Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ask the storyteller: Personal and traditional stories

Hello everyone! Welcome back to another installment of #askthestoryteller. I feel like I'm in a Perils of Pauline serial, only more thoughtful and without the death-defying escapes.

For those of you new to this series, Ask the storyteller takes your questions and gives you my best answers for them. You can submit a questions in the comments below or email them to me. Please don't hesitate to ask; it may take me awhile to get to your question but I will do my best to get to them all.

Today's question came from several readers, including Ralph and Sara. They both asked my opinion of the power of traditional stories and the power of personal story. It's a good question and one that's quite relevant these days as the storytelling landscape seems to have changed considerably.

As always, this answer reflects my personal experience, research and opinion. Your mileage may vary. This is a long post and I'm sure not everyone will agree with it. I look forward to your thoughts.

Let's start with a tiny bit of history.
  1. People have been telling stories for as long as we have been people. I expect this includes both "personal" (real, first person) stories and "traditional" (metaphoric or fictional) stories.
  2. About 40 years ago storytelling festivals began to appear in the United States. They may very well have existed for longer in the U.S. and longer in other countries, but I'm recounting the history as I know it.
  3. In the late 1990s the Moth launched in New York City, which focuses on personal narrative.
  4. By the mid-2000s story slam were proliferating and festivals were experiencing declines in attendance.
This set up some apparent conflict between storytellers who leaned towards traditional stories and those who came up through the slam scene or otherwise leaned towards personal stories. There is a lot of grumbling on both sides about relative value.

I find this grumbling to be unfortunate and divisive; I believe there is power and value to both forms of narrative. Let's do a bit of analysis and then I'll give you my take on the matter. Please note, this analysis is only a first pass at this material. I'd love to know what you think.


It might be useful to have better working definitions of "personal" and "traditional" storytelling. These definitions are for the purpose of this article and so start with the assumption that we're talking about live performance without a script-in-hand operating on the principles of the story triangle. With that in mind, I will define "personal storytelling" as first-person narrative that the audience believes recounts something that happened, something that's more-or-less true. First person, nonfiction, personally experienced. I will define "traditional storytelling" as first or third person narrative, recounting a story with roots in the oral tradition that the audience believes is fictional and metaphorical. First or third person, fiction, not personally experienced.

I'm setting up these parameters because there are worlds of story that don't fall into either of these categories (fiction, literary, historical, family stories, etc). These other categories are wonderful and important, but I'll set them aside for now. I want to work with the clearer forms I just described.

Cultural role

Both traditional and personal narratives have important cultural roles. Like all stories, they give us a chance to look at our own lives and actions through a narrative lens. We hear or tell a story and relate our own experience to it

Traditional stories use metaphor. These stories give us a chance to interpret signs and symbols for deeper meaning. They often carry cultural knowledge about morals, danger, ethics and so on. When we tell or hear a traditional narrative we have an opportunity to scratch under the surface and find the authors intended meaning as well as decide how we wish to interpret the same material. Is Red Riding Hood about ignoring your mother? Talking to strangers? Puberty? Delivering goodies to the infirm? There is a potential open-ness to the narrative that is both empowering and isolating. We are given the tools to make our own meaning but often must make meaning for the story to make sense. We have to stretch further sometimes, to accept a world with talking animals and clearly defined morals. We are required to accept that the symbols have meaning and that the teller makes it worth it for us to suspend our disbelief. If we don't then the story may not be engaging.

Personal narrative (as defined above) doesn't need metaphor. These stories are recounting true events with the meaning sometimes explicitly described in the narrative (I learned that the woods are dangerous) and other times left open for the listeners to entirely fabricate (I never went to my grandmother's house again). Because the narrative is assumed to be factual the cultural meaning exists in the actions and words of the story, not in the hidden meaning behind them. The hidden meaning may be there if the author crafts it in, but it isn't required. We may find it easier to empathize with these stories because they don't require the stretch of metaphor; the meaning may be easier to find. We need to be willing to believe the teller and let whatever they say relate to our own lives simply, without symbolic trappings. If we are not inclined to find ourselves in others' lives these stories will be less engaging.

Historically we know that traditional stories were (among other things) teaching tools. We told and heard these tales as a way to understand our world without having to put ourselves directly into risky situations, they helped us through different stages of our lives. Personal narrative can do the same thing, although much of the prevalent form of personal storytelling seems to be built more on the extraordinary, so these stories don't require interpretation, only empathy.

The story triangle

Both of these forms of narrative rely on the story triangle for their power. The interaction between teller, tale and audience is very much at play as these stories are performed.

