Telling a Tale
21 February 2018
Story telling: we all tell stories. We have told stories for thousands of years. Later we learned, as intelligent human beings, how to remember our stories by writing them down. People tell stories. They also sing stories. The singer of songs. The teller of tales. But we must never forget the oral tradition.
The oral tradition is fascinating because it is not a fixed medium: it is a very flexible one. As each tale is told, repeated from mouth to mouth, so it changes, a bit at a time. Do you remember the old story of the British soldiers in the trenches of WWI? They passed their orders whispering from man to man, mouth to ear. Legend has it that the original order “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance” was all too easily corrupted into “Send three and four pence, we’re going to a dance.”
The oral tradition may be said to corrupt its stories. Singers who claim that they always sing their songs exactly the same way have been shown, by the objectivity of tape recordings, to alter their words at different times in different performances. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, that famous Spanish medievalist, proposed the term poeta-pueblo, the people as a poet, for the oral transformation of poems, especially the ballads / romances of the romancero, that were revised and polished and improved as they circulated orally.
Several people that I have spoken to recently (or corresponded with online) have suggested that they have problems writing their stories down. They confuse the writing process, a very slow one, with the telling process, a much quicker one, and one that is amenable to rapid revision. So, a suggestion: if you are having problems writing your story, try thinking it through, plotting it in your head, not on the page. Think before you ink. And repeat constantly so that when you write, you know what you want to write.
Using this very simple, very traditional method, stories can be told, revised, polished … and then they can be written down. It takes some practice, but practice makes perfect, and thousands of years of literary and creative history must be respected. Become a story teller once more. And when you have told your tale, multiple times if necessary, write it down.
Whatever you do, do not confuse telling a story with the critical adage “show don’t tell”. Once you have told your tale, once it is on the page, then you can rewrite, revise, restructure, layer, improve, polish, intensify or simplify to your heart’s content. Remember: you can do this on the page (long and slow) or in your head (fast and furious). Personally, I use a combination of both methods. Try the oral method: you may like it.
Keep experimenting. Remember, you must choose what is best for you. Best wishes. Keep writing. Don’t get off the bus.