schools are my "adopted" schools and I am their "Resident Storyteller". I do this by class--usually fourth graders, depending the types of stories I am honing. Going from class to class, retelling the story until it feels comfortable to tell for paid engagements. I learn indirectly from the children's responses what needs tweaking or which area of the story could use some adapting. I make note of where the children's attention may be wandering. This helps me to prepare for tough audiences and I tweak as I go along. I adjust the telling depending on the school I am working with. Some schools just cannot handle too much audience participation. I think I learned this technique from something I read in one of Bill Mooney's handouts telling about how he began storytelling.


Batsy Bybell <cgale@TURBONET.COM>

I find that no matter how many times I rehearse a story at home or by myself, it doesn't really click for me until that first time when I tell it to someone. That's when I find out what has really stuck in my brain for what's important in the story and what is superfluous fluff that can be safely left out. That's also when I begin to judge how the rhythm of the story goes and what are the natural highlights and pauses. So I would say to find a friendly and non-threatening person to tell the story to while it's still in the beginning stages of learning it.


Dvora Shurman <dvora-s@BARAK-ONLINE.NET>

Walk the eight.
If you walk figure eights while learning that activates both sides of your brain, and also sends the learning into all body parts so you feel it as well. Sunbeck's Infinity Walk is a whole book on this, and Brain Gym which I teach uses a lot of infinity eights.


carol <carols1@TWMI.RR.COM>

After I've read the story out loud I write it in my computer---I find the act of transcribing sets it in my mind. I make changes as i go along--usually having the beginning and ending in mind.


Mary Clark <Weaver150@AOL.COM>

How do I learn stories? I honestly do not know if I have the language to express my process or thoughts on this. The following is some of what I do:

* I'll hear or read a story. Many times it is not a story but an idea or thought of my own or others that resonates with me somehow. I ponder on it, think about the bones, what characters, and the symbols might mean. Part of learning stories is being open to their arrival.

* I tell it - often in odd moments to myself from many different point of view. I explore as much as I can about the story.

* I invite the characters to live with me and even sometimes my husband and friends too. Yes, they are imaginary - but it is surprising what I have learned about the characters.

* I don't rush - the process of learning the story and making it my own is a part of the process I love. I don't think it really ever stops. There are stories I have that have evolved over the years. I don't concern myself with the story being "finished". If I have a performance and I beleive the story is valuable to the program, I trust myself to deliver it. But I can't tell you how important it has been to me not to rush. I've found I have gained some of the most interesting insight into my stories in the times when I have been doing something else.

* I often collage the stories or a character of the story or an element or part of the story. This has been an important step for me with some of my tales. It can be a collage that is quick and fast or something that has taken months to evolve.

* I tell the tale again and again to others, audiences, etc.

* I don't worry about the way someone else thinks a story should be, whether it is sacred to someone else. I do not worry about the words. I put in my own. Please understand I do consider the cultural significance of tales when it is important. But if a story speaks to me - I believe it is in my best interest do the work. Researching stories is helpful. However, I rarely research until I have invested in the tale myself - this has worked for me.

* I work on ANY story that interests me, personal, original, folktale etc. - even if the stories are not germaine to a program or perhaps that are not of interest to anyone but me. I have found working this way has helped me develop as a teller and has helped to understand what my work with story is all about.

* I actively seek to be a good coach to both myself and others. I've found that in learning to listen to myself and others it has helped me understand story and much more. I see story and listen for it.

* I work on more than one story at a time. Often I may be working on one story and it generates a realization about another story. I just find that I apparently work on story in my sleep, or while I'm doing other things.

* I do write my tales down (at least the bones) and keep and index of them. As I get ideas or thoughts I update the tale. I keep process notes. I journal.

* Movement is helpful. I get a lot of good work done or ah-ha moments when I am moving (walking, jogging, dancing) and, sometimes, singing and music has its place for me too.

* I have found learning a story to tell quickly is rather easy to do and sometimes I've done that for a variety of reasons, but the real learning of story - the process of it all is a joy - that doesn't come quickly for meand evolves over time.


Jim Flanagan <jirish@SCIOTO.NET>

I do mine while driving to work..I was worried at first but as I see others talking to themselves while driving I became less concerned.

Except the time I stopped at a light, felt eyes on me turned to see a suspicious highway trooper giving me looks. Next time, I just smile and move on..However said trooper followed me a little longer than I thought necessary


Kim Hoag <krhoag@EARTHLINK.NET>

There are professional dangers for those who like to move and work on a story. I had just moved into a new place, and I was in the back yard doing my peripatetic story-learning. A woman next door was alarmed at my circular meandering and wanted to call the police. Her husband, whom, thank God, I had talked to earlier, calmed her down and informed her that I was just learning a story--not wandering and muttering out-of-my-head.

It took her a couple of years to stop looking for signs of insanity in me. (At least, I >think< she's stopped!)


