Growing Your Story Repertoire


     I'd like to share the process I use when learning stories for telling. These are ideas, methods, and exercises I've developed during my years of experience as a professional teller. Perhaps you'll find them useful to you in terms of finding, choosing, learning, and telling stories.

     At first glance it would not appear - even to those who know me well - that I have any kind of method for learning the stories I tell!  Since I don't have the kind of extroverted personality that has me pouncing on people and trying out my new stories on them as I'm learning, it must look from the outside as though I absorb stories from the ether and then they just pour out of me in full performance mode.  As it happens, though, my story learning method is actually much less mystical than that.

     If there's anything I've come to appreciate as a storyteller and a historian, it's the value of learning over an extended passage of time.  It usually takes me a year or two to add a new story to my repertoire, from the time I first happen upon the story until I've researched it, shaped it, internalized it, and am ready to share it with an audience. This, however, is an ongoing process so I'm actually telling new stories all the time.

     When I was first starting to perform storytelling for public audiences, I found the process quite stressful for two reasons:  (1)  I was trying to learn a great many stories all at once so that I would feel like I had enough stories to actually call "my repertoire" and (2) I was still taking special requests.  People would ask me to perform stories for specific themed events like World Peace Day, Halloween, Groundhog Day, St. Paddy's, National Talk Like a Pirate get the picture!  Although I could learn a story in a day and tell it pretty well (and still can), that approach is fraught with the pressure of having to commit a lot of material to memory in a hurry.  I also often felt like some sort of story bandit who was taking something that was not necessarily mine (yet) in order to give it to others.  So I soon realized it was time for another approach.

     My life as a storyteller became simpler when I adopted a much more gradual and organic story-learning process, while at the same time developing the ability to remain detached and smile pleasantly at people who told me, "You should really learn the story of [insert any story title here] to tell." Nowadays, if I'm at a post-performance meet and greet, my warm & friendly response to that comment is, "Thank you for that suggestion!   But, you know...since that story seems to speak to you so strongly,  maybe it's you who needs to learn and tell it." And then I genuinely encourage them to do some storytelling.  This is usually very effective, because so many people really DO love storytelling and really want to tell stories.  (BTW - To avoid awkwardness in an actual performance situation - if someone asks me to tell a story I don't have all polished and ready for performance, I usually offer to tell an alternative story from my repertoire which might have a similar theme.)

     To me, the most important aspect of story learning is story selection. There are as many schools of thought about story selection/story creation/story learning as there are kinds of stories to tell, but the one thing most storytellers agree upon is this: CHOOSE A STORY THAT SPEAKS TO YOUR HEART. If you follow that one piece of advice, you will have no trouble at all choosing, remembering, or telling stories.

     You will usually find that in choosing a story you really are attracted to and moved by, then you have also chosen a story that will carry rich meaning for your listeners because you will tell it with authenticity and authority. Even if a story has apparently chosen you against your will (i.e. you really don't like the story but it fascinates you), it nevertheless becomes your task to discover the hidden meanings within that story. Either way, this falls under the heading of "to thine own self be true".  Stick with stories that have personal meaning for you. Then you will be able to tell them well.

     If you search Baha'i education websites, you'll find there are some wonderful collections of stories in some of the Core Curriculum and Ruhi materials that are wonderful to use for Baha'i gatherings of many kinds.  For myself as a professional storyteller, however, I also have one other major criterion for story selection. Since I want to keep listeners intrigued, I try to offer stories they're less likely to have heard elsewhere. I seek out less-often-told stories and there are many ways to do this:

  1. You might interview Elders who have good stories that they're willing to share.
  2. Search through Baha'i archives and libraries for those out-of-print Baha'i books that contain wonderful stories.
  3. Study folklore, histories, and anthropology collections in your local bookstore, library, or archive to find obscure-but-wonderful tales collected from traditional tellers, written down long ago, and forgotten.   

     No matter what sources you use, finding several variations of one story - if possible - gives lots of material to choose from when weaving your own special version to tell. Whenever possible or advisable, seek permission to tell the story and also make certain that you do your historical and cultural homework to be certain that you understand the context in which the story takes place.  And if you are working with material from something like folktale collections - or perhaps memories of events that were written in someone's journals - be aware that stories have often changed during the transcription process and may have taken on the cultural perspective or even biases of the person doing the collecting and transcribing work. It's not difficult to amend and update the sexist, racist, or otherwise biased language that is to be found draped like dust covers over the stories in older folktale collections or journals. Please do it now before you commit the story to your heart.

    Since I've been working this process for years, I now have a fairly large collection of these marvelous stories, which have been gleaned from many pleasant hours of listening or reading. That file is my treasure trove.  With any luck at all, you've been squirreling away a similar cache of wonderful stories!   But - if not - there's no time like the present to begin.

     Once a story is transcribed or scanned and makes it into my working file, it's only a matter of time before I start telling that story to listeners.  But for me it all begins on those wonderful quiet days when I have time to indulge myself with a leisurely cup of tea and a good story or two.  I read out loud, muse, and ponder. Then I close the file again, but parts of the stories have started to live within me.

     At odd moments during any day, bits of story will come to the front of my mind - sometimes from stories I already tell and sometimes from stories in my treasure trove. Of their own accord, snippets of stories cross my thoughts or pop out of my lips - drawn out by their synchonicity with events in my life. Those moments of "Aha!" are the epiphany . . . the moments when I realize the story is coming to live within my soul.  It walks with me, thinks with me, dreams with me.

     Realization dawns that I’m deepening my understanding of inner meanings of the story. I'm earning my right to share that story. Eventually I tell someone about the story or tell them the whole story for the first time. Almost of the story's volition rather than my own, it tumbles out - seeking a listener. Then I tell it again, perhaps to a small group. Then later it gets told many more times to individuals and small groups. Each time, the telling is richer than the time before - drawing on the life experience that is breathed into the story as it comes through me.

     Only after many of these casual little informal tellings, do I share a story in concert with a large audience - and then it roars to life, fully realized. At that point, all I have to do is get out of the way and let it happen!  The equation goes like this:  a good story + a well prepared storyteller + avid story listeners = storytelling magic!