Not long ago, I decided – as one sometimes does – to take a look at myself on the internet. That’s when I found it – “The Volsung Story: Sygny, Brynhildr and Guðrún speak to the modern audience” -- my own Master’s Thesis for sale on e-bay at the cost of 183.25 (Australian). Amazon has it priced at about $60 but lists it as “not available.” My first response to this discovery was simple and inelegant: “W! T! F!”
How could this be? I dug out my old Prescott College paperwork and found that Pro-Quest, the company that published my thesis had the right to sell my work. It seemed I would receive a small amount of royalty once the sales reached a certain level. This, it was pretty clear, had not happened. I’ve not seen a single check from Pro-Quest. I can only assume neither the Australian nor the American reading public has discovered “The Volsung Story: Sygny, Brynhildr and Guðrún speak to the modern audience.”
In spite of the disinterest in my thesis, the original material in the The Völsunga Saga, an epic found in several fourteenth century Icelandic manuscripts, casts a long and mythic shadow across general western culture. There is treasure in the saga, a cursed ring, and a dragon. Women are married against their wills, there is greed and betrayal and vengeance, hidden heirs and an iconic sword. Plus, mothers who kill their children.
I addressed the questions of how and why to tell stories like this in my thesis. Now I plan to revisit the question in a way that is more accessible to other storytellers. As I work, I will periodically use this blog as a report on the more interesting nooks and crannies of my exploration.
I’ll begin with the picture that hangs in a South Mountain Community College classroom where storytelling is often taught. Created by artist Joe Ray and some of his associates during the La Lloronathon at the college four years ago, it depicts La Llorona, the wailing woman through different sets of eyes. At least here in the Southwest, La Llorona is one of the better known of the “murdering mothers” stories. In this story Maria, betrayed by the father of her children, drowns her little ones in a river and becomes the ghost who wails along rivers and ditches, searching for her lost little ones. Maria’s story is not alone. The Greek Medea kills not only her children but the princess for whom her husband has left her. And the Volsung Guðrún, seeking vengeance for the deaths of her brothers, kills her sons and feeds them to their father.
How do we tell these stories? And why? That is the question I will try to answer.
I never expected to become a teacher, never lined up my dolls (not that I had many dolls), stuffed animals (well, except for an owl or two, and I was not trying to teach them anything) or younger siblings (my brother was not very cooperative) in order to “play school.” And I certainly refused to “play school” with my friends. School was no fun at all. As soon as I figured out how to read, I decided I’d learned everything I really needed to know. By the end of second grade, I had gone on a homework strike that lasted a good seven or eight years. College straight out of high school was out of the question.
Even after I got a little older, even after it became clear that it would be easier to earn a living with a degree, college never quite worked for me. Life, in the form of marriages, children, and that earning a living thing, kept getting in the way.
It took falling in love with storytelling to land me in a most unexpected place – as an instructor at a community college. When I first enrolled at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, I planned to acquire an Academic Certificate in Storytelling. I figured that would teach me what I needed to know and I’d be on my way. Once again, life happened. I became aware that I could teach at the Storytelling Institute, if I had a master’s degree.
Umm, I didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree.
That, it seemed, could be fixed. The next few years turned into a flurry of classes and graduations. Academic Certificate, AA, Bachelor’s and finally a Masters in Humanity from Prescott College.
But when I first stepped into a classroom as an instructor, I had the feeling that my journey through higher education had taught me nothing at all about how to teach. There we were, twenty community college students and I, and what was I going to say to them?
It occurred to me that each and every one of them had a story that was, in one way or another, a lot like mine. Some of them had not done well in school. Some of them had been distracted by life and were trying to catch up. Some of them were valiantly trying to do their best in the face of circumstances far more challenging than my homework strike had ever been.
They all seemed to think I was in my natural habitat. I wasn’t, so I told them a story. My story. It’s something I have been doing ever since. As well as my story, I tell folktales, myths, legends, almost every class session, no matter what the official subject.
Heck, I’d even tell stories if I were teaching math!
Because this is what I’ve learned, both through my own experience and what I have learned from others: listening to oral stories together creates a community. And I, as a teller, am part of the community I create in my classrooms.
