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Waiting… for a good story

October 2, 2012

Waiting… is something that we Americans find harder and harder to do. Everything has to be available instantly. Even though we have all been told repeatedly that ‘good things come to those who wait’… the car must speed up, the food must be cooked or served, the task must be finished, the decision must be made – right NOW. I am as guilty as anyone. But I will never forget, when I returned from weeks of work in Africa a few years ago, being stunned as a patron in line in a fast food restaurant started tapping his foot and sighing after only fifteen seconds in the line! Three weeks before, I had waited hours in the blistering heat for a tire to be fixed; I had gotten used to a different reality – that sometimes some things take time.


In this world of instant everything, it is very hard to teach a student to observe something in nature. Today’s students find it inconceivable that Native American children traditionally spent so much time observing and noting animal behavior as they learned to hunt. The hours and days and weeks of patient, detailed work that traditional craftspeople  must devote to their art eludes them. The meticulous care and attention to process that scientific inquiry requires drives them to distraction.


BUT – once students (and adults as well) become engrossed in the telling of a tale… all that impatience disappears. It is almost as if a time warp has occurred; we have all of us (teller and audience) been transported back to a different time …. Suddenly there is the time to savor individual moments of the story, reflect on them, and call up personal memories that the tale has invoked. Suddenly… there is all the time… in the world. I have watched audiences as master tellers weave their magic; faces and shoulders relax, earbuds lie un-used on laps; it is almost as if the entire audience has just released a giant sigh.


There are scientific explanations for this. Kendall Haven, in his book, “Story Proof” discusses some of them. For his book, he reviewed over 350 research studies from fifteen separate scientific fields and every one of them agreed that stories are effective and efficient tools for teaching, motivating, and communicating. As he said, “In our enlightened, literate, scientific, rational, advanced world, it is still story structure that lies at the core of human mental functioning.” The book provides empirical, scientific evidence for what storytellers have known anecdotally for thousands of years. But I like the description of nationally known teller, Elizabeth Ellis, the best. The first job of storytellers, she says, is to gain the trust of the audience. Then, the teller must take the audience on a journey; a journey they will take willingly because of that trust. And finally, the teller must bring them safely home….


I remember a boy, about twelve or thirteen, at a workshop I presented. His red hair kept falling over his eyes and his face was freckled and sunburned. I had just finished an exercise on imagery. At the end of the exercise, I told the kids the exercise was finished and asked them to open their eyes. The boy hesitated – just for a second or two – then opened his eyes and looked around. Looking directly at me, he said softly, “I’m back.”



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