Friday, July 17, 2009

FINDING YOUR STORYTELLING VOICE


Let me begin with a brief explanation? While the focus of this article is on the art of oral storytelling it may well offer food for thought to writers as well. It is not based on the assumption that you’ve lost your voice and are in need of finding it via some miraculous cure (be it gargling with vegemite if you’re an Australian or eating more kiwi fruit if you’re a New Zealander!). Nor will it touch on the mechanics of clear speech or the correct use of your diaphragm. I’ll leave that to a therapist or Alexander Technique practitioner.

I want to focus on a unique aspect of YOU that emerges from deep within and grows along with you in tune with your life experiences, personality traits and innate and learned reactions to situations - your voice!

It is an expression of YOU that is uniquely yours - and I suggest applies to both your spoken and written word.

Despite the number of people there are in the world, your voices is rarely so similar that someone would confuse you for someone else. So what if your style is or isn't dramatic. Maybe it's soft-spoken. Or direct. Casual, or formal. It is uniquely you.

Not long ago I visited my mother in hospital. One of the nurses kindly assisted me by pushing my wheelchair into my mother’s room. As we went she was struck by my likeness to my sister and she began: ‘Oh, aren’t you exactly like your sister: same face, same eyes, same hair (Yes, we both had curly hair but last time I looked hers was dark and mine was red!) - and exactly the same voice!’

I nearly choked. After the nurse had left the room my mother wryly observed: ‘That was a bit over the top, wasn’t it?’

To which I replied: ‘Oh! Didn’t you realise the main reason I use a wheelchair is so that you are able to tell your daughters apart?’


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Each of us has a distinctive voice not just the physical mechanism of voice production but the way our voice is integrated with who we are in the deepest sense of the word.


How does this impact on your storytelling voice?


Your experience. Your personality. Your emotions. Your vocabulary and turn of phrase are uniquely yours. These are the special elements you bring to story telling. No two people can tell the same story (anymore than you can tell a story the same way on separate occasions - unless you’ve allowed the story to become a recitation rather than a telling.). Each of us will come at the same topic from different backgrounds, experience and personalities. As you pour yourself, your soul, into a story it sparkles with the freshness and originality that is YOU.

A storyteller’s voice is something that is unique to a particular teller - a way of phrasing and relating thoughts and events that comes with time, practice and experience. The more you TELL the stronger it gets. You can't force it. You have to let it grow as you write. Sometimes you don't even know what it is yourself - until others say you've got it!

This is not to say you cannot learn from others. From earliest childhood we are captivated by the sounds of the human voice telling a story. Children are past master at trying out the voice patterns and rhythms around them and equally adept at discarding what doesn’t fit or adapting that which matches the ‘who’ they are. I’m not suggesting the process is a self conscious act but rather part of their being and becoming.

In the same way, as storytellers, at any given point in our development, we too are in process of being and becoming. Human beings have been telling stories since the dawn of language. Evidence points to narrative as the way the human brain is wired. We learn by making sense of the world through the stories we hear and those we tell ourselves. If we aspire to share stories beyond the dining room table or backyard barbecue, we need to grow our skills and develop a storytelling voice that commands attention in a roomful of strangers.

Let’s begin:
Find voice models from real life. Listen to the way people around you speak. Pick out specific characteristics that will work for your voice. Another good place to search for or further develop your story telling voice is to listen to others telling stories—whether they be storytellers per se or preachers, salesmen, auctioneers; whether they are heard live or recorded. I have learnt a lot from listening to stories I already know, retold on storytellernet at
http://www.storyteller.net/stories/audio

Listen to your favourite tellers. Each of us has tellers we admire for their unique distinctive voices. As you listen, let yourself hear each powerful and distinct voice in the silence of your mind. Model aloud specific phrases used by another teller and practice ways to make the content your own. Change an inflection, use a word that fits better your normal vocabulary, try different postures as you speak. Reflect on the ways you use your body and voice - when you are talking quietly, making a point (in conversation), when you’re angry, upset, excited etc. You already have a voice with nuances, tone, pitch, pace in your vocal repertoire. Don’t be afraid to experiment but always check that in the end the voice you use is still yours.

I remember being asked to perform at a Ghost Concert in a park one night. I worked up a story that included a segment from ‘The Piper’s Revenge’. During my practice sessions, as the woman enters the cowshed and sees the piper’s boots at the head of the big black cow, and believing the cow has eaten the piper, I produced her terrible scream!

Now, screaming is not normally part of my vocal repertoire. I’m much more likely to freeze - physically and verbally. Nonetheless, throughout rehearsals I continued with my scream! Fortunately, something about that scream must have niggled deep inside me, for minutes before I left home I had an uncomfortable feeling about that scream. As there was no-one from whom I could seek advice at this stage, I hastily switched on my player/recorder and did a quick sound check. Am I glad I did!. It sounded AWFUL - and I swapped that scream for a trembling moan. Phew! I had an immediate sense that the story was now mine.

Let story become part of your life. You'll find yourself spontaneously rehearsing ways to say things. Save the ways that you felt good about.

Embark on journey of self discovery, self expression, healing and joy.
To take this issue to a deeper level, we need to back up and consider why you desire a storytelling voice. Storytelling connects people - it builds community among those who have something in common - stories! Some will tell in public places; some will share a story in private; some will enjoy stories in the listening.

To develop a storytelling voice you have to care about something. Ask yourself: What is it about storytelling that I care about most? Don’t try be too specific in your answer .Your interests and identity can only be discovered as your voice starts to grow.