As an instructor, I have the content, and content is important. As a storyteller, I know that community is just as important.
Have you built communities with stories? I’d love to hear from you.
When I was a child, my father sometimes loaded my little brother and me into our 57 Chevy Carryall and took us up into the Jemez Mountains, west of where we lived in Northern New Mexico. The road to our favorite picnic spot skirted the southern edge of the Valle Grande, part of the Valles Caldera, the collapsed remnants of a volcano Wikipedia informs me is a small supervolcano. I used to press my nose against the window of the Carryall, squint at the brown specks that I knew were distant cows, and imagine that the family which owned the vast meadow rimmed with distant mountains had a son, a boy about my age. I wanted to marry this imaginary boy, just so I could spend my life in the center of that great beauty.
The Jemez Mountains will always be – in the words of my daughter who feels the same way – the place where my soul lives. Returning to this place, as I do briefly at the end of every summer is both an interesting and a bittersweet experience. Thanks to forest fires, pine beetles, and the passage of time everything, even the skyline has changed. The overgrown ponderosas of my childhood and youth have become stark burned skeletons standing guard over thickets of new growth. The people who were so important during that same time are mostly gone. As a storyteller, I am achingly aware of the stories that have been lost to time.
This has been a wet year, and lush new growth covers the mountains. The Valles Caldera is becoming part of the National Park system. Now, almost sixty years later, my brother and I loaded our father into a SUV even larger than the old Carryall and drove him – thanks to a backcountry driving permit – into the Valle itself where we discovered a new story, that of more interlocking bowls and mountains, more dark forests and tiny streams almost hidden in the tall grasses, than any of us had ever imagined possible.
New growth covers the mountains and new people with new stories fill the town where I grew up. Since I am still part of the community, even though I am rarely present, I see it as my job to help the new stories emerge, even as I remember the old ones.
Thus I will be working to find a time, a place, a way to offer the people who are now living their stories where I once lived mine, to share those stories – with me and with each other.
Sheep in strange places and other adventures: the reflections of a girl reporter
First a clarification – this “girl reporter” thing is more than half a joke. There was a time, long ago, when I was a reporter, though one a bit older than a “girl.” I covered County Council, School Board, and Department of Public Utilities Board meetings for a weekly paper. When Sean Buvala asked me to share my observations at the recent National Storytelling Network Conference on the Storyteller.net Amphitheater I happily returned to my roots, bought a reporting notebook, and got myself to Kansas City.
Covering the NSN Conference was vastly more educational, inspiring, and entertaining than covering any kind of board meeting. Now that I am back in the “normal” world, I’m posting a few written reflections about my experience, to supplement, not replace what you hear on the Amphitheater.
Storytellers, as Donna Washington pointed out during her keynote address, often work by themselves. When they get together, they get a little crazy. The audience participation in her “scarry story” (tell a brief story about one of your scars to as many people as possible in a very short time) echoed through the ballroom like a cocktail party on steroids.
There are storytellers who express their joy in life by ululating. Kind of like this but a whole lot louder! (I wish I could do that.) They are given to spontaneous singing and dancing. And they tell each other stories! Walking into the hallway outside the ballroom in the Marriott Hotel was like walking into a wall of sound – excited voices exchanging memories, ideas, plans, dreams.
And those dreams – each workshop I attended pointed a way to a dream. Kevin Cordi shared ways to craft story by being brave enough to tell an oral rough draft to what he called a “deep listener,” one who helps the teller unfold the images. I, who don’t like to even talk about a story that is under construction until I have gone as far with it as I can inside my head, was challenged by this process to work in an entirely different way. It’s called playing out loud!
The workshop Children at the Well woke me up in a different way. Paula Weiss and Ben Russell not only talked about their ten years of interfaith intercultural youth telling, they invited their listeners to explore the same path. I brought a tiny idea of something I hope to pursue into this workshop and walked out with ideas and access to tools I can use to make it real.
There was, of course, so much more during the weekend. The comments during the Oracle Awards made it clear that the weekend was a family reunion, with gifts and thank-yous, old jokes and stories that only need to be half-told because everybody already knows the story.
