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Discovering the One and Only You

by Doug Lipman

A version of this article appeared in Storytelling magazine.
An excerpt appears in the book, Tales as Tools (National Storytelling Press).

Table of Contents:

Introduction: a world-view appropriate to storytelling
The Varieties of Interpretation
What does this story mean to you?
Assuming That Differences are Valuable
The fallacy of "plain vanilla"
Blurred Issues Brought into Focus:
Telling Stories From Cultures Not Our Own
Hardening of the Categories
Putting On the Style
More Traditional Than Thou
"Thank You For Not Evaluating"?
Conclusion: Letting Every Voice Be Heard

Consider these statements:

  • "People are different."
  • "Human differences enrich us."
  • "Differences among storytellers enrich storytelling."

The above sentences are easy to say, and hard to disagree with. But if we live up to their implications, they are revolutionary.

The acceptance and celebration of human differences is not frosting on the storytelling cake, but essential to the art of storytelling and the growth of the storytelling movement.

Our society tends to encourage a "pennant race" view of life:

  • The only goal that matters is to be on top.
  • Everyone else is either above you or below you in the standings.
  • The ones below you represent a threat.
  • The ones above you represent a challenge and stimulus for jealousy.
As a result, we become isolated from each other.

From the point of view of celebrating uniqueness, however, we are not competing for the single pennant that only one of us can win. On the contrary, we are each trying to be something that no one else can be.

The more of us who succeed at being our unique selves, the more freedom and inspiration the rest of us have:

"Isn't it great that she can do it that way! Another door has been opened.
This view leads us naturally to mutual support and connection.

Many of us have been drawn to storytelling in search of just such a view of life - one that doesn't deny differences or subvert them into a ladder of dominance, but celebrates them.

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The Varieties of Interpretation

Storytelling is fundamentally attuned to individual differences.

Because storytelling suggests images but does not provide them (in the way that television provides visual images), each audience member routinely creates unique images.

In the same way, each storyteller creates unique mental images, which become the basis of the told story. By implication, no two tellers ever tell exactly the same story.

Furthermore, tellers make individual judgments about the meanings of their stories. Even a simple tale like "The Turnip" (see sidebar) lends itself to an infinity of interpretation. As a result, no two tellers would tell the same story in just the same way.

In fact, one of the teller's first tasks when learning a story is to find a central meaning in the story. But this central meaning belongs to the teller in a particular situation, not to the story.

Teachers of storytelling, noticing correctly that certain of their students have not found a meaning in the story, sometimes make the mistake of trying to give the meaning. A story, however, does not have a single correct meaning.

Good storytelling teaching, to be true to the celebration of uniqueness, must be based on encouraging individual interpretation by each teller.

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What does this story mean to you?

Try this exercise: read and outline the following story, then tell it to someone. After you have told the story, ask yourself,

  • "What do I love about this story?" or
  • "What do I value about this story?"

The Turnip

Grandfather planted a turnip. When the turnip was ripe, he leaned over and pulled on it - but the turnip didn't budge.

He called to Granddaughter to help. She grabbed Grandfather around the waist. Grandfather pulled, Granddaughter pulled, but the turnip didn't budge.

Granddaughter called the dog to help. The dog grabbed Granddaughter's belt in its teeth. Grandfather pulled, Granddaughter pulled, and the dog pulled, but the turnip didn't budge.

The dog called the cat to help. The cat grabbed the dog's tail in its teeth. Grandfather pulled, Granddaughter pulled, the dog pulled, and the cat pulled, but the turnip didn't budge.

The cat called the beetle to help. The beetle grabbed the cat's tail with its legs, and spread its wings. Grandfather pulled, Granddaughter pulled, the dog pulled, and the cat pulled. The beetle flapped its wings.

Suddenly, the turnip popped out of the ground. Grandfather fell down, Granddaughter fell down, the dog fell down, the cat fell down, and the beetle flew away. That night, they all had turnip for supper.

