Crafting Personal Vision in Telling Folktales

My interest in folktales began with an enthusiasm for the folksongs I sang in my early teens. As a budding guitarist of fourteen, I learned to sing along with folksong records and taught myself the words to old tunes from folksong books. I never learned to read music formally, but there was enough music in the air due to the folksong revival of the sixties, that I was able to learn the songs by ear. I especially enjoyed ballads because they had a plot. My favorite moment in singing any song was the very last moment of the song, the “edge” between the song’s last vibration on the guitar and silence. It was a magical stepping off place back into my everyday life. The sense of completion at the last breath of song was totally satisfying and I recall singing my way through the many verses of a ballad just to arrive at the end moment. Singing could transform my mood. Once I’d traveled through the song, I arrived at a new place in time. I’d spent the time well. Those moments would never return. I was that many minutes older, but somehow, compared to my daily chores in the house where I grew up, the minutes spent were renewing. The songs were my company, my friends, and my solace. They were things I was too young to understand. The child in me still celebrates that last moment and the journey. Now the songs have widened into tales.

In my early twenties, when I began to create my own folksongs based on the ballad form, I found the public library to be an endless source of inspiration in the 398.2 folktale section. As a child, I had always enjoyed reading mythology and folktales. As a budding composer I discovered I could wander the world reading plots from cultures around the globe and create songs out of them. When a plot touched me deeply, I would set it on my creative back burners and just think about it for a long time. Some stories sat silent for months, others years. Eventually I would face the tale and try to understand my attraction to it. As in a dream, I thought, I’m probably everybody in the story. Maybe there was a sense of familiarity about the tale, as though it was really about something that happened to me. Or, maybe there was something I needed to learn from the tale. Maybe it healed me. Maybe it made me face myself, by telling it again and again. There is a freeing anonymity and at the same time, a revealing vulnerability in telling a folktale.

Crafting a folktale into a personal artistic statement requires a personal relationship to the tale. “Reporting” the plot is only the first step to comprehending it, or making some sense out of the sequence of events. “What happened in this tale?” is the first question I ask. Then I want to know what happened first. I don’t need to retell the story in the sequence of events that teaches me what happened. I could start anywhere. I could set the scene first. I could reveal the thoughts of a central character. I could begin at the end and tell you how it all came to pass. These are “choices.” That is what an artist does. An artist makes choices, clear decisions about how the parts and whole of a work will be shared. There is no “right” or “wrong” about art. I prefer to use the words “effective” or “ineffective.” In this case, the intention of the artist is paramount. One simple goal of telling a tale to an audience is to engage their attention so that they will follow the guide, or the teller, into the imaginary world of the story. Some stories are ones that I only tell myself. Others are for concert. Choosing which stories to tell is a major element in my personal artistic process. I cannot craft personal vision into a tale that does not personally touch me or contain some element I think is important to share with others. Sometimes a story will “choose” me. I might come upon it in my reading and find that it wafts back into my consciousness as I go about my daily activities. I’ll mull it over. I’ll fall in love with it and summarize it to friends. I’ll try to remember it. There are holes. I’ll go back to the book I found it in, to fill in the missing pieces. I put the pieces in order. Then I tuck it away inside of my memory. I’ll trace the story to other versions or more ancient sources. I’ll investigate the culture from which it comes. I’ll find myself on a reading adventure filling in my understanding about the time and place of the story in the larger world picture. Perhaps someday I’ll choose to shape it further and tell it publicly. I might set the language, add music, or poetry. Or, perhaps the plot will remain a skeleton whose flesh changes every time I bring it forth. Perhaps I’ll just think about the tale or share it with my children at one of those teachable moments when the tale says more about the situation than I can say.