Personal stories well-told allow us to gasp in awe at the lives of others. Depending on the tale and teller, there may not be as much room for the listener's interpretation, but these stories help us built bridges across culture, class and ethnic boundaries. We all have had crummy times, adventures, loss and triumph. Hearing another's story at the least reminds us that we are not alone.

Traditional stories require more meaning-making, something that I think is not in great vogue these days. Nonetheless, a well-told traditional tale we can marvel at the power of our own imaginations, touch other cultures and maybe learn a little about how to move through the world. Some of the oldest stories remind us that we all have commonality of experience and, at the least, reminds us that we are not alone.

So what do I think?

If you've gotten this far then you know that I think both forms of story have value. I think the current cultural love for personal narrative isn't surprising; we live in a voyeuristic society where the selfie matters and sites like tmz add to our hunger for personal anecdote. I think it's misleading to say that traditional stories have lost value, we need only look at other forms of storytelling to remember that traditional material still resonates (films, tv shows, etc).

I think the problem may come down to segregation. Personal story events draw listeners because they know what to expect; true(ish) stories that show their peers as fallible, heroic, tragic; the same qualities they find in themselves, only larger and well articulated. If these audiences are never exposed to well-chosen traditional material that includes the fallible, heroic and tragic, why should they ever come to a traditional event? If someone loves fairy tales why would they think they might find meaning in a coming-of-age tale? We, as storytellers, need to market our material wisely. Organizations such as massmouth and Portland Story Theater are doing a good job of cross-pollinating. What if a story slam included a special teller who told a short, funny, ribald traditional story? What if someone known for traditional material included a story about their personal life? Both stories could echo the theme of the event.

There was a time when I refused to tell personal stories; it felt like an invasion of my privacy. Then I remembered the wonderful Fellini quote, "All art is autobiographical." With that I realized that the traditional stories I told were meaningful because I gave them meaning. It no longer was frightening to tell personal tales or make a fairy tale personal. Now I tell more stories, connect with more audiences and learn more about the craft every day.

One other thought is about merging genres. Since I began telling professionally I have told fairy tales as if they were personal stories and woven magic into my personal stories. Here is an example, Persephone's story told from her mother's point of view, as if it were a personal story.

Let's end with a story.

Once upon a time there were two siblings living on an island. This island had two tall peaks and a flat valley. One day they stood in the valley and looked to the ocean where they saw the dark line of an incoming tsunami.
"Quick! Climb my mountain!" said one sibling.
"Mine is taller, climb this one!"
The siblings stood in the valley, shouting at one another. The roar of the tsunami grew.

What if we recognized that all stories, regardless of traditional, personal, or other, have value when they are well told, when there is room for the audience and when we remember that stories are about human experience, whether true or metaphorical? What if festivals opened themselves more to slams, personal narrative along with traditional material? What if slams opened the door for less-than-true tales? What if we opened that door for all listeners and gave them a chance to experience a broader world of story? What if we decided that both mountains are tall enough?

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Well, well written, Laura, and what you wrote is my belief as well. I love watching audiences experience both traditional and personal stories from me, and see the surprise as they hear something new tickle their ears. Some of my traditional stories have such imagery that it touches hearts and brings tears. Some of my personal stories allow people to trust me on the journey through traditional tales, because now they know I'm just like them. Either way, it's a pleasure to just share the story...and share it well. Peace, Sheila.

    1. Thanks, Sheila. It took a lot of words for me to get to the point, but I wanted to be sure the arguments were well laid out.

  2. I don't tell personal memoir tales only because my life is so very dull. (I once put my family to sleep recounting how I bought a ream of paper at Office Depot).
    But I do tell Prince Charming's personal tales. Boy, does he have a lot to say!

    1. I still haven't seen you do one of those! Also, I feel similarly about my life with regards to personal narrative, though I do have a couple that I tell for which people seem to stay awake. :)

  3. Beautifully written. Both mountains are tall enough. Reflects your own 'tallness' as a storyteller - to rise above the differences and see the commonalities in stories.

  4. Well written. I also believe there is room for All types of Storytelling and when well crafted and told, there is Wonder & Wisdom to be shared. I'm all for building bridges between no matter what type is shared. Definitely room for both and I think cross pollination is key to sustainability. Hugs from my heart to yours & thank you for your thoughtful post.

  5. loved the article, loved the story :)

  6. If a story is older than we are, do we tell them, or do they tell us? You've made me realize that there's an old story that wants to tell me and I think I see a new way to let it do it.


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