Lois Sprengnether <LoiSsez@EARTHLINK.NET>

There are many learning styles & I'm not really sure what my learning style is. It seems I'm 1 of those people who benefits from using as many methods as possible. This can mean dancing a story or even taking the time to tell a story using sign language which often uses "natural" signs & signs that incorporate concepts & ideas. I tend to try that if I'm having difficulties learning a story. I can usually get a story fairly quickly by figuring out the major images of the story & then re-playing it in my own mind from start to finish. This generally works for the visually inclined, but I don't tend to think easily in images, so I suspect my mind creates descriptions & that's really what I get. However it is, it usually works for me. When thinking aurally, it tends to require me telling myself the story more than hearing it over & over. Still repetition is always a help & I wish sometimes that my car still had a cassette player instead of only a cd player. Yes, writing or typing a tale helps -- sort of yet another form of the previously mentioned sign language method.

My "day" job as a children's librarian tends to have me learning a lot in a short time & yet I find some stories I go out of my way to have extra opportunities to tell. For really important tales I might learn a lot about the characters & setting, the trick is to not let it overburden the tale. Additional research may be spent in helping my audience understand the people who originally told the tale. The more those tales are told, the more you learn them, so having a "workshop" like an adopted school or other setting helps you & your audience there.



Storylearning--developmental stages

Mary G. Ketner" <mketner@LONESTAR.JPL.UTSA.EDU>

I have been thinking for almost a month now about a workshop I went to TWICE at WinterTales. It was by Carol Birch, and the workshop was parallel to her new book from August House The Whole Story, which I would highly recommend. It covers a lot of territory and it basically is "about" learning stories in the deep and rewarding and "fun" way they are meant to be understood, Knowing the whole story, knowing the story inside out. (As opposed to, say, beginning to end.)

At this point, I can't put words in her mouth, but I can't take credit myself for this, either. I think the reason the workshop held so much power and exuberance for me was that I was sort of coming toward the same place in my own growth regarding the way I now learn stories vs. the various ways I have tried to learn stories in the past, all of which had to do with sequential learning of the events in the story, adding features of my own, and suchlike.

So, where am I going with this? It occurs to me that there might be developmental stages for storytelling, just as there is for cognitive development, morality, faith development--all those things. And I'm wondering what they are and if they are consistent among us. How did you "used to" learn stories, and how do you learn them now? Here's my growth chart:

1. The first few stories I learned, I totally memorized--or rewrote and memorized my rewriting, if not word for word, then at least sentence for sentence. If I left out a sentence, I was sure I had ruined the story for the listener.

2. Next, I began to block them off into sections or steps--maybe like storyboarding though I never took the time to actually do that properly. I would read all the versions I could find, but still evolved to a use of words and sentences that I more or less relied upon. I would also add little rhymes or songs or signature remarks--that kind of thing.

3. What I have done with the last few stories I have learned is read them a lot! several versions where possible (as before), and live with the characters in my head for a long time; several months. The story seems to grow in importance, and I become really invested in the characters. It is so exciting and fun! The first time I tell the whole story in order may be in front of an audience, and I won't exactly know how long it will take, but I can look at a clock on the wall and make it however long it needs to be. It's like living on the edge! I still use rhymes or songs or signature remarks, but they seem less imposed and more fluid, having arisen from living with the character or story itself. Everything is less contrived and more artful--and more fully rewarding to me. More like part of my life instead of a parlor trick.

Of course, I still learn some stories in the ways I had earlier used--like for a particular event that I need a new story for, but even then it is a much more fluid thing--like part of my life; like my life.

This is all off the cuff and just a start I know, but I'm really interested in how your storylearning has changed over the years. Would anyone care to share?


Richard Martin <richard.martin@talesandmusic.de>

A simple reply might well be that I am not really sure how I learn stories. Possibly in various ways. But I think the most important way is to learn the sequence in which the bare bones of the story come. Either because I've met the story in as a skeleton, or by noting down the barest of skeletons after I have heard or read a full text.

And then to start telling it to an audience, and see what develops during the telling. Certainly I do not memorise, I have always had great difficulty remembering a script when I've acted on stage.

I am fortunate in having eight captive audiences in my school classes, so there is never a problem to find listeners.

I often take the opportunity of telling the same tale four or five times to different classes on the same day - fascinating to see the differences. When I feel I'm ready, then I'll include it in a programme on stage. Before that evening I'll polish it more intensively - while cycling is a favourite time for this. Just going over particular parts, thinking how they might be handled. The opening and the closing especially.

And then I'll try it out with a hopefully large audience. Again, the energy flowing is so much more than with a school class - and often the results are surprising.

And even when telling tales I've told hundreds of times, I am often surprised about the new aspects which come into the tale - details, or simply the way I tell particular parts of it.
Do others have the same approach?


Richard Martin <richard.martin@talesandmusic.de>

To your question:
> Is that the same way you've always learned stories, Richard? or has your
> way of learning evolved over the years from some less efficient, less deep
> way to where it is now.

I think that this is probably similar to the way I started out.

What has developed over the years is certainly similar to what many others have been describing; a growing confidence in the performance situation enabling us to draw on the energy from the listeners and within ourselves. Although I do have pre-conceived expectations of how a story will probably come out, I do try not to be restricted by that.

Many years ago I remember starting to tell the Norwegian tale "The Three Ugly Aunts", which is in Angela Carter's Virago books (a Rumpelstiltskin tale, but the helpers are benificent aunts).

