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How to Tell Spell-binding Tales

Storytelling is an art form but it an art form that anyone can be good at with a little practice... ...The best thing about it is it won’t add any weight to your backpack!

Reprinted as seen in the July + August 2011 Issue of Washington Trails Magazine, written by Chris Wall and illustrated by Niki Sherey.

Sleeping Bag Man“After a 26-mile day on the PCT, I'd crossed into the Pasayaten Wilderness from Windy Pass. I made camp under a moonless sky then wolfed down a bland pasta dinner. Exhausted I crawled into my tent. About 3 a.m. I was startled awake by a 'thud, thud, thud' sound. Mind reeling with explanations, I gratefully recognized the sound deer make when they bound through the forest.

Relieved, I settled back down and just as I was drifting asleep my mind curiously inquired, 'What spooked the deer?'. Lovely. Then, chillingly, I heard a deep, long, rattling sigh echo from the forest. It didn’t sound too far away either. Combating the prickling sensation on the back of my neck, I rationalized about how the mind plays tricks on you when you spend a lot of time by yourself. The sighing was unnerving enough but then I saw something truly bewildering.

There appeared to be a luminous green glow coming from somewhere nearby. My blood ran cold. Pondering the feeble protection that tent fabric provides, I watched larch tree silhouettes shift eerily on my tent walls as the light got closer, brighter. The sighing was very loud now and the green glow was bobbing just a few feet away...”

  The origins of storytelling have become lost in the mists of time. The oldest physical evidence are the 30,000 year old animal paintings in the Chauvet cave of Southern France. However the practice is far, far older likely dating back to the time people first learned how to speak.

  Storytelling is as natural to humanity as eating and breathing. It's unique to the human species (as far as we know) and is deeply tied to the development of every culture on earth. And fortunately for us, it’s fun and easy to learn. 

  Most of us use storytelling techniques everyday as we share funny experiences or the highlights of our day. With a few tweaks here and there, these skills can blossom and you'll find yourself captivating any fireside gathering with your tales.

  First, you have to choose a story and make sure its one you really love. It's got to be the type of story that you can't wait to share with someone else. It can be fictional, true or even a personal experience. Story in hand, find a quiet place and read it aloud. Pay special attention to key points in the story that are worth memorizing (e.g. songs, sounds, certain phrases). Make notes about the structure and plot progression of the story.

  Once you've read it through, try and tell it from memory referring to original only if needed. Upon finishing, review the story and note any important details you left out. Tell the story again from memory. After you've made it through the second time, reevaluate how true to the story you were. 

Talker  Now you are ready for an audience. For your first attempt keep a few things in mind. Relax! Stories are malleable so it's not a big deal if you leave something out or if you embellish a little. Try to stay true to the original story and theme but know each storyteller leaves a bit of his or her personality in the story with each telling. Give it your best shot but in the end just have fun with it. The best storytellers leave an audience thinking about the story well after they have finished.

  With a few storytelling experiences under your belt you'll realize ways to improve your skills. The more stories you tell, the better a storyteller you will become. Just remember that you are providing entertainment and challenge yourself to read and respond to the reactions of your audience. Storytelling is an art form but it an art form that anyone can be good at with a little practice.

  If you take the time to learn a few stories well, you can provide an entertaining experience anywhere at anytime. I encourage you to break out your new storytelling skills at your next fire or stove-side gathering. The best thing about it is it won’t add any weight to your backpack! 

Campfire PeepsStorytelling Resources:

The Storyteller's Startup Book by Margaret Read MacDonald

Creative Storytelling: Building Community, Changing Lives by Jack Zipes

World Tales collected by Idries Shah

Earth Care by Margaret Read MacDonald

Spirit of the Cedar People by Chief Lelooska and Christine Normandin

Strange Monsters of the Pacific Northwest by Michael Newton

Special thanks to Ed Sheridan for his resource suggestions.