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World Storytelling Day

World Storytelling Day

    March 20 is World Storytelling Day, an annual celebration designed to recognize the art of storytelling. Its roots date back to Sweden in the the early 1990’s. The theme for 2016 is Strong Women. I immediately thought about Mrs. W, an exception teacher who helped me appreciate the importance of sharing our individual stories.

    In 8th grade, filled with hormones and on the cusp of the angry teenage years, it wasn’t cool to like school or teachers, especially not ones that had a reputation for being mean. While I had always loved to read and create stories, Language Arts was a constant struggle as I was a terrible speller and the rules of grammar often made no sense to my brain. The teacher, Mrs. W. was hard on her students, but was also one of the strongest examples in my life that successful teachers care more about who they teach than what they teach.

    One of our major assignments that year was to write an autobiography. At 13, I didn’t think I had many meaningful things to write about, and couldn’t figure out why anyone would care about my life. Mrs. W. tried to explain that everyone has a story and that each experience, no matter how trivial it seems in the moment, shapes who we become. I begrudgingly completed the assignment and my mom held on to it for me, knowing one day I’d need to be reminded of how far I’ve come. (Right now it's in my keepsake box, something I reread when I want a good laugh, and something concrete my son can hold later to learn more about his family and the start of his own story).

   Towards the end of the school year, I was nominated for an award to be given out at middle school graduation. The selection process required each nominee to write and give a speech in front of several faculty and staff members. I was terrified, unsure of what to say, and especially hesitant to be in competition with my friends, so I decided to skip the speeches and let the award go to someone else.  

   The day of the event, when Mrs. W. learned that I was not planning to present, she pulled me out of another class and gave me a firm talking to about not giving up before I truly began. While talking about myself seemed unnatural and egotistical, she reminded me that our individual, unique stories matter. The opportunity to reflect on where we come from, realize how far we’ve come, and share those lessons with others is a gift. And then she made me call my parents to come watch the speeches after school. I sat in her classroom the rest of the day, writing the story about what made me special and why I deserved an award.

   That day, she stood up for me and taught me that my story--all of our stories--have worth. And this is a lesson I continue to embrace.

    While it hasn’t always been pretty or so formal, I have been sharing my story ever since. Who is a strong woman that has played a critical role in your story? I’d love for you to share with me at Kara@storiechild.com

Oral and Written Stories

Oral and Written Stories

     As a child, I spent hours imagining the life in my Grandpa’s stories--life in Chicago in the 1920s and ‘30s. There were epic tales of his dad selling peanuts at Wrigley Field, a brother losing an arm catching a ride on a street car, and Grandpa accidentally ending up in an orphanage with his older sister. As he got older, he pursued professional roller skating, lost the love of his life to meningitis, moved furniture for the mob, and eventually found forever happiness with my Grandma.

    My grandpa stopped telling me stories when I was a late teen, a cruel casualty of Alzheimer's. He passed away my first year of college, nearly two decades ago, and yet not a family gathering takes place without bringing up Grandpa and his adventures. His stories that I retell flow right into my mom and uncle sharing their favorites, each of us adding details to the others’ version.

  The experiences that shaped my Grandpa became woven into our own identities, but I fear that as we age, those stories will disappear. As the years go by, certain details have already been forgotten or confused, and none of us can quite capture his voice or humor.

    A few years after I lost my grandpa, I was fortunate enough to intern at the Chicago History Museum. There I was introduced to the works of Studs Terkel, an acclaimed author known for capturing oral histories of everyday people, like my grandpa, in a written form that could be passed on for generations. His work sparked my interest in oral and written stories, and the necessity to find ways to combine the two.

    I find real beauty in the art of oral storytelling--the way the memory of the story comes to the teller in an organic way, inspired by a present day moment, or perhaps by someone else’s tale. The way their voice changes as the scene replays in their head and the emotions come back. The random details and side stories that get woven in, completely unrelated to the main story, yet adding undescribable richness. The ability to interrupt, ask questions, press further for meaning, explanation, relevance.

    The older I get though, the more I regret not capturing my grandfather’s history when I had the chance. I wish that he’d kept a journal or written down his adventures so that I could revisit them now, when I am missing his guidance and wisdom. I wish I had something concrete to hold.

  Writing down memories takes time, revisions, and has it’s own set of obstacles. When writing, as opposed to oral storytelling, we tend to filter ourselves more, putting greater thought into how readers will perceive us, and skipping those crucial moments that, while important in shaping us, evoke less than pleasant memories.

    It’s this passion for combining the two that makes me appreciate what storieChild is trying to accomplish. Having a written book that can be passed down for generations is invaluable, but so are the conversations and other stories that are told as the book is read.

    What do you think? Are there other aspects of oral vs written stories that I missed? Is one better than the other? I’d love to keep the conversation going at kara@storiechild.com . And if you get a chance, http://studsterkel.wfmt.com/ features more abut Studs Terkel, a Chicago legend who passed away in 2008.