To my surprise I discovered that I was bringing a lot of very energetic parody into it. In fact right at the start I began by saying "Once upon a time there was a fairy tale. And in that fairy tale there lived a young girl who was so poor that all she had in the world was a GREAT BIG book of fairy tales, which she read every day. ...)"

Quite unpremeditated, just going with the flow of the performing situation. I learnt a lot from that experience. And I have found it interesting to read other mails reflecting a similar experience.


Granny Sue <pkb00700@ALPHA.WVUP.WVNET.EDU>

At first, I learned very short stories, by getting the main points in my head (the bones) and then retelling on my own words.
Later on, I "worked" at it more--longer stories, reading lots and lots of stories, finding stories to go with themes and learning those. I was trying to fill a story bag in a hurry, I guess, building a repertoire as fast as I could.

Next was variety of types. I wanted to be able to tell many kinds and with a variety of techniques. So I incorporated puppets, participation, songs, rhythm instruments.

In all of these stages, the stories were still fairly short, 5-10 minutes, and "bare"--not a lot of detail, just the facts maam. I told in my own words but didn't work on filling out the story, if that makes sense.

Now--now, I find a story I like and think about it for a long time before I try to tell it. I wonder about the characters, how they feel, I experiment with points of view. When I tell them, they're longer (even if it's a story I have been telling a while, this happens, because I like the story and have lived with it awhile so it's still growing for me) and there's more detail, more emotion in my telling. And new things keep surprising me in the tales. Probably why I was attracted to the stories I tell in the first place. I write more original material now, too. I'm not sure why, perhaps because these are truly in my voice. It has become easier to develop original tales the longer I tell. Maybe this is due to more exposure to story and story themes and forms? I don't know.

But I am usually very satisfied with my original stories, a deep satisfaction that doesn't always come with other stories. I am no longer in a rush to fill the story bag. I still have to learn some stories quickly to fill a specific need and revert back to the bones, but filling in the story's flesh is easier now. It could have to do with confidence. I know I can make stories come alive, I know I can adjust them at the time of telling to suit a specific audience. It is, as you say, living on the edge in some respects, but then I guess I've been doing this on a lesser scale for some time. Often for me, the first telling of a tale has been in front of an audience.

Recently, a drama teacher said to me, "can you shorten your story a little? Storytellers ad-lib anyway, so it should be easy." That took me by surprise. I did shorten it, but it lost a lot in the process. Ad-lib? Is that what I do? Somehow that word doesn't quite fit, but then I definitely don't tell a story the same way each time.


Sharon Clifton <magicbeans4sale@HOTMAIL.COM>

This is an interesting thread because it reminds me of something that happened just yesterday. I was gathering materials to be submitted along with an application for a storytelling grant. The grant sponsors said that applicants could submit a cassette or video tape, though it was optional. I have not yet commercially produced a tape, though several have urged me to through the years, but I did have some tapes that a friend with a sound studio had produced of "Jack's Mama" a few years ago. I remembered really liking them at the time. Now, I hated them!

The reason, of course, is that I have grown as a teller, ergo, "Jack's Mama" has grown, become more authentic. Now that you've raised the question, I believe that the preparation has had something to do with it.

In the first place, yes, I received a grant in 1991 to research Appalachian oral tradition, but that research has continued through ensuing years. When I'm preparing for a program, I immerse myself in the character. It goes beyond the pioneer garb -- which, believe it or not, is comfortable in winter and summer. It's the thought processes, the culture, the music! While I prepare, I play appropriate music. Sometimes, I'll take a break and strum a few songs on my dulcimer.

And I visualize myself in the story, because Jack's Mama IS a character in the story. I tell in the first person. Then when I tell it, I'm telling what I "really" experienced! Often, like you, the first time the story is told altogether is before that first gathering of listeners. So the greatest compliment I receive is when they say, "I really felt transported back to an earlier time," or "You made me believe that those things really did happen to you and your boy Jack."

I studied Method acting in college, and I guess that's what it is essentially. I apply the process to the preparation of other programs, as well, even if it isn't told in the first person. I have to believe the story before I can expect others to suspend their disbelief.


Chiska Gibson <chiska_gibson@STLIFE.BYU.EDU>

As a new teller this area is pretty critical to me.

I learn the bones and think about what it is in the characters that brings them to life for me. I also try to emphasize the parts that I connect with or are most important to me. Then I tell it to as many different people as I can. I have a little more trouble finding an audience as I'm attending college right now. My very first telling was to my 3 month old nephew. I don't think you can beat that for confidence building! He just smiled and smiled at me. This gave me the courage to share my story with some dinner guests. The practicing I think allows me to decide which parts of the story really do tell it. Since my very first performance will be next week, we'll see how it goes.


Karen Chace <Klprecious@AOL.COM>

Dear Chiska,
Welcome to the list and the world of telling! I think you are certainly on the right track with your approach. When I first began a little over a year ago I made the cardinal sin of trying to remember every little nuance of the story. If I missed something I felt lost. Now, I go about it much the same way as you do. When I find a story I love (and you know it when you do :) I read the story a number of times then I tape it. I listen to it as often as I can. I do this not in an attempt to memorize the story but to listen to my inflections and pace. I have a habit of speaking quickly so it helps for me to hear myself, where I need to slow down, pause, change my tone. Once I am comfortable with the tale I tape it again to see how I have changed my telling style.

