In my first year at university I had the privilege of taking history with proffesor Gunnar Beonhart. He was one of the reasons why former Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, brought the 1983 World Peace Talks to the small city of Guelph, Ontario, (where professor Beonhart taught).
I was 18 and until then history was something I read about in textbooks or that I watched, dramaticized in movies. But in professor Beonhart’s class history came alive! He would transport us from the classroom, into a small town in Germany where he grew up, or into communist Europe during the Cold War. He would tell stories that allowed us, if only for a single class at a time, to enter into an era so different than own… One where a little boy in war-torn Europe saw things that we in the Western world could never imagine in our daily upbringing; Or where a Cold War polarized countries, but delegates could look each other in the eyes and see mirrors of themselves, separated only by place of birth.
I remember one particular story of professor Beonnart as a boy, in which he and his parents were fleeing their town in a long procession of townspeople after a particularly devastating bombing. Hungry and tired he marched in precession with others heading out of the city. Then, an enemy plane approached and lined itself up with the path of fleeing people, opening fire as it approached. He didn’t speak of the fear, or the panic. He didn’t lament on the attack of civilians by a cruel pilot…
Rather he spoke of a lady and her small pig.
With the townspeople departing on foot, they all caried their most valuable possessions. This elderly lady had a piglet in her arms. She was struck by a bullet, or perhaps some shrapnal, and what professor Boenhart shared with us was how, even before this poor old lady’s body fell still upon the earth, hungry townspeople were already chasing after the piglet, fallen from the lady’s now lifeless hands.
“You can not blame them,” he said, pausing, reflecting, and looking out at his students though likely not seeing us… “Like me, they were all so very hungry”.
As often happened after Boenhart’s class was over, I looked down at just 3 or 4 lines of notes I had taken. Seldom did I get more, for I was lost in stories of the past, brought to life by professor Boenhart. I remember that story in particular because I had a large gap in my day after that class and I headed back to my dorm… though somehow I didn’t end up there. I ended up passing the doors I so often entered and instead went to the arbaritum behind the residences. I walked alone in a beautiful setting, but do not remember seeing anything, so lost in thought I was. What would I have felt? How would I have reacted? Would I have gone chasing after the pig?
This story was told to me over 25 years ago. Until now, I’m not sure if I’ve shared it before? Yet there it is in the recesses of my memory, a simple story that lingered, and perhaps helped to shape me, even if in subtle, unmeasurable ways.
There is power in the oral tradition of storytelling. Yesterday I went to a Roy Henry Vickers book launch for Raven Brings the Light. It’s a 3,000 year old story. Roy was asked to read from it… That lasted for about 4 sentences before the printed words were ignored and the story came to life.
Here is another story that has ‘moved’ me. Afterwards I’ll share some thoughts on storytelling. I’m purposefully avoiding looking up the art of storytelling and am just sharing my thoughts on the craft, as such, please feel free to provide your insights as well.
Some Ingredients in the Craft of Storytelling
Purpose or Meaning – Be it to share laughter, joy, or to deliver a lesson, the journey needs an ending that satisfies a simple question: Why was this story told?
Cantor – This vairies considerably, with some storytellers streaming ideas like periodless poems, while others can captivatingly hold a pause much longer than would normally be comfortable in a conversation. There isn’t so much a ‘right’ cantor as much as a practiced art of delivery.
Weaving – ‘Seamlessly’ connecting what would otherwise be unconnected ideas. Touching upon subtle points or thoughts that seem unnecessary right up until they are relevant. Foreshadowing is a well used form of this, but not the only form. Like a weaver would return to the use of a previous pattern or colour, or in my attempt right now to return to the very metaphor I used to describe this section.
Relevance – Sometimes ‘the devil is in the details’, and going into minute details or overly descriptive information adds value to the story. Other times the details are just a distraction. Does the story need a detailed setting, or can the setting be minimalist? Also, digression into side-stories can distract from purpose, or can be cleverly relevant if the side-story is meaningfully weaved into the stitching of the story’s purpose.
Serendiptiy – happenstance connections, chance meetings, accidental or incidental luck. This can produce the ‘problem’ or the reason for the story, or it can help with the solution. I read somewhere that in creating a story, it is ok to let chance get the protagonist into trouble, but chance as a way out of trouble is cheating. That may be true for a murder mystery, or an action film, but I don’t think that applies in telling true stories
Authenticity – Delivery of a story, (enthusiasm, tone, emphasis, pitch, expression, humour, etc.), can excite an audience or turn an audience off. I’ve heard incredible stories that lost credibility and authenticity not because of what was said, but rather how it was said. I’ve also sat riveted to the words of a simple story well told.