by Allison Cox © 2000.
Because of my firm conviction that stories convey important information to others in ways that few other forms of communication can accomplish, I use storytelling in my work as a Public Health Educator. The tradition of storytelling is ageless and known to most cultures as an experience vital to the health of individuals, the community and the environment. During storytelling, listeners let go of defenses and relax into the known, safe environment of story. A shift in consciousness takes place. Those who listen, actually live the story adventures in their imagination. The audience is offered a chance to measure their own experience in the light of the immortal tale… immortal because people often forget important details of their lives, but will remember a story they heard as a child.
Story lends narrative structure to events that might otherwise seem random and meaningless (which is a common affliction among clients that I talk with every day). Storytelling is a profound medium through which change can be enacted by changing the way one views their personal history. The storytelling experience invites people to draw upon their memories and allows them to add new information to the old memories when listeners view their life in the context of the story.
Storytelling can be designed to offer survival tools to an increasingly complex society. By using sensate description that matches peoples’ everyday experience, rapport is established and stories become real to the audience. Metaphors can be offered, containing embedded suggestions to the listeners that “you can survive… there is hope… you can succeed in making your world a better place… and here are some ways…”
As a prevention tool, storytelling is a time tested craft that can tackle the challenges confronting our culture (such as racism, sexism, violence, drugs,…). Because story has proven throughout time to be a vehicle for the mind to make sense of the world, it has been used by humankind through the centuries as a means of transmitting important cultural, sociological and moral information from one generation to the next.
As part of my job, I am often called upon to train others in the use of storytelling for health promotion and disease prevention. While the health professionals I work with must overcome their hesitancy to attempt storytelling, storytellers have to make a similar leap regarding feeling competent in designing a therapeutic story program. The following suggestions may help in taking the first steps.
If you receive a request to tell stories at a shelter for battered women, a residential treatment center for teens, or even a meeting for substance abuse recovery… do the same thing you would always do when someone asks you to perform… ask alot of questions. Besides the normal queries of “How long should the program be?”, “What age and how large is the audience”, ask the prospective client “What are the issues or interests for this group?” You will probably get a response of broad topics such as violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, homelessness, etc. Don’t stop there. Continue to interview the client. “What do you hope the audience will know/feel/think as a result of hearing stories on this subject?” Sometimes getting the details of the expectations involved helps to decide which stories would be appropriate for this particular event.
The next step is crucial. Pare down the topic into achievable components. A favorite example of mine is when I was requested to share stories about Breast Cancer at a conference. I asked my local librarians for ideas and they suggested autobiographies of women who had fought their own battles with breast cancer. I read several, learned alot, but felt that I could not tell the personal stories of others. So I called back the person making the request and asked what she hoped people would learn as a result of listening to my stories. She responded “I think it would be important for them to hear about taking responsibility, not letting a problem go till it gets too big, facing your fears and offering support to each other.” Well, there I had it! I was able to find folktales, legends and literary stories on each of these subjects. Sometimes those making the request are unable to be this specific and will say “Well, you know…” and simply repeat the same broad topic without offering any details. Then it’s time to do your homework, (a good idea anyway). Go to the library and look up the pieces of this particular puzzle. For example, a search regarding the issues surrounding domestic violence may reveal that stories on this subject need to contain elements such as isolation, control, safety, chaos, verbal harassment and shame, as well as violence.
After the story is over, I usually ask simple questions such as “What images in the story stood out for you?” and “What memories or feelings did you experience as you listened to the story?”. I know that there are some who feel that stories should never be discussed, but I am not one of them. When the story brings up issues for my audience and I am in a setting such as a classroom or a group therapy meeting, I feel that it is my responsibility to bring the listeners back home safely, by offering a space between the tales to reflect, react or share with others. People will often switch from 3rd person to 1st person in mid-sentence when responding to a story. I do not push people into this transition (and a moment of silence can be equally important), but I do invite sharing when and if my listeners feel safe. Often, I work with someone who knows the group and I may let them ask more questions regarding “Tell me how this story relates to your own experience.” Seek out a therapist or counselor to confer with while planning your story program.
Timing is very important. Once I tried to introduce a very serious text and slide show from “The House That Crack Built” (a book for youth about crack cocaine use) to a group of 5th graders. I had worked with these kids for 2 school years, twice a week, and I felt we were ready to explore this issue. But I forgot to consider that it was the end of our time together and these children were having a hard time saying goodbye. This was not the right time to introduce a heavy new subject and it didn’t go over well at all. These kids let me know in no uncertain terms that they didn’t want to talk about cocaine at that time. Instead, they needed to hear stories about departure and holding onto good memories. A storyteller once told me he was asked to tell stories to young cancer patients and their families at Christmas time. He told a story about death and was surprised when, later, the hospital contact was hesitant to reschedule another storytelling event. Families coping with such intense loss need to be led gently into such topics. Suicide hot lines get inundated with calls at the Christmas season due to the huge differences between expectations and reality regarding the holidays for some folks, so this is not generally a good time to introduce heavy subject matter. Sometimes, what these families need the most is just a few good hours, a good day… some time that they can remember, to laugh, to sing, to simply smile. Those are big gifts and if you can offer them that initially, then you can go back later and tell them the stories about a parent who felt angry or perhaps a child who overcame her fear of the dark. Trust the metaphorical language of stories to powerfully speak to the unconscious mind and bypass the conscious, skeptical filters of your audience.