It is something of a mystery to me how I go about shaping a tale. It is more akin to taking a walk in new woods, seeing a flower, following it to another path, getting lost, and then finding a way out. One thought that gives me the confidence to explore is that there is no danger. I improvise the tale. Improvisation is an act of faith that something will come next. When I get to the “edge” of something I know, like the last set words of a poem, a melody, or a moment in the plot, I leap over into the unknown and assume that my imagination will rise to the occasion and rescue me with a new thought. I don’t judge the new thought, I just watch it happen. I decide if I want to keep the new part or not. That choosing process is what keeps me in charge of the exploration. In the end I have to take responsibility for my choices. I sign my name. I tell the tale in public. I reveal my choices. It could be emotionally dangerous to reveal choices before I am confident about them. I am protective of the early stages of sharing a performance work. I need feedback and yet need to remain in charge of the choosing. I need to know what I like about the work I’ve created. I need to know what my intentions are. A listener’s sigh, grimace, or lack of attention can sometimes be an excellent clue that changes are needed. If I’m not clear about what it is I am making, negative feedback can just stop me midstream from completing the project. I trust my own “wince factor.” It’s the listener part of me that feels embarrassed by a choice and sends a mild shudder through my consciousness. “Yuck,” I say to myself as I play back a rehearsal tape or listen to myself mouth language, “That’s definitely out.” I am my own director so there are multiple levels working at the same time, both in performance and in the creative process. I’m kind to myself and let myself try new approaches. I trust my taste because I practice making choices about my “taste” all the time. Personal “style” is based upon personal choices. Art is about making decisions. It’s important to know what I like, even down to the basics such as, “What’s my favorite sweetness in tea, the most comfortable temperature of bath water, my favorite shade of blue, which word to use, which tale to tell?” Failure is a fine teacher. But, I’m also very practical. If a choice is not working, I quickly rescue myself by making new choices. Creating is one of the treasured activities in my life, and I do everything I can to protect my spark of enthusiasm for it. I share with my family and close friends first. By the time I bring a tale to public performance, it has a history of being told. Each telling gives the work more power, as though it accumulated energy with every incantation.

Mechanically, I find that talking the story into a tape recorder is a way to capture the tale in a fresh form. I then play it back and listen. Sometimes if a phrasing is worth preserving I remember it. I might jot some notes down. The next time I tell the tale, it is always informed by the memory of having heard it out loud. The final shaping of a story is very dependant upon who I imagine I will be telling it to. Over the years, I have discovered that certain compositional elements work well for different age audiences. If I were shaping a folktale to tell to young listeners, I would devise the composition of the story differently than if it were a story for adults. For young listeners I might look through the plot for an element that could become a sung refrain for audience participation. Perhaps there is a sound effect that could include the audience. If I am targeting the shaping for a younger audience, I want to be sure that the story is conceptually suitable for their age. Since I have worked as a storyteller-in-the-schools for many years, I have been given the opportunity to address age-consistent groups. When I walk into a first grade classroom, I am now familiar with the kind of energy that will greet me. It is different than what I find in a second or third grade class. I am aware of subtle changes in listening energy in the primary, upper primary and upper grade audiences. This awareness tailors my rendering of a story. With certain stories, it is possible to reshape the feel of the story in performance so that the same story can be appropriate for different age audiences.

Improvisation plays a huge part in performance as well as composition. I enter the story I am telling like a journey. Everyone who is willing comes along. We end together. I have to present, in the moment: awake, aware, and alert. I must be a responsible guide. It can be an exhilarating experience. It can be a disaster. I could be leading a jolly parade and I’m the only one marching. A storyteller must keep pace with the audience. Storytelling is a community event. It is always a growth experience. With each telling, I find out more about how the story I’ve chosen to tell affects people. Stories have an organic nature. They change in different settings, for different ages, with different introductions, at different times of the year. They are never the same. The silence between even set language can change. A slight change of facial expression can alter the meaning of the words. Storytelling is a living artform. With time, both stories and skills can grow and change. Telling a story is like planting a seed — there is hope involved.

By retelling stories in my own words, my personal political bias somehow always shows through. Perhaps this, too, is part of the “personal” aspect of telling a traditional tale. I tend to amplify the elements I think are important. I enjoy strong and resourceful heroines, I prefer non-violent solutions to conflict, and I am stimulated by spiritual insights. When elements such as these can be brought forth in my telling, I do so, quite naturally and sometimes without even consciously thinking about it. There is always a personal vision in my retelling of a traditional tale because, as in life, I see it through my own eyes.

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