I also type up the bones of the story. This serves two purposes for me. One, it helps me to remember the sequencing, and secondly they serve as my notes when I go to the telling. I am constantly talking to myself. Just this morning my son heard me coming down the stairs and said "What Mom?" He thought I was talking to him but I was rehearsing a story for tomorrow. Tell the tale as many times as you can. I stand in front of a mirror and tell to myself as well, that way I can see what hand gestures I use, if they add to the story or detract from it. (I tend to talk with my hands a lot :) I am hoping to have tomorrow's telling video taped so I can see what the audience sees and I can critique myself afterwards. It will probably be painful but it must be done! :)

I agree with trying to find as many versions of the tale as you can. This Christmas I told The Baker's Dozen. From three versions I picked the one I loved best and told that one. I have yet to write out my own version/adapatation of a tale. I guess that will come with experience. Right now I look at the tales as sacred ground, who am I to change them? :) However, the more I read, the more I realize that folklore has evolved not only over time but as they passed from one culture to the next. I have probably said more than you needed to hear or read. There are others on the list with far more wisdom so listen close. :) I am still a rookie. Good luck with your first telling. Someone once said, I don't remember who, so forgive me if I misquote "Have fun.The audience is rooting for you.They want you to succeed!" That thought has truly calmed my jittery nerves before many a telling. Let us know how it goes.


Gordon Hall <Gordon.Hall@xtra.co.nz>

Mary, I'd think the main change to my story learning over the years has been the confidence with which I now learned stories.

From your description of your process it seems to me you come from a literal way of learning where I come from Oral/visual way of learning. I tried to find the stories that in some ways touch me. This can either be emotionally or by going straight to the funny bone or some other reason. I usually then take the beer bones of the story a completely reworked it, changing its characters, location, timeframe, etc until I have a very unique version of the story.

The way I learn this story is to hear at once or read it once and if I cannot tell the story back straight away in a roughly and slightly personalised way then I will not do the story.

I may, if I am not going to work on the story straight away and will need a reminder of it later on, write the story down but only as a synopsis or as a bare outline.

From then on I intellectualise this story in my head. This means, I tell myself the story in my head while driving my car on tour and at the same time thinking about the characters and movement of the characters and narrator during the telling.

When I know the story and movements well enough, I find opportunities to tell my friends the story. This usually takes place on picnics and while walking in the bush. I take notice of my friends feedback and slightly reworked the story accordingly if I agree with them. By then rehearse the story as a performance piece several times to make sure the movement is right and occasionally, it is particularly complex, get a choreographer friend of mine to check this out.

Once all this is done, I start performing the story but bracket it between two very well known stories until it gains its strength.

At any stage in this process I may realise that the story no longer works for me and will drop it. This can happen in the first few days and occasionally has happened after a couple of performances. Those stories that survive the come like old friends who I enjoy going out and having a coffee with. If I haven't seen an old friends for a while or told one of my stories for a while, I really look forward to the opportunity to catch up with them in the case of stories, tell them.


Mel Davenport <LuvandStories@AOL.COM>

I never have been one to want to dive into those long fairy tales, but of late I have been searching for just the right one to try. Most of my work is with younger kids and so my stories are of the 10 minute or less bracket, but I have been asked more and more lately to work with adults and so I have tried to focus on ways to lengthen stories, not just for time's sake, but for the content sake.

I have always had trouble with memorization and I find that doing a step-by-step addition to stories I already know helps me to remember choice phrases, sensory elaborations, and environment enhancement. From the very beginning of my storytelling experiences as a young girl baby-sitting with many siblings, all I had to do was read a story, get the idea of the plot, and then my vivid imagination would provide all the rest. I find it hard to look at a book with pictures, lest it ruin the immense memory creations that come when I just read print. I don't have trouble remembering my own memory pictures of each scene as it unfolds in a story, but the idea of trying to remember anything word for word is an almost impossible task.

I tried for months to memorize a particularly nice poem but eventually just gave up. I can tell you the poem's story - quite readily because of the strong memory pictures it created when I first read it, but quoting it is a lost cause. Any suggestions to improve my memorization skills would be great. I am thankful at this point in my life (in light of my mother's rapidly deteriorating memory) to have the vivid imagination memory ability and maybe should just be satisfied, but long to do some of those wonderfully long stories like I have heard some do.


Ghislaine.Walker" <Ghislaine.Walker@TESCO.NET>

Yesterday I was working with two colleagues and
did not have time to "properly" prepare for the event. I had already chosen a story I have heard on tape many times over the last few years which contains elements of other stories which are really familiar to me. I was comfortable with the material but have never told that tale before. Preparing properly has been something I've been a bit obsessive about in the past: reading a story several times, noting the "bones" of the tale, mapping it out if I have trouble visualising any part of the story's landscape, reading related research material - other stories or historical/geographical information, vocalising the story, timing myself. Then I feel confident and in control of the material I'm using.

