To change our lives, we must change our stories

One of the articles in Art And Ceremony In Sustainable Culture (IC#5)
Originally published in Spring 1984 on page 34
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

One of the most vital, accessible, yet often unrecognized, community based art forms is storytelling. Elaine Wynne lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Stories we tell about ourselves and the stories other people tell about us deeply affect how we live. If we want to change our lives, we must first change our stories.

This realization came to me in the early seventies after I had been involved and affected by several liberation movements, including my own with the dawning of the Women’s Movement.

It was that awareness that propelled me into becoming a professional storyteller. I began writing, dancing and photographing stories and made a video tape of storytellers. Friends began asking for stories at parties and spiritual gatherings. An early event I remember was a tree trimming party. I came to the party after spending three hours in a lawyer’s office negotiating a series of renovation contracts for the clinic where I worked.

When I placed a wreath of Norway pine on my head and began telling stories, all memory of that hard factual language melted away into the language of story. I told "The Little Fir Tree", a Christmas scene from one of Dick Gregory’s novels and the story of Pitys, who transformed herself into a pine tree to escape a marauding Pan; ever since that time, the pine tree has symbolized immortality and eternal life.

Children and grown-ups cuddled together around the stories and then trimmed the tree. The young ones fell asleep amidst the winter coats while adults sang, danced and drank glug.

Since that time, I’ve continued my path as a storyteller, a commitment which I treasure more each day. And as the years passed, I’ve come to see storytelling as a healing art.

The Ancient Roots

In ancient times, the storyteller’s drum would call people together at sunset. Shadows and the deep colors of day’s end signaled the time to listen to stories. This was an important way that cultures sustained themselves; the telling helped to maintain groups, to keep people healthy.

A circle formed around the fire pit or flickering candles. Stories in the early evening were for the children (or the "child" in everyone). As the children drifted off to sleep, the voice(s) of the storyteller(s) mixed with the dreams of the children and stories were told for the older ones.

There were tales of meaning, stories of how evil forces entered the world and had to be confronted, of heroes and heroines who embarked on Soul journeys, of how the people would succeed, even when they seemed to be less powerful. Often the hero or heroine had to learn to listen, to accept magic, or listen to helpful spirits who appeared in the stories. Sometimes the helpers were animals, sometimes the little people or Guides from the Other World. But time and again, the dragons were subdued, the people renewed.

For some reason, storytelling lost its place and role. Some say industrial culture was responsible for its demise; some say it was the coming of the electric light bulb or the television. I cannot tell you why; I only know it happened. But in recent times there has been a renewed interest in storytelling, a renaissance, a re-membering. Perhaps it has been spurred by a desire for intimacy, perhaps by our disenchantment with television as primary storyteller.

When I began to recover my own interest in storytelling, I re-membered telling stories as a little girl .. . stories of loons, shypokes and wolves, as well as of cows, sheep and horses. My family encouraged these flights of imagination.

Later as a young mother, I told stories to my children. We traveled a lot when they were young and storytelling was a way to help them survive long rides in the car. I’d make up stories, using names of people or places I wanted them to remember. The stories have long been forgotten, but the images linger.

Rites Of Passage As Storytelling

The storytelling process carried us through the early years and later became a way for my children to pass from childhood into adulthood. During my training in archetypal psychology, I found many stories of other cultures which had created rites of passage into adulthood. I was struck by the lack of meaningful rituals for this emergence in our modern times. The Jewish Bar Mitzvah and Bas Mitzvah still seemed to hold meaning for some people; confirmation seemed to hold meaning for some of those within the Christian Church. Nowhere could I see a societal ritual; and besides, thirteen seemed too early to enter adulthood in a post-industrial society.

I began to wonder if we could construct a ritual strong enough to symbolize the passage from childhood to adulthood in our family. This pondering finally led to a Family Rite of Passage for each child on his/her 18th birthday. The ritual involves both parents, the child, and a male and female guide. The role of the guides is to keep the ritual in process, to hold the three participants in the container of the rite and to help them express themselves.

Starting with a simple form, the rite is a process of storytelling, from the child’s conception, through the years of childhood, to this moment of passage into adulthood. Near the end, the child envisions a dark passage with light at the end. When he/she has reached the light at the tunnel’s end, adulthood has arrived; a new relationship to the parents is acknowledged. Gifts are given to the newly emerged Life Journeyer in the form of riddles, stories or poems, and the Journeyer expresses his/her dreams, hopes and visions for life.

This process has been extremely important to our family, particularly since the children’s father and I have been divorced. It has been important for the children to say goodbye to both parents together, even though they live with only one parent. It has been extremely helpful and meaningful for me to symbolize this change in our relationship, to re-orient myself to the role of parent to an adult child and to experience the grief of this enormous change.

The rite has lasted several hours each time and has been followed by a huge party involving friends of each of us. The stories we remembered and relived have been tucked away within our hearts, rarely spoken of again, yet never forgotten.

Since initiating this process, I’ve been asked to tell stories at other Rites of Passage into adulthood. I’ve told the Grimm’s fairy tale, "Iron Hans" and the Navajo story to celebrate Changing Woman’s first initiation: menstruation. I see part of my role as storyteller to be present to such rituals, to help people form them, to encourage them to assume the familial and community power to enact these rituals of re-membering as a way to go on with life.

Supporting The Imagination

This year I’ve been doing talks for parents on "The Effects of Television on Children" and "Supporting Your Child’s Imagination through Storytelling." They are sponsored by Behavioral Pediatrics Clinic at Minneapolis Children’s Medical Center.

