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Who can or should tell a story?

A quest recognize and respect ownership of oral stories

This is a multiple part story

Part One: Introduction (below)

The Rule(rs)
Rules & Rulers, guildlines as to how to measure oneself

Back when I was a teenager, Saturday nights would sometimes find me at Stone Circle, to listen to the magic of songs, poems and music. I fell in love with a few poems recited by regulars and proudly learned them. However, when I recited the Ballad of Williams Sycamore and Jabberwocky I was taken gently aside and told, If you want to learn a poem, you need to ask the person who recites it first. Yes, even if it’s from a book anyone can find, it’s best to ask them first.

My 14 year old socially-awkward-self fell like a chick who fledged too early. I was filled first with mortification at ‘stealing’ and then anger. Why hadn’t anyone bothered to tell me the rules? If they aren’t written how should anyone know them? Was there a mystical osmosis that should have occurred letting me have this knowledge? I added it to my teenage list of unfair things: Untold rules adults expect people to magically know.

Now I can offer a kind smile to the young chick who struggled to make sense of a world full of social cues she missed, coming into a group that had unwritten rules. Of course they weren’t out to get me, rather the group acted as all folk groups do: those who grow up in the tradition learn early by observation, those who join the group must learn how to be in it. Making mistakes is sometimes the best way to learn.

Later I found the same unwritten rules in the local folk music sessions. If someone else sings it first, it’s theirs. Some members of the group ignored the rule, singing or playing a traditional tune or song that another member of the group has sung at some point – no one kicked them out, but a few people gave them the stink eye. In other words, everyone actually develops their own set of rules.

As I moved more into teaching storytelling, I carefully consider what to tell those in my courses. As a storyteller, I know what I’d prefer people to do with the stories I compose myself. However, when teaching, I want to give people a balanced view: which respects other tellers and their stories.

I started my quest to learn The Rules of oral storytelling, armed with an idea and the hope I could shed some light on the topic for interested individuals.

Like most heroines, I find that the path of my journey does not follow the expected road map. This quest is ongoing. I’m starting to share it, in the words of the storytellers I’ve spoken with. I feel it’s best to allow them to say for themselves what should be done with their stories.

I’ll end with a common theme that was shared by every teller I interviewed: If you want to tell someone’s story, ask them first. If you take the time to ask, respect their answer.


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