Not yesterday though! I was telling a blacksmith tale and was handed two horse shoes about an hour before we started. When it was finally my turn I started banging the iron horse shoes together and almost immediately a natural rhythm gave way to a very simple bit of verse(don't know where it came from) which I repeated as a refrain throughout the telling. The story came out very differently to how I expected, the language even more stripped bare than usual, the imagery more powerful. In short I completely surprised myself and my colleagues. Thinking it was a fluke it was interesting to have to repeat this tale in the afternoon but it was necessary to shorten the telling as the session had gone very differently up to this point. My story was just as powerful, the rhythm and verse just as important but even more pared down. Not just a fluke then but definitely a new stage in my development!

I doubt I will have the confidence to rely on this more organic preparation entirely but it did feel good.

Thanks for sharing your experiences, it really helped me put into perspective what had happened yesterday. Interestingly, I too started out by learning the stories I told almost verbatim before I then went on a few courses and from these developed my own prep. routine.


Sheila Smith <jeskam@ATTCANADA.CA>

When I prepare a story that is written, the first thing I do is type it out - to preserve it for notes during the telling as Karen does - but most importantly, to look at the language used to write the story. I find some moral stories tend to be preachy.

A story written for the eye uses many words to create the image in the mind of the reader - adjectives describing the vastness of a meadow or the stature of a character. Stories told in the oral tradition don't require the same number of words to set the scene. In telling a story, the teller uses the body - facial expressions, the hands to elaborate on the size, the voice to create the sense of "nasty" in the villain.

While I type, I sound the words out to be sure what I am saying will be understood clearly. After that, I take to the solitude of the study and go over the story until I am happy with how it sounds. There has to be a natural flow to the words in order to avoid getting stuck. Not much worse as a teller than dead space.

Although I don't tape myself as others do, I rehearse while driving - and with 3 teens going every which way, I get lots of opportunity. It does differ from practicing in the study because I use this time to remember the bones of the story since keeping both hands on the wheel takes precedence and I can't stop to check the next line.

If I memorize the bones well, then if I get stuck, I can move on and somehow work an overlooked detail into the story at a later time if it affects the outcome of the tale.

The best stories I tell are the ones that resonate with my own sacred story, the one's in which I can identify in some way with the character. In the last while I sometimes use a simple prop - a scarf, stick, (the look of my hair once to tell a story as a woman remembering wartime) to tell a story. If using these, I don them in my rehearsal to be sure I am comfortable with it and be assured it adds something to my telling of the tale.


Batsy Bybell <cgale@TURBONET.COM>

Coming in late here as I've been trying to decide how I do learn stories at this stage in my telling life. That's harder for me than to say where I started from.

In the beginning I was nervous and apprehensive enough that I worried about getting the language and every nuance of the words absolutely totally correct. I tried memorizing the first two or three stories I told, word for word. I found that didn't work for me. I'd end up in front of the audience with a blank screen in my mind and no way into the meat of the story. Nerves kicked in at that point for every performance and launched my mouth into telling the story in my own words.

So I tried the bare bones approach, write down the simple outline of where the plot was going, who were the characters, key words and phrases. Or I tried drawing some with stick figures, like a storyboard. The drawing definitely didn't work; you'd know why if you ever saw my artwork. I could look back at a story months later and ask is that a bird or a rock? I tried taping some of the stories I don't use that often. Tell them in my own words so they'd stay fresh in my memory. It's worked okay, but not fantastically for me. Like others, I loathe hearing myself tell a story that's a couple of years old. I've grown past those tellings.

But now even the skeleton approach to crafting a story doesn't really work for me. I find I lose too much of the flavor of why I was drawn into a story and wanted originally to tell it. So I've tried reading and rereading, over and over, a written version of a story. I've tried rehearsing huge blocks of text, telling them in my own words. And I still get up in front of an audience for the first time with an untold story and lose track of those words on a page. I've decided that I don't learn that way.

So what works for me and what do I do now? I guess my learning methods depend on the venue and the story. Nothing is proven until it comes out of my mouth the first time in front of a real audience. Luckily, I tell to tons of preschoolers as part of my library job and I have 25 chances every month to polish those stories. Because that's how I learn -- by telling them, sharing them, and listening and watching for what worked and what didn't. I'll trot a story out for the first time in front of kids, then compare what came out of my mouth to what I had thought would come out. Two hours later I can tell the same story again to a different group of kids and refine it more. Maybe a refrain or song will enter into the story at that point. The next day, the same story to another group and it changes again. By the end of the month I either know that this one is a keeper or it's dropped like a dead weight. I have to laugh because it's certainly living on the edge for those first tellings.

When I work on stories for older audiences, my techniques of learning longer stories mean more work on building the bare bones structure and fleshing out the details with scribbled narrative and notes. I practice those more while driving or in front of the family dog. But those first words still tend to vanish in front of an audience. My prep work on what is the structure of the plot, who are the characters and how do they move and speak, what's the physical location -- those concrete realities in my mind stick up like beacons in a shifting morass of words and they pull the story through the first tellings.

You had to ask, didn't you, Mary Grace! LOL I can't say it's efficient, and I can't say it's smooth, but learning by telling is how a story becomes fixed in my storybag.


