Friday, April 3, 2009

Telling Stories

ROBERTA: Today's guest is a blast from my past--a woman I went to college with some (cough, cough) years ago. She has sworn in blood not to tell embarrassing tales. Since our graduation, Susan Danoff has become a storyteller, teacher, and writer, the author of The Golden Thread: Storytelling in Teaching and Learning and a CD, Women of Vision. She's most interested in bringing storytelling to children and teachers. From 1996 - 2007 Susan founded and ran a nonprofit corporation which served low-income and special needs school children through long-term storytelling programs. Susan has just begun a new project - The Story House Retreat Center in southern New Hampshire - where she will hold residential workshops in storytelling and creativity.

She's here today to tell us about her most unusual career. Welcome Susan! Let's start with the obvious questions. What exactly does a storyteller do and how did you get into this business?

SUSAN: It was because of this initial experience in Trenton that I decided to form a nonprofit corporation to bring storytelling to more children in low-income schools where literacy scores are low and drop out rates are high. For twelve years I worked with nine storytelling colleagues, and we found that wherever we went - whether it was a Head Start program or a Detention Center - once the story began, the attention was immediate, even among children who have attention issues. Because of this, it has been one of my career goals to bring storytelling to as many teachers as I can.
Storytellers “tell” stories to live audiences. Since we don't read from a book, the presentation of the material is shaped, not only by language, but by nonverbal expression and direct and immediate connection with the audience. Listening to an effective storyteller should be a transporting experience. You float off into the world of the story, forgetting where you are. In that way it is like reading a book you love, but it's also different. There's an intensity that is created by the energy generated from the story, the storyteller, and the audience response.

I heard my first storyteller almost thirty years ago and fell in love with the art form immediately. I set out to become a storyteller though I had no idea this would be a lifelong journey for me. I tell mostly international folktales and some literary stories. If you read a folk story, chances are it will feel very flat on the page. That's because folktales need the voice of the storyteller to make them come alive. I love the folk and fairytales because of their wisdom, humor, and enchantment. For thousands of years they survived because people wanted and needed to tell them to someone else. They still carry that immediacy today.

ROBERTA: Do you write any of the stories you tell? If so, please tell us how you go about that.

SUSAN: When I work with a folktale, I try to understand it through movement and visualization. When I think I have a handle on it, I write my own version. This continues to change as I tell it. I also write what are called literary fairytales. These are original stories that have the literary conventions of folk and fairytales. The most famous writer of literary fairytales is Hans Christian Andersen, but others are Oscar Wilde, James Thurber, and Jane Yolen.

ROBERTA: Please tell us about the experience of getting your disadvantaged students excited about writing their own stories.

SUSAN: Around 1985 I was working as a visiting storyteller/writer for the NJ State Council on the Arts, and I was placed in an elementary school in Trenton. This was an urban school with many problems associated with poverty - one of which was literacy. I was amazed by the children's response. When I told stories, it was as if light bulbs were turning on inside the children. They couldn't wait to hear the stories, and their listening was highly focused. Once I had their attention, I found that I could follow up easily with writing. Over the years I have created many writing activities to help children to visualize, articulate what they imagine, tap memories, and create stories and poetry.

ROBERTA: thanks for stopping by JRW today! Now the floor is open for questions, comments, or votes on your favorite stories of all time.


  1. HEy Nancy..what a beautiful--story. It makes me think about what techniques you use that writers could also appply to the written word.

    Any thoughts on that?

  2. Hi, Hank.

    Thank you for your question.
    Over the years I have had a number of writers come to my storytelling institutes in the summer, and I have thought about the differences and similarities between telling and writing stories. Where storytelling can help a writer, I think, is in developing voice and paying attention to the rhythm of language and how it sounds in the ear. When we read we "hear" the voice of the writer in our minds, and storytelling makes us produce this voice and really listen to it.

    A writer does some of the same things that a storyteller -- such as envisioning scene and trying on character. Perhaps some of the storytelling techniques of physically embodying the character and using improvisation to get to know the character might be helpful to a writer as well.

    A storyteller has more tools than a writer -- we have the ability to pause; to inflect our language through tone, volume, and pitch; to use gesture and posture to convey our meaning; and to look straight at our audience and respond directly to the feedback we are getting. The writer has to be able to do all this just through language with an invisible audience.

    Once upon a time we were all storytellers and gradually those who would have been storytellers in a traditional culture have becomes writers. Getting in touch with the oral language can, I think, be an eye-opening journey for a writer.


  3. Well--this is pretty funny. Susan may be a blast from Roberta's past, but she is also a blast from mine--we went to junior high together! The internet is such a funny thing.

    Anyway, my path has been a different one, but as an executive at educational technology companies, I am constantly emphasizing the power of telling the story of who we are, telling stories about what our customers do with the technology, it's impact on the students, etc. The stories bind us togther as a tribe and bind us with our customers. It's such a human need and compulsion.

    Susan--hoping you are well. In my spare time I write fiction, but I can't imagine doing what you do! Amazing.

    All the best,
    Barbara Ross

  4. Susan--I love the idea of an invisible audience. And I think about them all the time.

    There's something that happens between story-teller and audience, I'm sure, and I bet you can instantly tell when you're reaching them, and when you aren't. Even with essentially the same story.

    And I think of writing books with a sort of tree-falls-in-the-forest element. If no one reads
    it, then it's not really completed. Like--the reader has to be there for the book to "be."

  5. Barbara, that's too funny. we all need to take a trip up to Susan's New Hampshire retreat house and tell stories from our pasts!

  6. Dear Barbara,

    Amazing! I have sometimes wondered what happened to you, But I had no idea how to begin looking for you. Please email me through my website and let me know how to continue our conversation. I'd love to know more about what's happened to you since junior high school.

    Yes, Roberta -- I would love to welcome you all here in this new venture of exchanging ideas (and stories) at The Story House.

    About that invisible of the reasons that storytelling is so powerful in a classroom where students are novice readers and writers (through high school) is that they cannot yet imagine that invisible voice. As the storyteller embodies/interprets story, children learn to understand how to hear/understand the language of the written word. By learning to truly "imagine" they can eventually become the audience on the other side of the invisible wall between writer and reader.


  7. Susan-

    Too funny. Will do. Great to reconnect.


  8. As I young teen, I couldn't wait for Girl Scout retreats. Our storytelling troop leader eased us into slumber for hours by firelight.

    I stayed awake the longest, letting my senses fill up with wilderness sounds, sights and smells that merge with her voice and stories.

    Confucius says, forget injuries, never forget kindnesses.

  9. Hi Susan,
    Welcome to Jungle Red, what a terrific application of story telling! Your career is inspiring!

  10. Sooki--you bring tears to my eyes. I remember that, too.

  11. Thank you, Jan. I'm so happy to know about your site. As an avid mystery reader, I will no longer be wondering what to read next...

  12. Welcome Susan!
    I grew up with story tellers. My great aunt and grandmother would tell stories for hours--some true, and some fiction. I try to carry that on to my children and now grandchildren. They love Nana's invented stories much more than any book. I think the storyteller has that wonderful advantage of feeling the connection with her audience, knowing when she "has" them, when they are truly hooked.
    We writers have no way of knowing how our books are received, when people become bored, when excited.

    Keep up that great work!