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New Themes From Old Tales

By Doug Lipman

Recently, I've been helping people find and create stories that convey specific values. (See eTips from the Storytelling Coach #1 and my article Finding Stories That Convey Your Values.) Along the way, I've helped people create or shape stories from their own lives and from their own imagination. These kinds of stories seemed like obvious sources for "value tales."

But what about folktales? Is it possible to adapt a folktale so that it conveys your value - or must the value already be prominent in the story? In other words, do you only find traditional tales about values, or can you use them as spurs to create value tales? I have three answers to this question: two answers are familiar, but one is new to me.

Interpreting Simple Folktales

As part of my workshops in beginning storytelling, I have often given people the task of telling a simple traditional tale (such as "The Stonecutter") to a partner. This gives them a chance to imagine the story, outline it, and quickly get a chance to tell. Listening to appreciations from their partners rounds out the experience.

Beyond that, however, I have usually asked them a question: "What is it that you love about the story you just told?" When they share their answers with the group, it is always clear that each teller has a unique answer. In other words, a single story can be "about" as many things as there are tellers to interpret it.

In some workshops, I even have people go on to re-tell the story, adapting it as freely as they wish. Some change the location or the identity of the characters; some even change the main motivation for the story's plot. Again and again, people's creativity flows easily and bountifully. This exercise demonstrates the easy path from a given story - familiar or not - to a personal value. But the path seemed unpredictable. It never seemed like an efficient way to arrive at stories about a given value.

Folktales as Models for Original Stories

In my own work, I have learned to adapt a favorite folktale to create a value-tale. For example, I once wanted to create a Jewish story about welcoming the stranger, the one outside of our culture. As I thought about the subject, I realized that I wanted a story in which the outsider has an important gift to offer - precisely because she is different. I imagined a structure in which the outsider would offer her gift three times and be summarily rebuffed each time. Only at the end would the value of the stranger's gift become apparent.

Casting about for a traditional tale to adapt, I remembered the joke about the flood. In it, a pious person, trapped in his home by rising flood waters, is offered a ride in a row boat. He refuses, saying, "The Lord will save me." SImilarly, he later refuses a motor boat and a helicopter. When, at last, he drowns and goes to heaven, he is furious with God. "I trusted you! Why didn't you rescue me?" God, of course, replies, "I tried to rescue you. I sent you two boats and a helicopter!"

This story was a perfect one to adapt for my goal. I ended up with "Leviathan and the Fish," in which some fish get caught in seaweed. They call on Leviathan, Ruler of the Sea, to save them. When a small yellow fish approaches them, they ridicule it for being different from them, then chase it away. At last they escape, much the worse for wear, and confront Leviathan. He says, "That small yellow fish was the only one whose fins were sharp enough and small enough to cut you free from the seaweed!"

A New Hypothesis

When I offered my first Value Telling workshop in the fall of 2000, I discovered something else about adapting traditional tales.

As part of the workshop, I had people talk about the values they wanted to convey. This process of articulating and sifting values went on for much of the first half of the weekend. At the same time, however, I was teaching the group (some of whom were new to storytelling) the basics of imagining, interpreting, and communicating stories. Naturally, I used my familiar exercise of having people tell a simple folk tale to a partner. Each chose one of six tales I had written out for them.

As it happened, people had already been through several exercises to clarify the values they wanted to convey, by the time they began telling these stories. I thought we were momentarily taking a break from the world of values to learn about storytelling, and that we'd combine the two worlds later.

To my pleasant surprise, each person adapted the story in front of them in a way that made it applicable to the value they were working with. (One person found herself telling about a different value than the one she had chosen; she liked new value better and changed her focus for the weekend.) I had not asked them to do relate the stories to their values. In fact, most of them were unaware that they had done so until it was pointed out to them.

Here's how I interpret this experience. I believe that, since the value they were working with was in the forefront of their minds, once they turned their attention to the imagery of the stories they were retelling, they automatically found interpretations of the stories that fit the value. It seems that, if a value is "up" sufficiently for you, it would be hard *not* to infuse a story with it!

The Experiment Will Continue

Soon, I'll have a couple chances to test this hypothesis. In March of 2001, I'll be co-leading a workshop with Pam McGrath on "{glossSub(Finding the Sacred in Stories,Finding the Sacred in Stories)}." Since deciding what is "sacred" is basically a value decision, Pam and I may give people the task of interpreting a story. If so, we'll see whether it does, in fact, end up supporting an aspect of the sacred that they have been working with.

Later this spring, in May of 2001, I'll be leading a weekend called "Hope: a Storytelling Workshop." In this case, everyone at the workshop will be dealing with their personal reactions to the single theme of hope. Somewhere during the workshop, I'll ask people to tell simple folk tales, then decide what they love about them. If my hypothesis is right, the majority of the stories should end up embodying some aspect of hope.

If anyone has experience with this phenomenon - or with the proces of adapting traditional stories in general, I'd love to hear from you. Please email, call or write!

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