Once you've told "the Turnip" and discussed what you most love or value about it, examine the following list of ten responses from others. Is yours on the list?
  • "It's about cooperation."
  • "I like it because the smallest one makes the difference."
  • "It's fun!"
  • "Everyone has to ask for help, even the grandfather, who thinks he's the boss."
  • "Most problems in society are huge and abstract. This story gives a concrete problem that can be solved by the local community."
  • "I love the sense of rhythm and repetition."
  • "My first graders could get physically involved in the telling of it."
  • "Everyone is valuable, even though they are of different sizes and species."
  • "Everyone understands everyone else, even though animals can't usually talk to humans."
  • "One person can plant alone, but it takes everyone working together to harvest the results."
What you most love or value about the story will affect how you tell it.

If you most love the cooperation in this story, for example, you will tell it in a way that consciously or unconsciously emphasizes the element of cooperation. Your audience, as a result, will be much more likely to receive that aspect of the story.

Even among those who value the same element in this story, however, each teller will view that element slightly differently. Among those who love the cooperation in "The Turnip," some will love:

  • the sense of physically working together;
  • the need to make the line ever longer;
  • the incongruity of cooperation among such dissimilar characters.
As a result, each teller will tale the tale in a unique way.

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Assuming That Differences are Valuable

As storytellers, as teachers of storytelling, and as members of the wider world, we often encounter people:

  • who don't understand us
  • who don't make themselves clear to us, or
  • who don't succeed in learning from us.

As inheritors of our society's propensity for equating difference with better-or-worse, we tend to assume that such people are at fault, inferior, or not trying hard enough. But all we really know about them is that they are in some way different from us.

If we truly celebrated difference, we would first attempt to discover the difference, and then learn from it.

Here's an example: a friend of mine fell in love with storytelling, and took some workshops in how to tell. After two of them, she decided she couldn't become a storyteller.

Why? Both workshop leaders had repeated the same instructions:

"If you're having trouble with part of a story, visualize the story more clearly."
She felt unable to visualize, and so decided she didn't have the "talent" to be a storyteller.

What was wrong with the advice she got in the workshops?

Was it the emphasis on imagining the story? I think not. Leaving aside the failure of the instructors to leave my friend empowered and enthusiastic, their main oversight was to assume that imagining - which is often, in fact, a key to telling better - needs to occur in the visual mode.

It happens that my friend's primary sensory mode is auditory, not visual. If she had been encouraged to imagine the story in her own way, she might have tapped into her rich, internal world of sound imagery.

If the instructors had gone further, and given information about human differences in this arena (we each operate with a unique mix of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and other sensory modes) my friend might have been empowered to understand, claim, and celebrate her potential strengths as a storyteller.

As it was, my friend was stymied, and the instructors missed a chance to learn from my friend's unique way of imagining the world.

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The fallacy of "plain vanilla"

In the course of telling and teaching to various groups, we may have to choose between accepting and questioning certain common attitudes that subtly devalue differences.

For example, an aspiring storyteller might say to me,

"You're lucky. You have those great Jewish stories to tell. I'm just a WASP. I wish I had that kind of culture!"
Or, I'll get a call from a library or school system:
"We really need your program on individual differences, because we don't have much diversity in our white, rural region."
In cases like these, well-meaning people are being deceived by the "fallacy of plain vanilla." Please remember: vanilla is also a flavor! Vanilla ice cream also has a color!

To understand the problem, try to imagine all the socioeconomic qualities that our society decides are the stereotypic "best:"

  • white
  • male
  • Anglo-Saxon
  • Protestant
  • upper middle class
  • suburban
  • aged 25 to 45, etc.
These are exactly the attributes that seem to have no "flavor"!

Of course, there's no good reason why one group of people or another should have more of our society's wealth or status.

  • As a way of perpetuating injustice, the society makes that which is given privilege seem "normal," "bland," and "ordinary."
  • Only those excluded from the power structure have "color," "flavor" and "ethnicity."