The clinic sees imagination as an important skill necessary to help children cope with or master illness. Children learn to regulate their bodies by creating images. Biofeedback and the teaching of self- hypnosis are tools for the children. Their images can be fed and nourished by stories. I developed a story there, "The Rainbow Dream," a fairy-tale-like piece about a girl with leukemia. She learns to visualize herself feeling better and coaxing her body’s immune system to help fight her illness.

When I began to work with children in the hospital, I told them stories, played games, got them to tell stories and tried to deepen my understanding of how their imaginations worked. They told me many things. "The Rainbow Dream" was a culmination of listening to their images and story motifs.

I would tell the story to them and ask for their help in improving it. The story became a centerpiece around which to discuss feelings, their illness and life. Often, parents and family members would be in the room. I think the stories offered a moment of quiet, of relaxation, of comfort – a moment to travel into another world, to transcend, to escape, and yet to return to the day as it was. Story time, like dream time, has its own world, a place that stands on its own, a place that has meaning in and of itself.

Telling the old stories is important work. We must wrestle with their different world views, with sexism and racism, with the lack of global perspective. Yet many of the old stories contain universal meaning and we need them to help us understand story language, to develop the stories of the future. I encourage parents to read and tell the folk and fairy tales. Some sources I recommend are Tatterhood, a collection of stories with women as central characters, Black Folktales, collected by Julius Lester, and One Hundred Favorite Folktales, collected by Stith Thompson. Jane Yolen and Diane Wolkstein write wonderful stories, taking old mythological symbols and re-weaving them into modern times. Of course, the American Indian tradition provides us with marvelous stories of North America, of the relationship between people and animal, stories of the conflict between Good and Evil forces, and stories of ceremonials as community builders.

We need to read and tell these stories to our children: to develop their imaginations, to encourage their play, to foster their language development, to teach them our values, and to keep ourselves growing young in heart and vision.

Stories are so powerful; we must take care that the little ones hear an abundance of stories we believe in – an abundance of stories that will sustain us all as a people.

The Key Of See-ing

After telling stories alone for five years, I began telling with a partner. Larry Johnson and I often perform as "The Key of See," playing songs on the keyboard, garden hose and water faucet to accompany our stories.

In the teaching of storytelling, we’ve created a course/workshop called Storytelling for Personal and Planetary Healing. Participants pass a talking staff around in a circle and tell stories from their memory – about conflict and humor, about death, nuclear times and stories to imagine the world as we’d like it to be. It seems really important to tell each other those stories, to tell our children those stories.

A great deal is being said about the psychological impact of nuclear times and of the need children have for us to talk with them about it. Of course, we must. But the next step is finding ways to cope with the Terror and developing mastery over the Forces of Destruction. In the old stories, monsters and dragons do not go away if they are simply ignored. The people have to gather together, tell stories of how other people have survived. Someone(s) among them will ride the energy of the community and with the guidance from helping spirits, the hero(ine) can bring happiness, play and rest back to the people.

It is well to notice the face of the Dragon, to know its ways, but it is equally important to stay centered spiritually and to believe you will be given what you need to endure. In Jane Yolen’s "Dawn Strider," a child who leads the sun on its daily path is stolen by a giant named Night Walker. There is no sun, so the plants are dying, the animals are freezing and the people are afraid. They draw straws and one of the smallest children in the village is chosen to confront the giant. The giant is transformed by the smiles of Dawn Strider and that little child. The sun is again seen in the sky.

"Irene-Peace" is an old story/play by Aristophanes rewritten by Sofia Zarambouka. War has held Peace (Irene) captive and the children bring Irene back with their songs.

Children deeply wish to hear the stories of "how it used to be." When adults sit around and tell stories out of their past, they are deepened by those memories. So often I hear adults say, "Oh, I’ve had such a boring life; I have no stories to tell." But if they listen with an inner ear and dig down within themselves, stories begin to come . . . family stories, stories of close encounters, embarrassment, someone playing the fool, of resourcefulness, sadness, of favorite times of celebration. These stories are the glue, the essence that holds a people together . . . a family, a community, a nation, a planet.


Culturally, our main storyteller has become television. Television has connected us as a planet; it tells many old stories in modern ways, but too much of what appears on the tube is connected to what will sell to the largest number; not enough programming is motivated by the values needed to sustain culture.

Because television has become such a powerful storyteller, we have begun to make the connection between stories and television in working with children. A course we teach for the Minnesota Museum of Art is based on "Be-ing Your Own TV". It helps children develop stories of the city, of their stuffed animals, stories using special effects – and these are imaged through the use of video. The story and the video tape are done by a group of 8-12 year olds; it is difficult for them to work so closely with a group of people to produce a finished product. The children have to put their own images into stories and then confront the difficult problem of how to visualize those images with video.

We try to help them realize that television begins with a story that someone is telling. We want them to believe their stories are worth telling, that their stories can be visualized with a video/TV camera, and that the stories of ordinary people are important.

This approach to telling stories with high technology is necessary because television is a major part of our modern world. But we must never allow ourselves to stop telling simple stories to each other, and most especially, to our children.

As George Gerbner of the Annenberg Foundation said last year on the "Nova" series, "The people who tell the stories control the way children grow up, and television has become our main storyteller."

My wish is that parents, grandparents, and members of our communities will find their own voices to tell stories, even if it’s only once a week or once a month. Let us begin to seize the time to tell our children stories.

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