Sheila Smith <jeskam@attcanada.ca>

When I first started with stories, as now, I typed the words out, in the beginning more to keep stuff in one place and easier to follow in my mind's eye. I memorized the words as written. How could I improve on published work? I used to be able to picture in my mind where the pages turned to remember what came next. (In most cases, who would've known?) I would spend days memorizing each word for fear of messing up, practicing in front of a mirror to gauge inflections, gestures and expressions. I started with short, easy tales chosen to fit a particular theme. Change the event, get a whole new set of stories. At that point, I only told tales in a church setting - religious ed classes, et al. It was where I got my start storytelling as ministry. It was also very safe - I am at home in that setting.

Then I began changing some of the language used to express an idea in the written word to that which sounded better to the ear, and paying more attention to the overall story than the rigid sequence of events. This helped me develop confidence to try longer tales that could be applied to different storytelling settings and even write. As I matured as a teller, I concentrated on the bones of the story, in order to be more flexible in telling it rather then being slave to the written word. I started using audience response to prepare a story for the next time I used it rather than sticking to anything I had on paper. No more "one size fits all."

Now, I still spend a lot of time with the stories but instead of blocking out the existence of others for days at a time, I type it out, sound it out, and ponder what it says, spend more time thinking about it while I drive, rehearsing the gist, and then take the time in solitude to work on flow, gestures, props, inflections, etc. I have noticed that once a story is in my memory now, it requires less preparation time to bring it to life where in the beginning it would mean back to solitary confinement if I wanted to use it again.

And I don't use the mirror to practice anymore. I spend more time on allowing the story to be at home in me than me being at home with the story. For me, there's a difference.

The changes are probably due to the development of confidence that I was offering a valid and valuable art form.


Mary Hamilton <hiddenspring@EARTHLINK.NET>

Mary Grace,
I have traveled a very similar path. First, I memorized. Then I began to realize the story is not the words. I do use storyboarding, outlining, creating timelines as a learning tool -- not every activity for every story, but when I am stuck (a section seems to be bogged down in the telling, or feels fuzzy)those activities really help me make discoveries about the tale. Depending upon the story, I will also walk around "in the space of the tale" to make more discoveries about who and what is where. I'll dream the story or dream how to tell it (both daydreams and sleeping dreams). So, how I learn a tale varies from tale to tale.

In recent years, I have begun to write more. I find if the tale structure varies much from standard narrative, my mind has to work harder to see the structure so the tale can come out with some degree of ease akin to the degree of ease present with tales I tell using a more traditional structure. Then, I do find that I am working to memorize the sequence (the sequence of delivery rather than the sequence of chronological events) when I am first telling the tale. After awhile, that settles in and I develop more ease in the telling -- trusting that the tale will find its way even if I vary from my teller-imposed intended sequence. I have a sense that the tale is directing me, but I am so new at delving into telling that deviates from standard narrative plotlines that anxiety may be playing a role in the need I feel to focus on the delivery sequence. So, this may indeed be a stage I'm working through as well!

So, I guess the total picture is -- I attempt to do what is necessary(whatever the story seems to want); however, nothing, absolutely nothing, can top the learning progress I can make when I work in the presence of other supportive storytellers. So, I value any sessions to work on work together. These are too few and far between in my life, but I am consciously working to change that.


Gregory Leifel <GLeifel@AOL.COM>

Regarding memorization and learning a story:

Some of you might find this interesting, since I write and tell only my own stories.

Generally, my stories come out on the written page over a period that can range from mere hours (rare and lucky) to several days or weeks of concentrated writing. What happens next, when I feel that the bulk of the story is on the page, I begin to read and memorize the story. Not necessarily word for word, but I feel I'm memorizing the feelings of the people (or things) in my story along with the words. The phrasing of certain things constantly changes the more and more I tell it to myself. Things just feel right in the characters' minds who are in my mind as I tell it to myself.

I can no longer take a shower without telling a story or two as I wash. When I go to shave in the shower, I pause and then pick up the story when I'm done shaving (great practice for those unexpected interruptions). Same with dressing and brushing my teeth. Basically, anytime I'm in front of a mirror , or a car, or a room by myself, I find myself going over my stories. And the language I use just gets more and more refined as I tell them to myself. By the time I actually tell it to an audience, I've told it to myself a couple of hundred times and the words are worked out to a very specific set of words I think for the most part work the best.

Now I've been at different shows and seen the same very famous tellers tell certain stories nearly in the same words they told it at other shows. Stay with me as I'm not complaining about memorization here. What fascinates me is that everything else that comes into play when telling a story changes. Their pacing, their pausing, their voice levels, movements, etc, all adapt to the particular audiences' reactions. The words of the story have been generally the same (I imagine this varies with how many times one has told a particular story) and this does not bother me one bit. It is in how they tell the story that captures me. Proof of that is hearing the same story several times and still being drawn in as if for the first time.

I couldn't imagine someone telling the story of Romeo and Juliet and saying the line, "Romeo, oh Romeo, where the HELL art thou, Romeo?" It would change the story no matter how well the actor sold it with the original intent. Sometimes specific phrasing and words are essential to a story, and though one may then conclude that the story is memorized, I feel the point of memorization doesn't encompass ALL that storytelling is.