As for those sheep? I found them in front of an historic high-rise condo building called the Ponce de Leon, just down the street from the Marriott. Why sheep, why there? We all get to create our own story about that one!
This is one of my favorite activities. I can't say I developed it -- it's a bit of a mash-up -- created from a couple of things I've seen and read about over the years.
Most of the credit goes to the way my storytelling students and Youth of the Year participants keep changing the "rules."
Here's how it works (at least right now):
Particpants stand in a loose circle, facing inward.
Leader (that would be me) explains that we are going to be throwing imaginary objects at each other, and then says "I'll show you how this works."
Extend hand that is hold and announce "this is a ____"
I usually say spider and use my whole body as well as my voice to indicate how totally creeped out I would be if I really had a spider on the palm of my hand.
I look directly at one of the other participants and say "Name), I am tossing you my spider." Then I throw the imaginary spider at the recipient, who must catch it -- or not depending how she/he feels about archnids.
Once the first toss is completed, I explain that the person with the spider can then throw that same spider to somebody else or else -- with appropriate gestures -- turn the spider into something else.
As we play this game, I encourage everybody to react physcally to the weight, the shape, the safety-danger-creepy-cuddliness of the flying object.
Spiders can become light sabers which can become turtles which can become ... well what would you toss at your friend?
Warning -- arachnid lurking below --not one I'd want to be throwing. He was on my back porch a coule of months ago.
It took me all of two-point-five seconds to tell Donna Martin that I would love to help out with the Youth of the Year participants. About two-point-five hours later, I said to myself, “Wait! Teenagers???”
Hero’s journey, refusal of the call to adventure, I had it.
I knew about teenagers. I’d raised three of them myself. Wonderful girls. But teenagers who weren’t mine? Community college freshmen were enough of a challenge?
I remained doubtful right up to the moment when I met my first group of Youth of the Year participants.
The teens who have been chosen for the Youth of the Year journey have all demonstrated leadership qualities. They are involved in their Club communities and are role models to younger members. In short, they are delightful, even when they are being high-energy, boisterous, teens!
These kids worked so hard that my road of trials consisted of trying to stay ahead of them. They answered the story prompts, learned to craft their stories, drew storyboards and had fun. All too soon, it was time for my first Youth of the Year story circle.
As I sat with the participants, I fought the temptation to speak, to make encouraging noises, to do anything to break the silence that had settled over the group. I knew some of the stories could be difficult to tell. I also knew that it was out of my hands. It was time to shut up and wait.
Longest two-point-five minutes of my life.
Then, one by one, on their own schedule, each one of these kids stood up and told a story. We heard stories of pain and beauty and pain and hope. The stories that needed to be told.
When it was all over, the kids all wrapped themselves into a spontaneous group hug. They were already stars and they knew it.
I’ve been back for every Youth of the Year Journey since then. Now I want to help other people do the same kind of thing with the teenagers in their lives.
It is 6:00 pm. The Youth of the Year participants have survived a school day. Maybe they’ve spent some time at sports practice, maybe they’ve been doing homework. These kids are motivated, but I’d better get them out of their seats and moving around before I lose them. Here’s what I do at the beginning of our second meeting. (We won’t have time to go through the entire process during my workshop during the National Storytelling Network Conference at the end of July, so I’m sharing it now.)
I start by telling a simple story. Then I draw a (very large) blank storyboard on the white board. (If there’s no whiteboard a flip chart works as well). We talk about what the first scene should be and I draw it while everybody watches.
This is important! I am modelling the level of artistic skill I expect from the youth – absolutely none! I am really really bad at drawing.
Then I ask what should go in the next square. I hand the marker to the first person who answers the question.
This is when the fun begins. People talk while they draw. Their friends make comments. What does a frog look like, anyway?
Soon everybody is laughing and we’re on to the next square. Once our storyboard is done, volunteers stand up re-tell the story, using the pictures if they get stuck. Usually nobody gets stuck. And everybody is turning into a storyteller.
There it is – physical movement, laughter, the opportunity to show off and to have fun together.
Hans my Hedgehog!
