Category Archives: Story Telling Traditions

We Are Born Story Tellers

The tradition of oral story telling goes so far back in human history that nobody can really find the first examples of it. It was probably something to do with a hunt that was made epic and entertaining. There were stories of angry gods and far away places and battles. Story telling was both entertainment and information gathering. They were how we related to the world.

And yet today we get nervous if we have to pitch something or take a meeting. We don’t know what to talk about on a first date. We find ourselves choked off and silent. But the urge to spin a tale, to hold your listener rapt is one that is written in our very DNA.

You tell stories every single day. What’d you do today? What did that person say? How was your vacation? So why should your meeting be any different? Tell me a story – the story of your script – the story of your new product – the story of your life. whitman

I am a huge fan of The Moth. If you aren’t familiar with the Moth and it’s many, many subsequent offshoots, the Moth brings back the idea of oral storytelling vis a vis “story slams”. Speakers – many famous and gifted professional story tellers – along with ordinary people, take the stage to tell us a story.

Perhaps we are nervous when its our turn to tell a story because we are simply out of practice. Perhaps we listen to or watch other people’s stories so much that our own become atrophied. Why not get back in touch with the art of story telling by attending events in your area or starting  a story telling group?

The ability to tell a great story will not only make you the belle of many a cocktail party but also much more effective in meetings and social interactions in general. Remember, story tellers don’t only talk AT their audience – they engage them. cocktail

You don’t have to take the stage to be a good story teller – again – you tell stories every single day. Have you ever been at a gathering when someone starts to say they’ll tell you a story – and your blood kind of runs cold and your eyes search the room for a way out? Why is this? Because this person is not a good story teller. Their stories wander, are completely self-referential and are not engaging. They are long-winded and too full of details. This person just likes to hear him or herself talk.

I am sure you also have people you know who are excellent story tellers. People who get going and you are grinning because you are so entertained, because they give just the right amount of details, without too much, because they use sound effects and mimicry, because they really put you right there in the situation. Because their stories have a point. We all have stories – we’ve done so much in our lives. But part of being a good story teller is knowing when that story is best used. Yes, yes, you’ve been to Borneo, but would that story really fit into this situation? What is relevant about the story? In what way is it entertaining?  story

Telling yourself stories is something we do everyday too. We just don’t think of it that way. We narrate our lives every day – sometimes positively, often times negatively. This always happens. That never happens. So-and-so thinks this or did that. You would be amazed at how your life can change if you change the stories you tell yourself.


StorySlam Live in London is an amazing organization that you can get involved with if you are in the UK.  The Story Slam in Tel Aviv is great, if sporadic fun with great stories. The LA Story Telling Festival is an active community of story tellers.


Generation Hand Down

As a story teller and a writer, as an American living abroad, I’ve been so interested lately in reading about genetic memory – the idea that collective memories are handed down through the generations. We know that this is true on some levels – the human aversion to sour or bitter tastes that we got from our distant ancestors out to avoid eating something poisonous. The human fear of the dark. These types of genetic memories make sense. Oh and the granddaddy, the fight or flight hormonal flood of cortisol which more than lingers today and causes all sorts of undue stress.

But can other memories be passed down too? Genetic memories that are deeper and more ephemeral? A collective memory of suffering or of discovery, pride or survival? I think we are still a long way from figuring that one out from a scientific standpoint.storyteller

Collective memories are narratives that are passed down from generation to generation quite consciously, so not on a genetic or molecular level, but through story telling, traditions and customs. Read much more about that on this fascinating and detailed link. 

Recently I had an experience that to me felt like a strange mixture of genetic and collective memory. This is just anecdotal, obviously, but it really makes me wonder.

I was listening to Jerry Alfred and the Medicine Beats, a member of the Selkirk First Nation, in the Yukon Territory of Canada. When Jerry was born, he was named “keeper of the songs”, something he took very seriously as a generational obligation. When I think about that for a minute – “keeper of the songs” – it overwhelms me. It is important to curate our stories as humans. That’s what writers are really doing, it’s not just self-expression, it’s being a Keeper of Stories. Perhaps there was somebody in your ancestry that was a story teller, a keeper of the songs.estishon

So I’m listening to this song (which you can listen to here) and I just – the hairs on my neck stood up. I have always loved traditional, tribal music of any kind from any continent – yeah, I’m a drum circle kind of girl.

I grew up in the 70s when there was a wave of interest and guilt and identification with the Native American tribes that were victimized in the US.  For a long time, I had an allergic reaction to people who proudly proclaimed they are this or that percentage Native American. What do they know about that experience, really? What do I know of it? Nothing.

[Watch Incident at Ogala, narrated by Robert Redford, for more information about Leonard Peltier and the short-lived American Indian Movement of the 60s and 70s; and who can forget Sacheen Littlefeather at the Academy Awards? And of course I cannot resist linking to one of my all time favorite indie films, Smoke Signals, written by the great Sherman Alexie.]

What WAS it about music that gets right down into my bones? Was I a Native American in another life? I’d love to believe in reincarnation but I just can’t quite go there.

Then I remembered – how could I forget? My third great grandmother was a Cherokee Indian. Perhaps it was her very DNA I was feeling? Perhaps it is that connection?

Her name was Rebecca Savage (a surname of indignity given to many Native Americans) and she married my Irish third great grandfather, John O’Ragan, in Kentucky, in 1868, after he’d come home from fighting in the American Civil War.

I don’t know what her Cherokee name was – Rebecca is obviously a Christian name given to her at some point. I don’t really know anything about her except that she was a “full blood” member of the Cherokee nation and that when she married my third great grandfather, she was dressed in full Cherokee wedding regalia. I learned this from a distant relative in Kentucky, who was in his 90s when I met him. Oh yes, he said, through several missing teeth – she was a full blood Indian and she wore feathers at her wedding. 

How did “Rebecca” feel about this wedding? Why did she marry a mick in Kentucky? What did her family think? What was it like for her to then live on a tobacco farm and live a typical Kentucky life in the 19th century? What stories did she die with?

I will never know. But sometimes, just a little bit, I feel her within me. And I wonder.