Of course people memorize the story (for the most part), otherwise they'd be doing pure improvization. What we can't memorize is the way the story unfolds before the audience because there are no steadfast rules. You can't alway's pause 3.5 seconds before you reveal something scary. Or we may sense the audience is smart enough for us to leave something out, or vise versa.

What makes storytelling theatrical for me, (this is in appreciation of what Gene wrote in another post) is that storytelling allows my mind to travel past that invisible marker that purely scripted and blocked stage acting has. Somehow when I see a play I feel it's being performed for me as a community/audience member, because it's set down in a very specifically acted and scripted movement sort of way. I have no real influence in how it will come off, other than the actors reacting to the audience energy levels. But when I see great tellers, I loose track of the audience around me and I leave afterwards with this awareness that the whole performance could have been done with only me in the audience and worked just as effectively. I don't think I can say that about a lot of plays. Perhaps a play needs a community audience, but a story told well needs one listener (but certainly can accomodate more).

This is certainly not something written in stone, but just some thoughts about memorization. I don't really think it's a big deal to say that many parts (words or phrasing) of the actual story are memorized. To only focus on that as a right or wrong, just diminishes all the other essential things that it takes to tell a story well.


Mary G. Ketner" <mketner@LONESTAR.JPL.UTSA.EDU>

So, Gregory: if we see you with a bandaid on your chin, it's probably
because you started shaving and forgot to stop storytelling! I love what you have said here!

> ...I'm not complaining about memorization here. What fascinates me is
> that everything else that comes into play when telling a story changes. Their
> pacing, their pausing, their voice levels, movements, etc, all adapt to the
> particular audiences' reactions. The words of the story have been generally
> the same

I think this is right on! I like to say I learn my stories "by heart" because I know how I learned my first story or two, which was by memorizing much the same way as one might memorize the periodic table of the elements. Then I would superimpose a "natural" expression, movements and gestures on the words! Now THAT's memorizing! (and staging, blocking, etc.)

By having the bones down pretty well at the unit of, say, the paragraph, and certain phrases that always work in place and flowing naturally through having practiced critical parts in the shower or while driving I have essentially memorized the story. The difference between then and now is that now I "tell" the story; then I "recited" the story.

Of course, I don't always have the time to do that, and sometimes it works better when I don't--for what reason I can't quite say and I'm not fully willing to trust that it will always happen. But when I do it that way, I then have a story that can be artfully shaped and sanded til...forever! That is how it goes with my best and favorite stories.

I am wondering though, don't you sometimes go back and change the writing after you've played with the story orally and auditorily for a while? That is, before you send it to a publisher or whatever, isn't there a time when the oral storytelling feeds back into the original written story?


Gregory Leifel <GLeifel@AOL.COM>

I am wondering though, don't you sometimes go back and change the writing after you've played with the story orally and auditorily for a while? That is, before you send it to a publisher or whatever, isn't there a time when the oral storytelling feeds back into the original written story? Mary Grace

Yes, absolutely I go back and change the writing. Though somethings which work in the telling certainly don't come across on the written page and vise versa. But I've definitely found out that telling them over and over out loud has improved my writing 100%. The experts always tell writers to read their stories out loud to see if they work. This is taking it a step further perhaps.

It's funny, I belong to a fiction writing critique group and we read our work out loud before the group, and then critique and discuss it. Every time I read one of my written stories people always comment on how well I've read it. In fact one guy challenged me the other day and said that if I were really brave I should let someone else read my work because he said I can dramatically make even one of my poorer stories sound good, making it difficult to critique. Hate to admit he had a point, but I'd recommend learning to tell to every writer, just because if you can't put the voice emotion into the individual words you write, those individual words should be changed to ones that you can. Writing is after all, all about choosing the right words.


Toni Reese <treese@MONARCH.PAPILLION.NE.US>

As for how I learn a story, I also used to try and pretty much memorize it, but I find that as I become more comfortable, I do better to just read and reread the story, and paraphrase, adding a few phrases word-for-word that I feel are essential to the telling. Then, after a story is part of me, I see it in my mind, like a movie, and I'm just narrating what's going on in my head!


Kimberley King <YELREB@AOL.COM>

I don't know that my "way" of learning stories has changed all that much. Maybe I do it faster, or with more confidence now, is all.

A few stories I only have to hear or read once and they are mine. Can't explain it, just how it is. They go in, stay in, and tell the right way from the get-go.

For the rest, I've never tried to memorize. I read or listen to the story over and over. Maybe 50 times. Maybe 100. Who knows?

Then I start to tell it to myself, usually when I'm falling asleep at night, or walking, or driving. I might go back to the text and see if there is a particular turn of phrase I want to borrow or use to embellish. As I tell it to myself, the words become "set" (working on the wording I want to translate the images is part of the practice).

Sometimes I grab a friend or one of my kids and tell it to them. Sometimes not. By the time I tell it, its form is usually pretty well set, and the words and rhythm remain pretty consistant (although not exact) from one telling to the next.

I have found that I can shortcut this process by writing out the text in my own language first; but it does not stay in my memory as well if I do it that way. It stays "in" better if I do the "writing" in my head.

Some stories are done, then, and stay around just as they are. Some others are embellished over the years they are told - new details, small flourishes, changes in language may come in.