It's the perfect story for use with the Youth of the Year.
First I had to think through a few of the prickly places.
Hans is half-hedgehog, half-boy because his father made the mistake of saying “I want a kid and I don’t care if it’s a hedgehog as long as it’s mine.” (I’m not the first storyteller to notice that statements like this are downright asking for trouble.)
Hans’ mother (in the original German she is described as “erschrak” which means “troubled” and who can blame her?) gives him the name Hans-my-Hedgehog. (The woman may be troubled, but she also knows how to make a point. She’s got it set up so that every time her husband says his son’s name, he announces his own responsibility for the kid’s condition.)
Hans can’t sleep in a bed so he ends up spending eight years in a box of straw behind the stove.
(In the original, Hans’ father grows tired of him and often wishes for his death. I dial that back a bit since I tell the story during my first session with the youth and fathers can be problematical.)
Hans neither dies nor grows. He does talk his father into bringing him a set of bagpipes and having the family’s rooster shod like a horse. Once properly equipped, Hans announces he is leaving forever and, riding the rooster, drives the family’s herd of pigs into the forest.
(The original says pigs and donkeys, but I leave the donkeys out. They clutter up the story.)
There, the rooster perches on a branch above a clearing. Hans, still astride the rooster plays the bagpipes and watches the pigs increase in number.
(I found it impossible to sound like a bagpipe making music “that was very beautiful” as the original says. I settle for saying Hans was trying to learn the play the bagpipes. That way I can just make honking noises. It’s more goose than bagpipe, but this story needs all the comic relief it can get.)
The music attracts a lost king who wants help getting out of the forest. Hans demands a written promise – the king will give him the first living creature who greets him as he returns to the royal court. The king, figuring Hans cannot read, scribbles a string of nonsense and Hans leads him out of the forest.
Naturally the king is greeted by his daughter the beautiful princess. She isn’t the least bit happy to learn about Hans and the king reassures her that his promise means nothing.
Back in the forest, a second king gets lost, finds Hans, and makes the same request. Hans asks for the same written promise. This king writes the promise clearly. When he is also greeted by his beautiful daughter he has to tell her about Hans.
(In each case, the king sends a servant to talk to Hans. But, like the donkeys, the servants clutter up the story, so I leave them out too.)
This princess is all noble about agreeing to marry a half-hedgehog, half-human who is so small he can ride around on a rooster.
Back in the forest Hans and the rooster round up all the pigs. Hans sends word to his father that he is returning with pigs and his father is upset because he thought Hans had gone away and died.
(Apparently the donkeys were superfluous. They vanish from the story. Or maybe they ran away? Because of the bagpipes, perhaps?)
Hans has the pigs slaughtered so ther is meat for the whole village. He tells his father to get new shoes for the rooster and says he will not come back for as long as he lives. This makes the farmer happy.
When Hans and the rooster arrive at the first king’s castle, the guards follow the king’s orders and attempt to attack them. But the rooster flies over their heads and right into the throne room where Hans demands the king give him the princess. Fearing for his life, the king gives his daughter a carriage, servants and property before sending her off with Hans.
As soon as they are out of sight of the castle, Hans stops the carriage, strips the girl of her white dress, prickles her all over until she bleeds and tells her he doesn’t want her.
(It is already clear that this is not a story for the very young. I make an effort to assess the general maturity of the audience as I approach the fate of this princess. If it does not feel right, I don’t out and out say that he strips her, though I usually leave in the prickling part.)
Then Hans goes to the second kingdom, where the king has ordered that he be greeted with honor. When Hans arrives in the throne room, the king summons his daughter. She is not delighted, but she agrees to keep her father’s promise. She agrees to marry Hans. After the wedding, Hans tells the princess not to worry about his prickles. He asks the king to have four soldiers standing by.
(In his notes, D. L. Ashliman notes that the first edition of Grimm puts the princess in bed with Hans without any mention of a wedding.)
In the wedding chamber, Hans removes his hedgehog skin and gives it to the soldiers to burn. As the skin burns, Hans himself becomes entirely human, only burned (in Ashliman’s translation) “as black as coal, as though he had been charred.” After the king sends for doctors who provide lotions and balms Hans becomes “white and was a handsome young man.”
