I started telling stories about five years ago when my daughter attended Waldorf kindergarten on the other side of town. Of course, the presence of her amazing teachers and all the stories they told inspired me, but it was actually the drive that got me storytelling.
What to do with the daily forty-five minutes we spent in the car? We could listen to music, think our own thoughts, space out...But, being the idealistic gal that I was (am?) I thought we should do something more special and intimate. After all, we'd be apart all day. Shouldn't we feel our togetherness while we could?
So I started telling her an ongoing story about two Imps of my own invention. They were called Outty-Out and Lighty-Light and they lived in a small English village called Oxbow Crossing. Their adventures ranged far and wide, taking in fairy stories, seasonal festivals, English folk traditions, jokes, house building, gardening, dragons, candle-making, music...whatever came into my mind. I never planned them out. It was come as you are. Some were great, some fell flat. Others were just strange. But it didn't matter to my daughter. She loved them all and asked for her imps every day.
Those Imps worked some kind of alchemy on our year. An empty, mind-numbing time in our day became a rich time, a golden moment. Together we watched these characters unfolding in their wisdom and vanity, their bold misadventures and reparations, their friendship and frustrations. Through their activities we saw ourselves more clearly and the culture of our family began to take shape. And storytelling took root in me.
As a parent, storytelling has endless uses:
To pass the time when you are waiting
To comfort a child who is upset
To make a magical, peaceful bedtime
To impart a lesson gently, without confrontation
To wean children away from media influence
To celebrate a holiday
To impart values in an open-ended way
To teach family history
To create engaging homeschool lessons
To make em laugh
To get to see that look of wonder on their faces and remember how much you love them
To get them to sit quietly for five minutes when you are about to go nuts...
Yes, it's really, really useful.
So how do you do it? How do you start telling stories if this is all new?
Tell the stories you know.
I find that the easiest stories to tell my children are stories of things that happened to me in my own childhood. These bits of my history, framed as stories, are easy to envision because they are my own memories. And they are easy to share, as this kind of storytelling borders on simple conversation. We humans naturally tell each other little stories of our experiences: our day, the funny thing that happened at the grocery story, the dream we had last night...
When I'm really tired at bedtime and not feeling particularly creative, I'll fall back on a childhood story. Something like this: Well, when I turned ten years old I got a bike for my birthday. I just loved that bike! It was blue, with streamers on the handlebars and a banana seat. I used to spend hours riding that bike around our little town, sometimes with my brother and sometimes on my own. One day, I decided to explore up a road that I had never been on before...
It's amazing how easily the story will unfold and shape itself into something even better, more interesting and charming and memorable, than the memory I started with. Not that I change the facts much, but somehow in the process of the memory becoming a story it becomes so much juicier, for me as well as for my children, listening under the covers.
Make it up as you go along.
While making up a story from scratch may seem daunting, I actually think it's easier than learning and telling someone else's story. Because it came out of you, it's easier to remember and you don't feel you have to live up to someone else's vision or mimic their language.
You can start really, really simple. Here's one way: you invent a character. Maybe it's a little gnome who lives under the tree in your backyard or maybe it's a funny old giraffe who escaped from the zoo or maybe it's a little boy and girl who are just the ages of your children (fancy that!). Whoever it is, it will be someone that has some obvious character traits that you can draw upon (I once told a series of stories about a dog you loved ketchup beyond all reason- the possibilities were endless) and is someone your child will like and relate to. Then you can tell a series of stories about this character, following him through the days and weeks, drawing ideas from what is going on in nature, in your family and community. What does the giraffe do when it snows? How does the helpful gnome care for the baby bird that fell from his nest? Once your children know and trust your character, you can try using your stories to help your children reflect on events in their own lives in a gentle way.
Once you've decided on what sort of story you will tell, pick a time and a situation that feels natural to you. An ordinary time might be great: after dinner in the living room, while taking a walk together, in the car. If you always read a story book at bedtime, you could try following that with a told story. Turning out the lights and lighting a candle can create an feeling of intimacy.
When your moment comes, take a deep breath. You are about to give your child a gift of great beauty and value, no matter how awkward you may feel at this moment. Be bold and the story will come to you. Go for it!
Once you get a feel for the rhythm of breathing and speaking and for following the thread of the story, you'll be inspired to go deeper. Chose your favorite fairy tale and learn to tell it. Buy a collection of stories for your child's age group and tell a new one every month. What about a special story for a child's birthday? Or a story to deepen the magic of your favorite holiday?
In the my next post, I'll explore ways of choosing and preparing stories for telling and how to set the stage for your tale. I hope you'll join me again!