When Hannah and I came up with the idea for the Medieval Storytelling project, one of our main aims was to provide training which would develop graduate students’ and ECRs’ narrative and oral performance skills. While such skills are often taken for granted – most of us are pretty used to giving conference papers – it’s rare that these skills are explicitly taught. We thought that training in storytelling would encourage the development of both of these skills.
At the workshops held in Oxford we were eased gently into using and developing our storytelling skills. The participants were randomly assigned to either Jenny Moon or Daniel Morden’s groups; I was in Daniel’s group. To start with we were encouraged to relay an embarrassing story of our own (but not so embarrassing that we minded others hearing it!) to just one other person. This person was then asked to tell the story to another, and that other person to yet another. Finally, the last person to be told the story had to then tell it one-to-one to the original teller. When my own tale was told back to me, I was surprised to see how much the story had changed. And not only that, but the scale had become grander and the funny bits funnier. In fact, the story was much better for these elaborations.
On reflection it was clear that the kernel of the story remained the same. Only the trappings had changed, the minor details really didn’t matter. Not only was this a great ice-breaker, but this activity taught an important lesson about the translation and transmission of oral narratives: if you can remember the key components of a story, you don’t have to sweat the small stuff. It’s fine to make up the detail as you go along – the essential story stays the same!
This lesson was one that we kept returning to in the telling of our tales throughout the workshop. When working on fairytales and medieval narratives over the course of the two days, we kept returning to the same key idea: the way to learn, and tell, a good story is to distill the narrative on which you’re working – no matter how expansive – into just 6 or 7 key plot points. Memorising these key points allows you to ad lib with confidence, and reconstruct a narrative in the telling.
The Oxford-based participants have formed a storytelling circle so that we can meet to practice our adaptation and storytelling skills. In adapting my own story – the Old Norse Þrymskviða – I find myself returning repeatedly to the skills learned at the workshop. Breaking the narrative down into key points is a simple exercise but, for me at least, it’s an essential foundation for oral storytelling.