To accept the fallacy of plain vanilla is to perpetuate a mechanism of injustice.

Further, this fallacy diminishes those in positions of privilege, too.

  • It makes them seem uninteresting as individuals.
  • They are forced to choose between being seen as unique and continuing to have privilege - or the hope of it.

Every group of well-to-do, male, white middle-managers - just like every group of poor, female, Navaho weavers - contains an astounding diversity of human abilities and experiences.

Since people in any group are different from each other, any attitude that makes it unsafe to be different holds people down. If it's not safe to be different, it's not safe!

As a result, I tell the aspiring WASP teller to reclaim her own experience: she lives stories every day.

When I go to the white, rural third grade, I start by helping them to discover and value their differences from each other. Only then can they reach out to people from other geographic areas and ethnic backgrounds, not in fear, but with respect and love.

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Blurred Issues Brought into Focus

Storytellers have debated certain issues at length, both in print and in conversation.

Some of these unresolved issues become clearer or disappear entirely when viewed through the lens of a commitment to celebrating uniqueness.

Telling Stories From Cultures Not Our Own

A controversy exists in the storytelling community about the propriety of telling traditional stories by tellers who are not from the story's culture of origin.

Everyone seems to agree that such stories need to be treated with respect.

What is seldom realized, however, is this:

If the teller does not truly accept his own uniqueness, he can't possibly give full respect to a story from another culture.

If he accepts the fallacy that he has no culture, he can't relate to another culture as an equal.

Prompted by ecological awareness, for example, I might feel tempted to tell certain Native American stories. After all, they speak of a connection with the environment that's missing from my European-American culture.

But wait! What is the story of European connection with the environment? Aren't there two trends:

  1. to plunder colonies
  2. to nurture English gardens?
Identifying and understanding the neglected trend means we can bolster it in the future - and come to Native American stories as allies, not parasites.

If I do not learn my own heritage, I will be using the Native American stories to cover up my severed relationship to the earth.

Here's another example. Once I performed in a rural area of the U.S. where Jews were uncommon. A woman came up to me after my performance and told me her story:

She had grown up nearby in a town with no Jews. In fact, only one family was Catholic "and we thought they were quite strange." She was a teenager before she knew that Jews existed not only in the Bible but also in the modern world.
She told me that my Jewish stories moved her, and thanked me for coming. Her manner and words suggested that we were people with different experiences that could enrich each other.

At the same performance, another woman spoke to me. She smiled a rigid smile, shook my hand, and said,

"It's so nice to have a Jew here. I've always liked Jewish stories. We need to hear you people more."
Her manner and words suggested that she was a person, but that I had interesting stories.

If I were to learn that the first woman was telling Jewish stories she learned from me that day, I'd be pleased and honored.

If I learned the same of the second woman, I'd feel like a witness to a theft.

Groups who receive less than their share of wealth and power shouldn't be expected to bear the burden of providing unique feelings and experiences for the rest of us. Those of us with privilege want to be human and unique, but we don't want to jeopardize our privilege, which is based on suppressing our uniqueness.

Let us first explore and celebrate our unique:

  • selves
  • stories
  • heritage.
Then we'll be able to reach out to other cultures with a true sense of reverence, excitement, and compassion.

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Hardening of the Categories

Once, a newspaper review about Heather Forest included a sentence like "She's an interesting artist, but not a storyteller."

Heather is reported to have replied:

Years ago, I thought I was a dancer, but they said that dancers don't sing.

So then I thought I was a musician, but they said I talked too much. So now I'm a storyteller - and if the definition of storytelling is too narrow for me, the definition itself has to change.

I'm not moving to a new category!

Faced with artists trained in other fields who may call themselves storytellers without our permission, we may be tempted to say, "That's not really storytelling." We may then go on to explain what they lack that real storytelling has.

This reaction is understandable, but counter-productive. It leads us to comparison, competitive thinking, and isolation. It prevents us from being enriched by the unique contributions of each person who desires to be called a storyteller.

