Friday, May 30, 2014

What Writers Can Learn from Traditional Storytellers

I’ve learned so much from fellow writers over the years here at Project Mayhem, both writing techniques and in overcoming obstacles in the publishing world, or at least coping with them. I’ve very, very thankful for that. And while this is my last regular post on Project Mayhem, I didn’t just want to use it to say goodbye. I wanted to share some of what I’ve been working on to improve my writing. I’ve gotten very interested in the techniques of traditional oral storytellers. I’ve been lucky enough to hear some fabulous storytellers over the years, and I’ve come to realize I actually grew up with one even though I didn’t know it. My mother had the ability to take ordinary events and in retelling them, make them extraordinary. As a child, I didn’t appreciate it. In fact, I found it down right annoying, because I knew she was "embellishing" the truth. I’d been present at these ordinary events and they never happened exactly the way she recounted them. She could hold an audience though, making people see the events she was describing, and make them wish they’d been lucky enough to be there.

Storyteller Mary Hamilton, in her book KENTUCKY FOLKTALES, Revealing Stories, Truths, and Outright Lies, says something similar about her father, “He is the kind of storyteller that when he starts telling about an event you sit there, you listen, and you can’t help but almost wish you hadn’t been there yourself. That way your memory of it wouldn’t be quite so at odds with what he’s telling.” That’s the key to telling a good story, putting just enough of a twist and a spin on describing an ordinary event to make it more than just an event, to make it a story.

Writers can’t mimic all of great storytellers’ techniques, because we don’t have the ability to use interesting voices and gestures for our audience to see, but there are some things middle grade writers in particular can take away from the storytelling process. I think most great storytellers’ main goals are to entertain. They choose their stories very carefully, and if there is a message in them, it’s subtly woven in so that the audience may not even be aware they are being given a message. Those are the kind of stories I want to write. I don’t care if the middle graders who read my stories can’t see a message in them. I just want them to love the stories.

We all strive to connect with our audiences too, by making them able to visualize whatever scene we are describing, whether through the written word or the spoken word. And with a middle grade audience, you have to bring yourself away from the adult world to see what they would see, before you can describe it. It’s all in the details, and the best storytellers I’ve seen retain an ability to pick just the right details, but not too many, to create their scenes.  I’m going to continue to listen to storytellers, to learn what I can. Maybe someday, I’ll take it up myself! There’s always a new challenge ahead. If you get a chance to listen, I love this video of storyteller Diane Ferlatte

Thanks to all the Project Mayhemers, past and present. I’ll keep in touch! ~Dee Garretson


  1. I love this! I used to go to the Timpanogas Storytelling Festival in Utah, and it was great!

    Sarah Allen
    (From Sarah, With Joy)

  2. Thanks for a wealth of wonderful posts, Dee. You'll always be a Mayhemmer!

  3. Best of luck, Dee. You will me missed!

    Thanks for this golden line in your post:

    "It’s all in the details, and the best storytellers I’ve seen retain an ability to pick just the right details, but not too many, to create their scenes."

  4. Dee, I'll miss your blogging! Thanks so much for all you've shared.

  5. Dee, I have a friend who is a born storyteller. I don't care what she's talking about, she can make it riveting. Love that this is something you want to dig into.

    We will miss you! Please keep in touch.

  6. What a great post! I love the idea of learning from storytellers.

    We'll miss you, Dee!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!