Remember, none of us are Super Human Storytellers. If you get to the venue and see it is not what you had expected, in any storytelling situation it is always a good idea to regroup as to which stories to tell, where to tell or even if you should tell at all. One storyteller shared with me that she had been asked to tell in the hospital burn unit. All throughout her stories, people were screaming in pain in the background. When she was finished, she hurried out to the parking lot and wept. Take control of the situation as best you can. Remember and learn from this teller’s experience and even say “No” if no one agrees to help change the situation. Sometimes we find our own limits through our mistakes. I have moved my event out to the front steps to get away from a practicing church choir, or even out to a shade tree when I could see the children were suffering from sun exposure in the bleachers of the arena. Both you and the audience need to be comfortable to have a good experience. Gather some all purpose stories for those surprise moments when you suddenly need to change directions from the original plan. I have a few favorites tales that seem to bring a generally good response and have a broad enough range that I can get many topics accomplished through these tales. For example: “Not Our Problem” from Margaret Read MacDonald’s “Peace Tales” or “Bundles of Troubles, Bundles of Blessings” from “A Piece Of The Wind” by Ruthilde Kronberg and Patricia McKissack both get lots of mileage in my work as a Health Educator.
Last thoughts about finding appropriate stories- don’t overlook the old favorites. For example, for child abuse, try “Hansel And Gretel” (who were abandoned by their parents and attacked by a seemingly kind stranger) and “Cap O’ Rushes” (whose father threw her out because he didn’t like her answer as to how much she loved him.). A favorite follow-up activity that I use with children of a wide range of ages is to brainstorm a “Child’s Bill Of Rights” on the board (I got the idea from Spinning Tales, Weaving Hope, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, 1992). Then we talk about what is most important on the list and which things need to wait ’till they are older (ie. stay up late, drive a car). Usually the children participate enthusiastically and proudly display their compiled list in their classroom. This exercise always elicits ideas for future story topics with that group as well.
Remember, whenever you take your first steps into uncharted territory, you may feel that you’re fumbling a bit at first. When babies are born- they didn’t come out tap dancing. They had to learn to roll, crawl, stand and then walk. Just take it a step at a time. Ask lots of questions, research your topic, discuss ideas with a professional in that specific field, consider the time and place and above all, trust that story crosses over all boundaries for it speaks the language of the heart.
I work as an educator and often get requests from teachers, so there are literary references in this list as well. I suggest to storytellers that even if they cannot always use these books, to read them to see what components to look for in a book about dealing with the topic. Or- write and ask for permission!
Books About Therapeutic Storytelling
Annie Stories by Doris Brett, Workman Publishing, New York, 1986. Basic text for parents and therapists alike for designing stories to aid children in coping with fears, loss, pain, siblings and other challenges.
Earth Tales, Storytelling In Times Of Change, by Alida Gersie, The Merlin Press, London, 1992. This book contains seven story sections of folktales about the relationship between people and the natural world. Each section includes many original group activities for adults or children to help explore the story. This book is hard to find but worth all the effort.
The Healing Art Of Storytelling, A Sacred Journey Of Personal Discovery by Richard Stone, Hyperion, New York, 1996. Stone uses exercises to elicit personal stories that will heal the wounded heart through the telling.
Sacred Stories: A Celebration Of The Power Of Stories To Transform And Heal edited by Charles and Anne Simpkinson, Harper, San Francisco, 1993. These 22 collected essays include storytellers, therapists, politicians, and poets views on the important role of stories in our individual and communal lives.
The Spirituality Of Imperfection, Storytelling And The Journey To Wholeness by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, Bantam Books, New York/Toronto, 1992. An Anthology of wisdom stories from around the world, centered around the issue of alcoholism.
Tell It By Heart, Women And The Healing Power Of Story by Erica Helm Meade, Open Court, Chicago, 1995. Combines myth and personal story to create a mosaic of healing and human possibility.
Therapeutic Metaphors For Children and The Child Within by Joyce C. Mills and Richard J. Crowley, Bruner/Mazel, New York, 1986. Wonderfully written book based in Ericksonian Hypnotherapy, illustrating approaches in therapeutic storytelling that can be used with all ages.
Women Who Run With The Wolves, Myths And Stories Of The Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ballantine Books, New York, 1992. Wonderfully potent words and images that inspire, instruct and empower women.
Article originally appeared in Diving in The Moon: Issue 1
Allison Cox specializes in designing story programs tailored to each group’s interests. For more information: