Q&A with a Story Guru: Cynthia Kurtz, Part 3

See Cynthia’s bio, photo, Part 1 of this Q&A, and Part 2.

Q&A with Cynthia Kurtz (Question 3):

Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?

A: I’m sad about how much packaged entertainment and crafted messages have changed our world. Sheet music and novels were met with wide condemnation when they came out because it was said people would no longer come up with their own music and stories. The people condemning those media would hardly recognize the world of today, where it seems people have barely a thought to themselves but spend their time listening to other people sing, watching other people play games, and hearing what other people think. With kids it’s even worse. It’s a difficult task to keep our children from being inundated by media-generated images, which erode their innate abilities to create their own stories and worlds.

When I found the excellent book, Where There Is No Doctor, the paragraph that surprised me the most was this one:

Today in over-developed as well as under-developed countries, existing health care systems are in a state of crisis. Often, human needs are not being well met. There is too little fairness. Too much is in the hands of too few.

In the same way that people in the “over-developed” countries have given doctors too much control over their health and reduced their ability to heal themselves, people (mostly in those same countries) have given commercial imaginers too much control over their imagination and reduced their ability to make up their own stories.

The other day I came across an review in Parenting magazine of story cards that solve the problem “we all face” of having a child ask for a story and “coming up blank.” What? Why should any healthy adult be incapable of making up a story? Isn’t there something wrong there? I don’t think people have lost the ability to tell stories as much as they have lost the expectation that it is their place to tell stories. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people balk at being asked to tell stories because they don’t think their stories are good enough to be “real stories.” Would that have been true a hundred years ago? A thousand? Of course there have been storytellers since the beginning of time, but I don’t think there has ever been a time when ordinary people were so removed from ordinary storytelling. I would like to see people get back to telling more of their own stories, singing more of their own songs, and playing more of their own games.

Having said all that, I do believe that crafted stories have their place in the world, as they always have. Long ago, when to tell crafted stories you had to memorize long epics and travel from town to town to tell them in person, it was difficult for crafted storytelling to get out of balance; but things are far out of balance now. I’m not sure how to set that balance right again, but I do have two suggestions. The first is that people who find they tell stories well and want to do so professionally should do the hard work to get it right. They should respect stories, make them their own, and work with integrity, passion and care.

Second, professional storytellers (and others working with narrative in other ways) should never allow themselves to believe that any crafted story is better or more entitled to be a “real story” than anyone’s raw personal story. Storytellers should radiate respect for raw stories of personal experience. It would be wonderful if all the professional storytellers out there could think about making it part of their responsibility to find more ways to help people tell their own stories. I applaud everyone who gives adult education classes about writing memoirs or putting together family stories, and I’m excited when I see people sharing personal stories online, and I am encouraged by projects like StoryCorps and books like Gig: Americans Talk about Their Jobs (of which there are far too few) that help raw stories of personal experience get to where they need to go. I hope more people will get involved in such things in the future; maybe then the balance can be restored.