It's not about Goldilocks
Yesterday, I told the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears 20 times—to adults. Each time I told the story, I sat facing a single person. Their knees almost touched mine, their eyes locked with my own.
My first telling sounded like: There was a house, and a girl in the woods, did I mention the bears? There were three of them. There were bowls of porridge: Large, medium and small. I think there were chairs. Maybe she broke one. She went to sleep. The bears came home. She ran away.
“Becky” and the three bears
We had four minutes to get the story out. After that, we listened to our partners tell stories. Some picked Goldilocks, others told Three Billy Goats Gruff, or folktales I had never heard. After each exchange, we switched partners and continued. The point was to practice getting “from A to Z,” our teacher, Master Storyteller Donna Washington, told us.
I did not want to pick Goldilocks. It’s never been a favorite tale. To make matters worse, the story had been a part of an exercise during the Storytelling Strategies to Dismantle Racism training I attended in Seattle back in June. During that exercise, we considered the story from the bears’ perspective. As we did that, the character of Goldilocks morphed into a “Becky” who was arrested after breaking and entering. But yesterday, Donna gave us three minutes to think of a folktale (not a personal story, those are harder to play with, she said). We had to know it from beginning to end. Goldilocks was all I had.
Round and around we went. I soon felt like the worst storyteller in the room. (And I just quit my job to go all-in with my online storytelling platform). But here’s the thing, oral storytelling is not writing. Oral storytelling is not reading words from a page. Oral storytelling is telling stories, out loud, over and over again. The story is different each time you tell it.
Here’s the part where you can imagine my perfectionist self suddenly exploding and dripping down the walls. I was almost in physical pain making an audience, even if it was an audience of one, listen to me speak when I did not have hours to prepare. Throw in the fact I had to tell an adult a repetitive, predictable children’s tale they’d heard dozens of times and spit it out almost as fast as I could...well, slowly I realized I had somehow grown into someone who was terrified to play with a new friend. My fear of boring them was making me more boring.
Donna taught us how gestures and sounds can make any story come alive with detail without making the story longer. By the end of the day, I was twirling imaginary golden locks of hair around my finger, hand on a jutted hip, bending deeply over imaginary bowls of porridge, taking long sweeping whiffs of imaginary steam.
As a writer, my practice has been to build stories only using words, to use very carefully chosen words in precise order. That did not help me as an oral storyteller. But letting the words come out of my mouth, sinking into the depths of my imagination, allowing play (and not calling it “making mistakes”) will definitely help me be a better writer.