By Marjorie Turner Hollman, Sharing the Fire 2016 Workshop Presenter
I love the concept of shape-shifting: Selkies; princes turn into frogs or bears; straw transforms into gold. In the most compelling stories, growth and change are a given. I discovered the “world” of professional storytelling in the late 1980’s. My first Sharing the Fire Conference (STF) was in 1989, and while there I eagerly absorbed every lesson pertaining to storytelling. I made friends, many of whom I cherish to this day.
I began sharing stories in my children’s classes (no books, just the story) and grew as a storyteller. I began to visit other venues, sharing folktales, and simple stories, and songs, especially for very young audiences. Among the tales I grew to love, the story of Rumpelstiltskin was one I returned to again and again. Archeologist Elizabeth Barber, author of Women’s Work, wrote about the flax plant, which is transformed into linen, appearing as golden thread as it is spun. Quite fragile, the flax must be immersed in water as it is spun, a type of spinning that requires great skill. I wondered if the story of Rumpelstiltskin was built on this hidden quality of flax, which metamorphoses from a simple type of straw into golden thread. Over time the story of Rumpelstiltskin seemed no longer merely a magical story—straw to gold, poof!—but instead a story of a lonely man with skills to offer, but no place to share those gifts. Embittered and frustrated, he took his revenge on those who finally needed him. Or did he? As I mulled these themes in my storytelling development, I had no idea that I would soon be living a “shape-shifting” reality of my own.
In 1993 my life suddenly transformed. After experiencing a seizure, which prompted medical attention, I woke from emergency surgery unable to walk; my right side was paralyzed. My body, my entire world had shifted, and it was up to me to learn to live in this new reality.
Thankfully my body has not remained frozen, although to this day I live with the reminders of that shape-shifting change, now over 20 years ago. Performing became problematic for me; I retired from my storytelling career. But life had still more shape-shifting plans for me.
An important aspect of healing, of adapting to change, is discovering ways to give back, to get outside of oneself. I had always feared writing, and in fact was thrilled to learn that storytellers were encouraged to use their voices, rather than focus on the limitations of the written word. Being isolated at home, I took to sharing by email written stories about my children and neighbors (such a new thing; to receive one, two, maybe three emails in a day!). And joy, oh joy, I connected with others, and they wrote back to me.
Since it was “only email,” I was able to let go of that inner editor (which sounded strangely like my mom) and wrote. I shared funny stories of my children’s antics, party-planning with my dear neighbor, who was always ready to throw a party with our children at the drop of a hat, and adventures sewing costumes for aspiring neighborhood princesses. The more I practiced, the more confident I grew in my writing. The editor of our local paper gave me a chance to write an article for the paper. She encouraged me, and I kept writing.
I soon found my niche and focused on personal profiles, capturing what is essential about another person’s story. Since then, I’ve interviewed countless folks, drawn their stories out, then transformed their spoken words into a coherent narrative, calling on the skills I’d learned in my years as a performing storyteller.
These days, I help people write their own stories within the field of Personal History. I interview, solicit the stories, transcribe our conversation, then transform the discussion into a narrative. I often hear, “I didn’t do anything special”—from outward appearances, straw, perhaps? After we’ve talked, however, invariably these narrators reveal interesting anecdotes, and I have the privilege of weaving these threads into a coherent narrative—gold!
In every shape-shifting folktale, the process of change is not without pain. Through many, many changes in my life, the constant theme I have sensed is the deep hunger for story in a suffering world. The opportunities are limitless—limited only by our ability to master shape-shifting in a changing, hurting world.
Want to learn how to turn an oral tale into written form? On Sunday, April 3 at Sharing the Fire 2016, Marjorie Turner Hollman will be presenting her workshop, Shape-Shifting: Transforming the Spoken Tale into Compelling Writing. Learn more about Sharing the Fire and register today!
Learn more about Marjorie at marjorieturner.com
Have tips for shaping oral stories into written tales? Leave a comment.