Then there are the stories I really want to tell, but just don't come right, for whatever reason. I keep telling them, then leave them for a while, then come back to them.....usually a story like that has to be "told in" or maybe, more accurately, I have to "grow in" to the story, or into what it is telling me.

Occasionally I've told a story I've read or heard once, with no rehearsal, just off the cuff. Surprisingly, this has usually worked pretty well. What the tellings lack in polish, they gain in spontaneity and sort of manic energy.....of course, if I tell such a story repeatedly, it starts to fall into a pattern of language eventually.

I used to dress up to tell stories, but seldom do any more, unless it's a really formal occasion. The costume helped me honor the storyteller's space, I guess, but after a while I found I didn't need it.

I've never practiced gestures, or in front of a mirror. I use my hands a lot when I talk anyway, and whatever movement there is flows out of the story.

I've occasionally listened to myself on tape, but don't make a practice of it. I was pleased to notice that the tape or video told me very little that I was not already aware of (who is more critical than ourselves?) Occasionally a turn of phrase, or glitch in pacing that I didn't like. (And of course, who really LIKES the way they look on video?)

I guess I would describe the process as dreaming my way in to the story; putting it in my body/mind/spirit in such a way that is as familiar to me as my own memories; my own dreams.


Rocci Hildum <rhildum@NWINTERNET.COM>

I think it must have something to do with my basic orientation to life, my commitment to nonconformity, my Zen Buddhist Taoist Native American spirituality psyche, or perhaps it's because I have really flat feet ~ but from the very start when I discovered I was a storyteller, I resisted the idea that stories should be memorized.

I "learned" the story as opposed to learning the words. In actual practice I read the story over and over again until I could tell the story. Now I read the story one or two times and then tell the story over and over again. I have learned the difference between reading the story and telling the story and hearing the story. I now also use a tape recorder and tell the story on tape and then play it to myself in the car over and over again.

Meanwhile I am thinking the story into my being. I am thinking of what the story means, what are the vital elements of the story, what particular characters are like and what motivates them....

The whole process of storytelling is very spiritual for me. With the exception of a few rhyming stories I tell, I simply refuse to memorize. If I memorize a story I think I am trying to tell someone else's story. I aspire to tell only stories that are my stories, even if I got the original idea from someone else, when I tell the story it is different and it is unique to me. I think this is true for all storytellers.


Gwyn Calvetti <cen61038@mail.mw.centurytel.net>

Mary Grace,
What an interesting concept, and you are probably right on--we have developmental stages for everything else, why not storylearning.

I have never done memorization, but otherwise my path has been similar, in that I would read a lot, then tell, then I moved to reading some and telling a lot. What I have been doing for about a year now that is new is maybe an addition to what you are suggesting. If I really want to "know" a story, if it is one I hope to keep as opposed to a one time telling, I will get into the story physically. This is something I learned at a workshop I took with Susan Stone, and I have found it has changed my approach to storylearning significantly. Once I feel I have a handle on the story, I will "be" one of the characters physically, and instead of telling the story, I will move about as that character, describing what they see, do, feel, and moving in response to whatever that character is experiencing. Then I'll tell the story again, and move as that character as I tell.

I don't very often do all these antics when I actually tell, but the thing Susan said that made sense for me was--Even if you don't do these things in your telling, you'll have been there.


Kate Dudding <kduddin1@NYCAP.RR.COM>

I started telling stories casually, just trying to reproduce a story I had heard, the way you retell a joke you heard.

When I decided I needed to be a storyteller and learn how to do it, two of the first workshops I went to (by Davis Bates and Odds Bodkin) both stressed that a story is a collection of images, you spend time with each image during your preparation, then describe each image when telling. Some audiences may need different sets of images for the same story; for example, when I tell my aunts a story about my mother, their sister, I can leave a lot of things out that I need to put in for other audiences.

So memorizing an entire story has never been part of my preparation. I found this extremely liberating and, I'm sure, this has helped reduce my stage fright.

Then I started attending workshops with Jeannine Laverty. She recommends listening to a tape of a story a number of times to get to know the bones of the story. And some of her exercises deal with deciding on the beginning, the middle and the end of the story. So at this point, I'd wallow around, find several versions of a story, listen to the one I liked best, eventually start telling it aloud to myself, perhaps telling it aloud from each character's point of view, then looking for the beginning, middle and end.

Recently, I realized that I love researching about time periods and historical events. So when I was working up a version of moose turd pie, with the main character being a female cook at a logging camp in the Adirondack Mountains (about 1 hour north of me), I read a number of books, poring over their photographs, about logging during the 1800s and early 1900s. I wanted to stick as much factual information about logging in my story as I could, without overloading the story and making it a lecture.

I've also come to appreciate my subconscious and actively try to use it. For me, practicing aloud, while walking around, seems to produce many insights, especially when I'm exploring the story in the voice of one of the characters. The characters say the most amazing things when I'm walking around.

I also find that when I first wake up, if I stay in bed and let my mind drift, some insight re. my current story may pop into my head.


Compiled by Tim Sheppard from posts to Storytell

For a guide to other advice, see The Storytelling FAQ on How do I learn a story?.


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