When was the last time you or your children gathered at the side of an older family member to learn from their stories? Our busy lifestyles and lack of cultural respect for our elders have begun to erase this tradition within our families. Additionally, it has become all too easy to rely on technology to store our family histories in these days of digital photography and online genealogy. Our future generations have a right to the knowledge and values that came before them. It is up to you to protect your family history and prevent the loss of important lessons learned, so that your children and grandchildren can continue to thrive in better lives.
Thankfully, there is a very simple tool you can begin using today to safeguard your family history. It requires no special technology and no particular materials, and you can begin learning the skills right away. Oral storytelling has helped history, narrative, poetry, song and legend stay alive throughout generations of cultures around the world since time immemorial. Examples include everything from the legends of Paul Bunyan to stories in the Old Testament; chances are there already exist stories in your family that are passed around and retold.
However, there is a difference between telling stories at family gatherings and creating a tradition of oral storytelling to protect your history and values. Mainly, the difference is intention: Stories selected for casual retelling are often framed to entertain. But for oral storytelling, you want to preserve history, teach lessons, and impart the core beliefs of your family. You will need to seek out and begin telling stories that uphold these goals. The method of telling stories is different, as well. Successful preservation of an oral history is going to require a well-structured, oft-repeated story, possibly with the use of traditional mnemonic devices such as rhyme and metre. The goal is for your family not just to hear the stories, but to remember them for repetition to future generations.
In creating your stories, begin simply. Choose a single theme or subject, and tell a story with a well-developed plot. Your family in the stories should be well-rounded characters whose real-life traits add to the story. To appeal to your listeners, begin with action and delve right into the conflict of the story, describing as many sensory details as possible and using vivid imagery. Pare the story down to its core message – one or two sentences – and then build the details around the center to guarantee your focus.
Feel free to borrow techniques from oral traditions that have been successful. In Anglo-Saxon folklore, formulas such as the “rule of three” was relied upon as a storytelling device to assist storytellers with memorizing story parts, as in, “Three brothers set out upon the wood, where they were separated and each given a quest …” Homeric epics, Middle English poetry, and even Norse prose sagas rely heavily on alliteration, assonance, rhythm, rhyme, and metre as mechanisms to protect the message through retellings. However, you do not have to create a story that will be remembered word-for-word. Within many indigenous and folkloric traditions, storytelling revolves around distinctive images, proverbs, themes or stock characters whose motives are well-understood through their consistent behavior.
The most important considerations when creating your oral history are tailoring your style to your audience, and consistency. When you find a story that is important to your family history, spend lots of time with it and make it your own. Determine the values and lessons you want remembered, and the historical details you want preserved, and make notes. Structure all the action and details to emphasize your desired themes and stimulate the senses of your listeners. Although you will retain the core images or recite word-for-word in retellings, you should always adapt to your listeners — slowing down pace for dramatic effect, cutting the story down for very young listeners, or filling it with details to stimulate the senses of more experienced audiences.
The Value of Oral History
Stories can bridge the divide between generations and allow a family to preserve ethics, history and the lessons gained. The human brain is structured to learn and remember stories effectively, and the social and cultural history of humanity is full of examples of the importance of retaining histories in story form. Because our brains are practically designed to be story vaults, there is almost no safer place to store your family history. The process of storytelling is as instructive for the teller as the listener; in each retelling, the story becomes better remembered by everyone. In listening to the retellings of stories within an oral history, personal connections are created, the knowledge of generations is shared, and a collective sense of family values is recognized. Each of these benefits strengthens your family and informs good decision-making for the future, all while protecting the details of your family history.
How do you use storytelling in your family? Share your advice with us!