(THAT needed some re-working. I do say he was burned, glossy like charred wood and that he became handsome.
I also let the princess participate in healing by rubbing those lotions and potions into Hans’ skin. That way they fall in love for real.)
When Hans finally takes his new wife back to his home, his father does not, will not recognize him. So Hans and the princess return to her kingdom and, after the death of her father, rule long and well.
I see this story as a hero’s journey. I also knew it would have a lot to say the teens on their Youth of the Year Journey. I still had figure out to use the story to connect the youth with their journey.
Cute hedgehog picture by Tony Wills [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
One afternoon in 2010, while Liz Warren, Director of the Storytelling Institute, and I were trying to get too much done in her too-small office, Donna Martin, coordinator of volunteers at the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Phoenix walked in.
She wanted storytelling help with the BGCMP Youth of the Year Journey.
Donna and I already knew each other. We had both earned our Academic Certificate in Storytelling from the Storytelling Institute. We were also both graduates of Prescott College and thus shared the unique experience of a limited residency program at a school that embodies the motto of “For the Liberal Arts, Social Justice and the Environment.” A year earlier, she had been a student in my Story Circle Class at the Institute.
She started by outlining the Youth of the Year journey. As I understood it, the BGCMP assembled a group of youth, one from each of the twelve individual clubs in Phoenix and prepared them to – among other things – give a speech during the annual “Today’s Kids Tomorrow’s Stars” event where the BCCMP Youth of the Year would be announced. The Toastmasters had been doing an excellent job helping the youth polish their speeches but Donna wanted to find a way to make them more fluid, more based on image than on memorization.
Ideas began to bounce around inside my head. “These kids are on a journey, right? A hero’s journey – what can be done with that?” Yes, I was teaching Mythology that semester!
Donna also talked about the background of the kids who attend Boys and Girls Clubs. Many are members of minority groups, many live in single-parent (or guardian) households. Those households are often at or below the poverty line.
I began to think about Hans, the unloved half-hedgehog, half-human who left a life in a box of straw to win an honorable princess. Story prompts from Hans my Hedgehog mixed with a Hero’s Journey?
Donna and I began batting ideas around. Liz threw some more ideas at us and told us to go for it.
Next thing I knew I had agreed to work with the twelve Youth of the Year candidates. They were beginning a journey and so was I.
This blog post is addressed specifically to anybody who participated in my workshop Listen! Learn! Tell! at during the Maricopa Community Colleges Spring 2015 Adjunct Faculty Day of Learning Conference tomorrow.
As I prepared my presentation, I knew I was going to be talking about how storytelling can engage students and build a classroom community, no matter what the content of the class. Somehow I didn’t think saying “I dunno, it just works” was going to be sufficient. (Even though it does “just work.”)
Have fun exploring the following collection of links! (They are in no particular order)
Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy, PJ Manney
The author focuses on storytelling in the form of novels, but the effects of oral storytelling are similar
The Trust Molecule, Paul J Zack
Why your brain loves good storytelling, Paul J. Zack
There's a lot more Paul Zack out there -- the man's very enthusiastic to say the least. An attempt at nuanced look at his approach to storytelling is a subject for another time.
Your Brain on Storytelling, Susan Weinshank
This should get you started. I'm not saying that any of this is any kind of "proof" that you should start every class with a story -- usually a folk tale, but there is something behind it all.
Just ask my students. They're most upset when I skip the story!
During the workshop on Saturday, I promised to provide some links to places to find folktales.
Here we go
D. L. Ashliman -- a trifle Eurocentric, but folktales coming out your ears!
Sur La Lune -- lots of folktales, lots of information about folktales
Internet Sacred Text Archives -- Myths, Legends, some folktales. You'll have to poke around some, but there is good stuff here
And of course, you can always check with your library!
Harriet has told stories at the Phoenix Fringe and at the Gila Bend Shrimp Festivals. She’s taken part in the AZStorytellers Project and in StoryRise events. As an instructor at the South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute, she has performed in many events including the La Lloronathon and a number of Myth Informed concerts.