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Once Upon a Time...

...There was a storyteller, who wove tales into warm blankets for snuggling around listeners while he guided them through adventures in imagination.

by Brian Bethel

People have been telling stories for a long time. Doug Lipman's goal is to make sure they never stop.

Lipman is a professional storyteller, one of what some might consider a dying breed in a world encumbered with computers, television, and dozens of other information sources.

But technology's impersonal nature, Lipman believes, has prompted a resurgence of interest in storytelling, an art as ancient as man's desire to weave words into reflections of who he was and what he knew.

"The grandchildren of the people who discovered indoor plumbing probably were the ones who discovered camping," he said. "You can say the same sort of thing about storytelling. I think it's growing because of technology, rather than in spite of it."

A hunger for well-told tales

Lipman, in town from Boston to participate in the 7th Annual Texas Conference on Storytelling at Hardin-Simmons University, cited three fundamental reasons more listeners are becoming interested in storytelling.

The ability to use the imagination while a tale is being told is one of the biggest attractions, he said.

"When I tell a story, you can imagine in your mind everything that's happening," he said. "It's completely customized -- you do it in your own way. People have a hunger for that. Television provides you with pictures, but when you hear a story, you provide them yourself."

The interactive nature of stories is another plus in the mind of an audience, he said.

"As wonderful as electronic communication is, it doesn't pause when you do," he said. "When you're talking to someone, you're getting a set of very complicated, non-verbal cues to aid in communication. That interactive quality is something people are looking for."

Storytelling, even more than most forms of live entertainment, allows the audience to interact with the entertainer, Lipman said.

A sense of community permeates the art of storytelling, yet another draw for listeners.

"When you're listening to a story together, you have a sense that you've created something together," he said. "You've built something in a sense, and people are hungry for the sense of community that results."

Many uses

Storytelling is an ancient art but has many modern applications, Lipman said.

"One way to think of storytelling is as a genre of performance," he said. "But another way to think of storytelling is as a way to think about the world, a way of conceptualizing."

For example, not too many people remember the year of George Washington's birth or how old he was when he became president.

But everyone remembers the cherry tree incident, even though it's fictitious, Lipman said.

"The story is the basic unit of learning," he said. "There's so much about meaning and interpersonal communication" in storytelling. "The person-to-person narrative is how we shape our view of the world and how it works."

Storytelling has applications in practically every part of life, he said.

Discussion topics at the storyteller's conference reflect that truth, ranging from working with senior citizens to children to students with special needs.

Even businesses are starting to use storytelling skills to enhance communication, he said.

A powerful, personal art

Lipman saw the power of storytelling at work for the first time when he was teaching about 26 years ago.

"I was a teacher working in a special school for emotionally-disturbed children," he said. "One day, really just out of desperation, I told them a story. They'd fought me on everything they could -- every lesson, every subject."

The class fell silent, and Lipman found the threads that would eventually lead to a new calling.

"The story of my 25 years of free-lancing has been just following the energy that I first hit upon that one day," he said.

In his performances, Lipman often finds himself dealing with universal hopes and fears.

"It's been an emotional growth for me," he said. "...There's a lot of good that comes from it, both for the audience and the storyteller."

The sense of sharing a story is an important part of what keeps storytelling alive, he said.

While storytelling is a largely personal art, its relatively recent rebirth means a new breed of storytellers has the advantage of conferences and gatherings such as the one at HSU to help them along their way, Lipman said.

But even if you're not a professional storyteller, it's important to realize that the story is one of the simplest -- and most useful -- means of communication, he said.

"The stories we choose to tell about ourselves or others is the core of what we communicate to each other," he said. "...It's a very natural way of communicating and conceptualizing. A good story will stand the test of time -- it's a very durable art."

August 3, 1996
Copyright © 1996,
The Abilene Reporter-News.
Reprinted by permission

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
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