Marni Gillard    Storyteller, Storyteacher

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An Excerpt from Storyteller, Storyteacher:
The Power of Storytelling for Teaching and Living

Chapter 1. Acknowledging an Old Friend

I drafted one of my earliest articles ("Finding Myself In My Stories, Language Arts, Nov. 85) with the thought of explaining to teachers how I'd just discovered storytelling and of inviting them to consider it. It seemed to be an interesting offshoot of process writing. I also saw it as a way of developing performance skills without having to put on class plays. However, I couldn't seem to close the article. An uneasiness came over me, as if I weren't writing the truth. An inner voice seemed to scoff, "You didn't just find storytelling!"

I remember resting my fingertips on the keys and my wrists on the edge of the shallow desk drawer in which my keyboard sat. I tried to let go of the need to finish the article (thoughts of the deadline) and let my mind drift off the way I do when a passage I'm reading reminds me of a long ago event. If I hadn't just found storytelling, when did I find it? I started to freewrite, traveling back in time. First, I saw myself at about age fifteen standing alone on the apron of my high school's stage dramatically reciting the poem "Patterns" by Amy Lowell in a city-wide recitation contest. I watched my younger self become the proper but bitter young woman Lowell writes of who walks "the garden path in my stiff brocaded gown," enraged at the message I'd just received. My fiancÚ had died in battle.

Yes, I realized, that was storytelling. So I traveled further back until I saw myself at about age eight sitting on my father's left knee as we sang the duet "I Remember it Well" from Gigi. We had performed it a number of times at family gatherings, but in this image I saw us before my father's friends at a faculty picnic. As a sometimes tough assistant principal in a large middle school, he loved showing off his family to his staff, revealing a side of him they didn't see often. In our little song-skit, I played the part of the somewhat miffed but still smitten elderly woman who reminds her former lover, elderly now himself, of the details of their courtship. He recalls it, singing, "We met at nine," and she corrects, "We met at eight." My father would counter in his best Maurice Chevalier, "I was on time?" I would roll my eyes to the delight of the audience and sigh dramatically, "No, you were late." Pretending to be the great lost love of my father and scolding him for remembering less than I about the past - surely that was storytelling too.

I wondered, could I travel back even further? I saw a blur of backyard and classroom dramatizations performed for parents, and I observed from afar the tender fantasies I used to whisper to my Tiny Tears doll in bed as a girl. Then I landed, somehow, at the image of a four-year-old in a blue crepe paper teapot costume performing for a summer park Parents' Night. Clearly I was telling my "story" to the world. "I'm a little teapot short and stout." I beamed like moonlight to the charmed adult crowd and begged, "When I get all steamed up hear me shout/'Tip me over and pour me out.'"

At four I already knew a great deal about the world and was taking in new knowledge faster than I could make sense of it. I lived in a large Irish-American family where, as a child, you didn't always get listened to (unless, of course, you were performing). That summer I'd spent hours at the neighborhood park trying to slide and swing and play "Red Rover" as skillfully as kids more than twice my age, including two older brothers. I wanted to be noticed and valued. I was "all steamed up." But I needed the adult world's permission and its help, to "tip over" and "pour out."

As I sat at the keys seeing each image of my younger self storytelling, I cried. The kind of quiet tears that rise up with no warning when you tell someone of a powerful dream or when a song on the radio invades some pocket of sorrow tucked tightly away. The article I was trying to finish suddenly had a whole new meaning. I had not just discovered storytelling, but rediscovered it. In the article - and in my teaching - I needed to acknowledge that storytelling was an old friend who'd introduced me to the wonderfully safe, though perhaps at times dark, world where humans express feelings of great intensity through symbol and metaphor. All my life storytelling had pushed me through the fear of speaking my true feelings.

At four, in the guise of a teapot, singing a "cute" children's song, I had begged those around me to help me express all that was bubbling inside. At eight, behind the mask of a show tune, I had played at romantic love and been allowed to voice, publicly, how I adored (and struggled for power with) my father. In essence, his invitation had answered the call of my teapot and shown me a way to tip myself over to pour out at least some of what bubbled within.

However, a month after I turned thirteen, my father drove his Volkswagen into a tree, on a foggy drive home from a similar faculty gathering. None of us, that night, had gone to show off, and we never saw him again. It wasn't until the age of fifteen, having struggled to "be brave" for two years after his death, that I found a way to voice my rage and sadness by reciting "Patterns." Through the metaphor of the grief-stricken young woman furious at being locked within society's patterns, I poured myself out. I told my story.

My tears as I recollected all of this were more than just belated grieving. They released a joy of learning, of becoming conscious of something my intuition or unconscious had been trying to tell me for a while. I had thought I'd only recently found storytelling by following my adult academic questions. Really, I'd returned to something I had been unconsciously aware of since early childhood. You might say, the parent in me was crying in recognition of the resourceful child I had been all along: a four-year-old able to find a metaphor through which to speak, an eight-year-old who could sing out her love, and a grief-stricken teenager with the courage to face her grief publicly, if only through another character.

The tears also expressed my relief at making an important discovery through writing. Although this book is about storytelling, the speaking of tales, I would not have been able to synthesize what I've learned, let alone share it with others, without writing. As much as the book means to encourage teachers to tell, I hope it moves them to make time to write.

Writing-to-discover-what-I-know still makes me cry, but I won't stop doing it. Breaking through confusion by writing has helped me to teach writing more honestly and to ask others the questions that free up their truths.

If you need any additional information, please feel free to contact Marni. Picture of Marni Gillard
Marni Gillard

833 Parkside Avenue
Schenectady, NY 12309 USA
(518) 381-9474
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