Instead of erecting barriers to limit the definition of storytelling, we should be welcoming artists who can show us new forms that storytelling can take. It is in our interest as a movement, in fact, to err on the side of including the questionable:

  • If it succeeds, we will profit from it.
  • If it fails, we won't have wasted effort trying to uproot it.
We need to increase our strength by uniting with other artists, not waste our strength by competing with potential allies.

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Putting On the Style

If we fully celebrate the virtues of uniqueness, we will embrace differences in storytelling style.

The correct way to tell stories is not Ray Hick's way, or Vi Hilbert's way, or Laura Simms' way - although each is a great storyteller. The correct way to tell stories is the way that works for you at a given moment with a given audience.

Beginning storytellers sometimes approach me in a panic, saying, "So-and-so said that storytellers shouldn't tell a story word-for-word (or: change the author's words...use props or musical instruments...stand up while telling...sit down while telling...use accents..., etc.) But I do that!"

I usually reply like this:

"Michael Parent juggles. When he started to tell stories, it was natural for him to use juggling to get his stories across. "I sing and play instruments. When I try to tell a story, it is often natural for me to use music to help. "Does that mean that you should juggle or play instruments? No! It means that you should do whatever seems natural to you to get your story across. That may include sitting quietly on your hands, or doing something that no storyteller has ever done before. "Don't try to be right, try to be yourself!"
I have seen storytellers like Alice Kane of Toronto, who tells stories without props of any kind. In fact, she doesn't even use hand gestures. To maximize our focus on her words, she rarely even uses facial expression, beyond the occasional, sly half-wink. She is a great storyteller. I could listen to her for twenty-four hours straight, and be entranced the whole time.

At the same time, I have seen great storytellers who dance across the stage, use magic tricks, or wear costumes. Their style is their own decision; I only care if they communicate effectively to me.

Style and excellence are independent of each other. If you find your individual way of being excellent, your style will find you.

As a movement, we don't need articles about "Is it okay to use puppets?" Instead, we need articles that give the pros and cons of using puppets - the trade-offs involved - so that any of us can use puppets whenever it makes the most sense to do so.

For me, who value very highly the challenging of the audience's imagination, it may never make sense to use puppets. But the moment that new circumstances make it the best choice available to me, I won't hesitate to use puppets or anything else.

My storytelling style should derive from what comes naturally for me, from what I want to convey, and from what works for my audience. It should not be limited by social pressure from other storytellers. The only appropriate social pressure on a storyteller is gentle reminders to be true to one's unique gifts, desires, and audience.

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More Traditional Than Thou

Another division that has troubled the storytelling movement is the distinction between traditional tellers and revivalist tellers.

Whenever the trappings of folklore have brought commercial or political success, imitators have created their own "fakelore," often passing it off as "genuine American (or Russian, etc.) folklore."

For the serious folklorist who studies the nature of oral tradition, it's crucial to know whether a teller's stories stem from an oral tradition. They can't learn about the nature of oral transmission by studying "folklore" written by advertising copywriters.

Academic folklorists have not only pointed out the unique qualities of traditional artists, they have succeeded in getting various governments to grant money to them, even when similar funding is not available for non-traditional artists. As a result, the government is seen to value traditional artists more than non-traditional artists.

Non-traditional artists who apply for funding are told they don't qualify. They protest, "But we tell traditional tales!" In response, they are told, "Yes, but you didn't learn those stories from oral tradition. You are reviving a tradition not your own, rather than passing on a living one."

Understandably, the non-traditional tellers feel that they have been treated unjustly. They protest their classification, or resent the implication that their art is not as valuable as that of traditional tellers. They may even end up sharing the government's view that some forms of storytelling are worth funding and some are not - by insisting that it is they who should be funded, not the traditional tellers.

If we value fully each other's uniqueness, however, we won't direct our rage at the traditional tellers or at the folklorists. We will not act on the fallacious belief that if traditional storytellers get money and recognition, the rest of us are consequently diminished.

Instead, we will:

  • reaffirm that effective art of any kind is of enormous value to our society, whether the government shares our awareness or not
  • welcome folklorists as our allies, while gently insisting that our support extend to all storytellers
  • be pleased that folklorists and congresspeople have succeeded in securing partial funding for some forms of storytelling
  • unite to secure funding for other forms of storytelling as well.

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"Thank You For Not Evaluating"?

Our society tends to value differences between two people or groups in only one way: one must be better than the other. This tendency, as we have seen, puts us in competition, isolates us, and makes our growth more difficult.

As a result, most, if not all, of our previous experiences with evaluation and certification have been as victims of destructive approaches that measure us against someone else's idea of how we should be. Many of us, in fact, have been attracted to the storytelling movement precisely because it seems to offer an alternative to a life led in fear of stultifying evaluation.

If someone suggests evaluation or certification of storytellers, then, many of us assume that the enemy is about to attack our refuge. Rightly, we insist that storytelling not be infected by the comparison virus.

We have more choices, however, than eliminating evaluation on the one hand or being a victim of it on the other. We can, in fact, become thoughtful users of evaluation, setting our own criteria and accepting only those forms of evaluation that meet our needs. We need not turn off the radio just to get rid of the static between stations.

The goal of storytelling is to find a unique way to communicate at a given moment, from one unique person to another. The stories we use to do so will necessarily touch on points of similarities between us and our listeners. According to this goal, storytelling cannot be turned into a pennant race. Each moment is unique, and can't be compared to any other.

Nonetheless, the teller's effectiveness at communicating can, in fact, be evaluated. Sometimes it work s, sometimes it doesn't. A problem may be related to one or more of these factors:

  • something in the external situation
  • a mismatch of goals between teller and audience,
  • choice of story
  • problems with particular skills of the teller
  • a failure by the teller to adapt to the demands of the moment.
In any event, understanding the factors leading to effective or ineffective telling can help the teller rise to the next challenge.

In uniqueness-based evaluation - which may need to be qualitative rather than quantitative - the goals of the telling must be learned from the teller, and compared to those of the audience. The focus must be on finding routes to success for the future.

It's important to our future as a movement, I believe, that we storytellers not abandon each other to sailing without the rudder of evaluation. Just as importantly, we must not subscribe to the superficially fair (but ultimately destructive) absurdities such as standardized tests and competitive rankings.

We tellers deserve uniqueness-based evaluation, our audiences deserve it, and our movement will thrive more quickly if we learn to become excellent evaluators.

In the same way, the possible development of standards or certification - which could be very harmful if done poorly - need not be thwarted, only monitored. If we first agree to the premise that each person has the potential to tell stories that matter to her/him, to an audience for whom the stories matter, in a uniquely appropriate way - then we will be free to focus, not on defending ourselves from being lumped with others or judged by "the powers that be," but on solving the real problems of each storytelling moment.

In other words, if we agree to celebrate differences, evaluation and certification become tools, not threats.

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Letting Every Voice Be Heard

From now on, let's commit our selves and our movement to:

  • noticing our differences
  • valuing our differences
whether our differences are:
  • physical
  • experiential (what experiences we've had)
  • social, or
  • stylistic.
If we make this commitment, we will avoid:
  • attacking and disparaging each other
  • certain divisive debates and miscommunications
  • fallacies that can sap the strength of our work.
If we make this commitment, we will:
  • build on the strengths of our inherently diversity-friendly art
  • give each of us the safety we need in order to develop as storytellers and as people
  • put our united energies into the truly daunting task that each one of us faces: to become the storyteller that only I can become.
I have a friend who says that when someone dies, the great loss is not that person's unlived years (which never existed and so can't be lost), but the loss to the world of that person's unique point of view.

If we don't make this commitment to celebrating our differences, the great loss will not be that we don't have more Jay O'Callahans or Jackie Torrences. It will be that unique stories - and unique ways of telling our shared stories - will remain untold.


Copyright © Doug Lipman

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman