To keep from stunting your storytelling, you need to understand its natural growth process.
Growing a New Skill
Do you remember the first formal story you ever told? For me, it was a folktale I told to my class of emotionally disturbed students in 1970. It was the first time they had stopped resisting me for ten straight minutes, so I was pleased. But I didn’t think of it as something important.
A first telling like this is like a sprout, a new ability just poking its fragile head above ground. If I had never told again, that sprout would never have grown.
But I told another story to that same group. The sprout stengthened. Everytime I used the same skill, it strengthened more. It was growing into a twig.
Later, I sent out another bud from that twig: I tried the new skill of adding participation to a story. When I used that new skill more times, my new bud grew into a twig, too. It had branched off from (and was supported by) my now-established ability to simply tell a story.
Can you see the tree for the twigs?
So it went: over a period of years I developed many new twigs, such as telling to different age groups, researching folktales, finding stories that fit particular themes, and even making up stories of my own. And more.
Then a curious thing happened. Those individual twigs grew to the point where they took on a recognizable shape: they had become a tree. Looking at that tree of skills growing out of each other, I could see that I now had a well-developed, higher order skill: I was an accomplished performing storyteller.
That tree of performance skills nurtured and sheltered me for years.
The Next Generation of Skills?
But what happens when a tree matures? It creates seeds or sends out runners that can become new trees.
One day, I was called upon to lead a workshop in storytelling. Obviously, this wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t already learned how to tell. This new growth was a direct descendant of the earlier tree, even though it was a new plant living in a different environment.
In several years, as I got better at the basics of teaching and also developed addtional topics and formats, this second tree matured, too. I was now an accomplished storytelling teacher. In fact, in a few more years, all the skills on both trees contributed to forming yet another offspring: coaching storytellers. Today, my current skills continue this process of budding, branching, and sprouting to form new skills.
A Pattern of Growth
Do you see the pattern? It takes two processes to develop any advanced skill set such as storytelling:
1. Try something new. (Send out a new sprout or seed a new tree)
2. Repeat something you’ve already tried. (Add wood and rings to an existing sprout, bud, twig, branch, or tree).
These two processes are each repeated, but not in any strict order. Instead, you try out something new and then do it again several times with minor or major variations. Eventually, the variations add up to a new skill set. Then you use this new skill set repeatedly as it forms its own new buds, twigs, and branches.
At this point, you are prepared to make the big leap: forming a major branch or even a new tree. And in time those trees together form something new: a forest. In my case, I’ve grown a verdant career as a storyteller, coach, teacher and creator of products.
When the growth doesn’t happen…
Why is this important? Well, we tend to neglect at least one of these two processes and then wonder why our storytelling isn’t developing apace.
In one case, you might forget to try something new. For example, you might say, “I only like to tell to children” or “I only like to tell folktales.” Each of these is a fine thing to limit yourself to, of course. But, from time to time, you need to change SOMETHING. If you don’t want to change audiences, maybe you will tell a different kind of story to those children. If you don’t want to tell other kinds of stories, maybe you’ll add music to one of those folktales.
In another case, you might forget to repeat enough of what you’ve done before. For example, you may love newness so much that you forget to repeat your previous skills. Maybe you try telling to adults once, enjoy it, but then never do it again.
Or, for another example, suppose that every time you tell, you innovate in multiple ways – so that you never know what went wrong or could be better. Or so that you never “get the hang” of what made you a success that one time or two.
Why does a teller neglect one part or the other of this natural process? Well, maybe you feel the hunger to innovate or to repeat, but lack the opportunity – and don’t understand the process enough to go out of your way to make it happen. Or you may be afraid of failure or of success or of what you perceive to be stagnation. Or you may have a different idea of what development looks like, and you cut off your new twigs to make your tree look the way you expect.
Can you help a forest grow?
So I offer you this “tree model of artistic development.” Ask yourself, “Am I giving myself enough chances to try something a little different?” And, equally importantly, “Am I getting enough chances to strengthen my existing skills?”
The answers won’t, by themselves, revitalize your development. But they very likely will bring you a new idea of what might need to change. And that is a seed worth planting.