Caring about something is an important starting point. It's not just being against something, and it's not just wanting to have a community. It means having values that make the world make sense. Once you know what you care about, then you can hunt for a community. Maybe that community already exists, or maybe you have to build it. The point is that your voice is not just your own voice -- it is also the voice of a community.

Whatever you care about, no matter how personal it may feel, there will be others who care about it too - whether it’s saving the white rhino, connecting with street kids, working with refugees or establishing links with older people - our job is to imagine that community of practice out there, its members all thinking together, however quietly, about the topic that most concerns you. Your community needs a language, it needs an association, it needs a clubhouse, and it needs a voice. Your voice. That's how it works.

The stories you tell need to be true to your own experience and values while respecting the needs and expectations of your audience. I’ve heard story practitioners insist: ‘Tell the stories you love.’ I’m not convinced this is the first commandment. As a storyteller, I am often asked to tell a story that fits a specific audience or theme - or even asked to tell a particular story.
Unless the story or theme contradicts ‘who I am as a person’ or what I believe, the act of working on the story and making it my own creates such a dynamic between me and the story that I only discover my love for it in the process.

I remember being asked to tell a story from a blind person’s point of view. I thought about being blind. I tried to imagine what it might be like to be blind. I knew it wasn’t enough - it didn’t feel real. I went down to the park nearby my home and sat with my eyes closed for two hours. It proved quite difficult at times - but I was determined. I listened to the noises around me and tried to interpret them; I let leaves brush against my face and insects crawl up my legs. When a dog licked my face - the unexpectedness of it almost forced me back to my safe ‘seeing’ world.


But after that experience, retelling stories like Six Blind Men and the Elephant (a fable from India retold by Karen Blackstein, 1992) or The Blind Man and the Hunter (a folktale from West Africa) or the gospel story in Mark 10:46-52 of Blind Bartemaeus - is magic. I had found a voice with which I could be comfortable - real and spontaneous.. Not that those stories are now fixed—they continue to grow with me in each retelling.

Although a story needs a shape that begins with a setting and a problem that moves to a satisfying ending, a story is essentially about a character. To tell a story well I need to get to know the character(s) and somehow meld the character’s voice with my own

.
Consider the story of The Drover’s Wife by Henry Lawson. The story depicts a pioneer woman living on a farm in outback New South Wales who has just spent a night protecting her children from a snake that had slithered between the planks of her slab house. Times are tough, she has three children to care for. Her husband has gone droving to bring in some money to keep them going - but all she wants is to move into town. Starved for adult conversation, she pours out to a perfect stranger, all her fears, dreams and frustrations.

How do I retell that story? In my mind, I ‘sit’ with that woman and try to build connections between her situation and my experiences. Perhaps, I recall the snake that curled itself under the tap of the rainwater tank by the shed and prevented me getting a bucker of water for the garden. I think of a time I felt so isolated I shared something personal with a stranger. I remember how stressed I became the day one of my children became ill and the telephone was out of order. Then there was the period after Cyclone Tracy when I’d had enough! All I wanted was out of the situation I was in.


Now as I contemplate the story, the drover’s wife’s voice comes to me. And somehow it IS my voice!

Telling personal stories opens a need for a special voice for telling
What stories can I tell? Try listing the defining moments of your life. Any special lessons or experiences that profoundly affected you? For example: learning how to ride a bike, moving to a different city, taking on a new job, becoming a parent.

Can you find the extraordinary in the ordinary? You won’t inspire an audience if you live a negative life. Uncover the joys, triumphs or exciting moments and bring them to life for yourself and your audience! What is your philosophy? By what values do you live your life? What makes you laugh? Share your favourite sources of humour. What makes you angry? Share how you would change the world for the better if you could.


Finding the voice to tell personal stories can be a demanding task. Light-hearted episodes where the main purpose in the telling is to entertain an audience present few difficulties. But for personal stories which hold or, have in the past, held an emotional depth, it is wise to review the story carefully and ask yourself: Is this story ready to tell? Have I worked through the issues it raises? Can I identify the universal themes that are likely to resonate with my listeners? Does the story offer a fresh perspective or new angle on the issues raised? Will their be that sigh factor where, at the end, you almost feel listeners exhale a deep satisfying ah?


If a personal story stirs within you the pain/distress/anger it held when you first encountered the experience, it is probably not ready to tell. Story telling should not be an opportunity to engage in personal therapy. Respect your audience. Remember, that in a storytelling situation, our stories are a gift to those who listen (or read).

As a listener to (or reader of) a story, it is the story I want to hear - and I want to hear it in your storyteller’s voice . I want to learn from the story. I want to take the STORY, not the teller’s pain, home with me.


As you prepare a personal story find that which speaks to the healthy parts of your inner being without pushing the buttons of the other parts. Steer clear of those parts focused on … propaganda … wounds … acting out a trauma.


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So, where will you find your stories? What do you have to say? How will you find your unique storytelling voice? Thomas Boomershine (1992, 19) in his book Story Journey tells us ‘the stories you remember and tell others become the best gifts you have to give. They become yours in a special way. People become the stories they love to tell.’

As to your storytelling voice, remember it is yours to grow. In My Voice will Go with You: the teaching tales of Milton Erickson edited by Sidney Rosen (1982, 187), Erickson tells how he sent one of his patients to sit on the lawn until he made a fantastic discovery. After about an hour his patient came dashing in and said, ‘Do you realise that every blade of grass is a different shade of green?’
Your task: Challenge yourself and discover your storytelling (or writing) voice!

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting post! It is fascinating to hear someone else read what you have written aloud. You're right, everyone has their own unique voice and style with reading or performing a story.

    Great to read about your storytelling experiences and the interest you had with your storytelling workshops.

    ReplyDelete