Archive for December, 2012

When anyone asks me whether I ‘write my stories myself’ I very hurriedly assure them that I don’t.  I think there are plenty of talented authors about; storytelling is a completely different craft.  I try to gather stories which already have a life of their own, the closer to the source the better.  In practice, I do get a lot from books – it would be churlish not to use the vast trove of beautiful collections of folktales available.  And in our richly literate, orally impoverished society that is where the material convenes.

Even better, when available, is to hear a story from another teller, a relative or a friend, or perhaps to gather a bit of anecdote or local history or case study.  It needs to be something with the potential to shape itself into a narrative (you know what I mean).  National Geographic is a great source; so are little old-fashioned town museums, pamphlets by local historians, plaques on quaysides.  Equally, newspapers and the internet give out modern fables more often than you’d think.  You filter through all this material in some mysterious way to find the stories which you are the right person to tell.

You end up with an eclectic repertoire of time-honoured, crystallised myth – which you tell with a weight of responsibility on your shoulders – mixed with smaller, less noticeable tales which you ‘adopt’ as your own.  There tends to be an interplay between them.  I often find a certain small tale likes to be accompanied by a certain famous one – they seem to confirm each other.

There is only one exception to my rule: I do make up stories for my own children.  This is probably the most popular form of oral storytelling left alive – lots of people I know do this.  It’s such an intimate and particular art that it’s hard to talk about. 

If you do this, you may be emulating someone in your own childhood.  My dad told stories to us, about a family of children uncannily similar to us.  There weren’t a lot of adults about in these stories, but there were various mythical beasts and plenty of bending of the rules of time and space.  I obey the same principles.  The children in my stories are my children’s ages, plus 3 years (to enable them to get up to derring-do); their parents both work terribly long hours so they have to fend for themselves, including catching or finding food; the only other adults are eccentric distant relatives whose households provide a more exotic backdrop when necessary. 

The thing I wanted to discuss about these stories is that they are such an ideal vehicle for speaking to your children in ways you can’t as a parent.  You will always find the stories you tell carry the deep messages or gifts you really want to give them.  For example, I can’t advocate risk-taking behaviour or far-ranging adventure, but characters in my stories can get up to such things and win out.  I also can’t make them feel empathy for others, or make sacrifices for others (in fact making sacrifices for others is a bit counter-cultural) but the children in the stories do this on a regular basis.  Everything you say in your stories is an implicit endorsement of these things you make your characters do.

It is also a wonderful practice if you have more than one or two children and it’s hard to make sure they all get a fair share of attention, or they need different parenting styles.  One son is afraid of his own shadow.  His analogous character often considers for a bit, then goes off down the dark tunnel (leaving a trail of stones behind him) and quickly finds the lost child (or whatever it is) to loud commendation all round.  Another is a slightly beleaguered middle child who feels he isn’t as good as his brother.  The talents of his analagous character (making animals trust him, noticing when other people are sad etc) are frequently the saving of everybody in the stories.

I am often reluctant at the end of a long day to embark on one of these stories, but I’m always glad when I do.  We don’t discuss it much afterwards but I tend to feel it’s hit the spot. Do give it a go and let me know how you get on!  I would love to include a guest posting on this blog by some other household storyteller!


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On Thursday and Friday next week (13th and 14th Dec), you have a chance to be part of a highly unusual and very special event – something a bit different from the usual run-up to Christmas.  Adrian Spendlow and I are performing at Shandy Hall, the 580-year-old house where Laurence Sterne, 18th century comic author, wrote his masterpiece Tristram Shandy

The house, in the village of Coxwold, is a richly atmospheric place and you will get to have a good poke around it – as we will be performing in three different rooms.  You will be settled into armchairs round the fire, you will have to stoop to avoid beams, and you will be surrounded by candlelight and traditional Christmas decorations.

The stories will be of Christmases and winters past, of ghosts born in winter, of the cold seasons on the North York Moors, and of why we have winter at all.  Adrian and I are also planning a two-hander from the Great Book (I mean Tristram Shandy!) itself.

And because the whole event is funded by the National Park, you will not have to pay for you or your family at all!  Do bring children – it runs from 6pm and will be over by bedtime.  But admission is by booking only – see the national park website or contact Nick Lishman or Jennifer Smith on 01439 772700.

Hope to see you there! And happy Christmas/solstice/winter celebration!

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