In the fall of 1984 I had a grant from the University of Delaware to do storymaking projects with faculty, returning adult students, undergraduates, graduates, and administrative units. Each group was formed by participants who signed up for the classes and workshops.
The faculty who chose to participate came from a variety of fields—business, science, arts, humanities, social sciences—and most did not know each other. All went well until the fifth and next to last, session.
With the ten of us sitting in a circle, I began telling a story about how the first storyteller came to be. Suddenly, nothing. I couldn’t remember what came next. Not a word. It was as if the story dropped into an abyss.
I was stunned. The group looked at me, waiting. Embarrassed, filled with shame, feeling terrible about myself as a storyteller and leader of the group, I had to admit I could no longer remember the story.
I expected at least some of them to react unsympathetically. There’d been a lot of initial skepticism about the value and power of stories and it had taken time for faculty members who didn’t know each other to trust that they could talk about their feelings and personal reactions to the stories we’d shared without being judged.
After what felt like a very long silence, while I was still trying to remember the story, judging myself harshly, a storyteller who couldn’t remember a story about how the first storyteller came to be, Marion, a business professor, spoke up. “Maybe your forgetting the story is a gift for us. We can tell our stories about how we’ve become storytellers. I’ll begin.” She talked about how she’d always read stories to her children, that when they asked her to make up a story, she could never think of anything to say. “Since I’ve been taking this workshop, I’ve learned to trust my imagination. I couldn’t make up stories for my kids but I can make them up for my grandchildren.”
I barely heard her. All I could think about was how I’d failed. How could I call myself a storyteller when I couldn’t remember the story I was telling and was too upset to even make up a new one. I thought Marion was being kind and waited for the judgment to begin, steeling myself for their disapproval.
Instead, one by one, participants talked about becoming storytellers, each in their own way. I still felt they were being compassionate rather than honest until the last person spoke. George, a chemistry professor, who’d found it difficult to talk about his feelings, said, “Maybe this is the wrong thing to say, but I’m glad you couldn’t remember the rest of the story. I even wonder if you did it on purpose, just to make us feel better.” I shook my head in astonishment that anyone would think I’d say I’d forgotten a story as a strategy. He continued. “You’re a terrific storyteller and you have an amazing ability to help us tell stories. Me, for instance. I only signed up for this group because Marty (a math professor) dared me to do it. I never thought for one moment it would be anything but misery.” We all laughed. “Boy! Was I wrong. I come in tired, feeling depleted, and I leave full of energy. You might not believe this but last night I told my daughter to name three things; I think she said ball, grass, and bird. I made a story from them. Imagine, me, a storyteller... Who would have thought it possible?”
Marty guffawed. “George, I didn’t think you had it in you. Miracles still happen.” George rolled his eyes.
Listening to how the workshop affected them filled me with gratitude and awe. Out of my failed memory came their stories and a new sense of themselves as storytellers.
What stories do you tell?
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.