Questions with a thousand answers
I don't exactly have what you would call a job description. I was thrilled to see that my name badge for At Home in Scotland's opening conference read 'Storyteller and Folklorist'. As I have faffed about, piecing together bits of work, the three main threads of storytelling, oral history, and reminiscence, have emerged. They're all about the unseen exchange of thoughts and ideas between human minds. They're all, when it comes down to it, just fancy names for conversation. I often feel uncomfortable with the idea of these things being somehow special, something you need to study, rather than something you just do. These activities are formalisations of what used to be the only way to exchange information - that is, through speaking and listening to one another. Storytelling, in particular, is a troubling activity to define - where's the line between traditional storytelling and stand-up comedy and spoken-word performance and chatting to your neighbour at the bus stop? Of course, there is no line except that drawn by our personal tastes, and one person's eye-opening raconteur is another person's insufferable show off.
For me, the most important thing defining traditional storytelling is the utter lack of a fourth wall. Although the audience (hopefully) aren't interrupting you in the midst of your narrative, you are in conversation with them. Their thoughts and reflections and reactions to your words are the only reason to do this. I once read a piece of advice to beginner storytellers saying you should practice in front of a mirror. No. Tell your story to a cat or a pot plant if you can't find or face a human audience yet, but tell it to something living. Because it's about the story, and the listeners. Recently I told a story on a stage, at Mareel in Shetland, and was immensely thrown by the lighting – it was set up so you couldn’t see the audience’s faces from the stage. I felt like I was speaking into a void, trying to feel my way by the laughter and silences.
Where to find your stories is another question with a thousand answers, all of them wrong to somebody. Does it dilute the tradition, to have taken your words from a page into the air? Or take them from – heaven forbid – such a vulgar thing as the internet? I can't help being prouder of the stories I learnt from hearing them, even though I know that's a bit silly. Songs and tales come on and off the page easily. The singer declaiming ballads from a cheap chapbook on a street corner, the Penny Dreadfuls spawning and reinforcing urban legends, the viral online hoax. All stories, all worth the telling. And all stories transform with each telling. It depends on your audience, your mood, the place. Allowing yourself to let go, to go with the story, is incredibly freeing – once you get over the sense of being in freefall. As a counterpoint to the mirror suggestion, some genuinely good advice: know the story, not the words of the story.
Scotland's traditional storytelling scene is in the midst of what you could call a revival. The dedicated Storytelling Centre, on the Royal Mile, has become one of Edinburgh's favourite venues. As well as young and not-so-young upstarts, we're lucky to enjoy the company of a number of tradition bearers, people for whom this seems to be simultaneously a lifetime's worth of painstaking dedicated artistry and as straightforward as breathing. In recognition of the time and effort it takes, the Centre operates the Scottish Storytelling Directory – having your name on this is proof you’ve put the time in, not just to learn stories but to deal with a range of audiences and their reactions – and as far as I know, it’s the only one in the world. I’m currently at the apprentice stage.
There are more questions – about the dangers of professionalising tradition (important to remember, on this point, that even ‘back in the day’ it took work – tradition bearers are not accidentally channelling the amorphous carrying stream which surrounds them, they are actively shaping and re-creating their stories with each telling), who ‘owns’ a traditional story, and how far you can change it before you’ve broken it – than can be addressed here. All I can say is, sometimes it’s better not to overthink things. Go and hear some stories, then tell some stories. It's good for you, and not necessarily bad for your career. I hear the Prime Minister of Greenland is a storyteller.
But why would you listen to me? I make things up all the time.
Erin Catriona Farley | @aliasmacalias