Picture the scene: you are on a bus, or in a doctor’s waiting room and you are reading a clutch of short stories collected in a book. Problem is, you have a comic genius of a writer on your hands and every five minutes or so a hoot of laughter slips through your Waiting Room Composure. After a few pages of this, you know you have to close the book, don’t you? Because the reading of a story is meant to be your personal business.
Not so the telling of a tale, where everyone under the sound of the teller’s voice is co-opted into the very social experience. If a line provokes laughter it can be as explosive as you like. It is like Theatre. The social context adds to the experience. You know how it is when you reach a point in a book where you simply have to share a new insight or a clever imagery with someone.
Yet, beyond the social context of it, there is an aspect of the story that is now endangered. I am talking about the form itself – because the missing dimension of the story is not restored simply by the reading of a written short story, however sublime, to an appreciative public. And herein lies the difference between the Short Story and the Told Story.
The success of the Short Story is killing the Told Story. If you have ever sat back for an after-dinner speech, you will agree that a skilled raconteur is more than the written sum of his jokes and anecdotes. The told story is the true crucible of African literature, the mother of myths, lodestone of moralities and font of entertainment.
We have been seduced by the mass-production potentials of the written short story: which is all well and good. But there is nothing quite like standing before an audience with neither text nor notes. You have in your head the skeleton of a story. The beginning, the bare bones, and … perhaps one or two possible endings. You do not have those carefully honed turns of phrases, those clever onomatopoeic twists, the alliterative phrases that you have chiseled and finessed into a 2,978 word story – all that is junked, and you are there with nothing between you and the deep sea of an audience… except, perhaps a microphone and your Once Upon a Time.
Having both read and told – and talked with those who have – I can attest to the charge that comes from telling stories. As for how the audience feels, well, telling a story – without a text – is a bit like walking a tightrope: the audience applauds rapturously if you do successfully make it across. (Of course there will be occasions when you fall half way and have to limp off in embarrassed silence to the equivalent of the dressing room…)
I have often wondered why I listened with equal intensity to nightly reruns of the same tortoise tales as a child. The answer of course is that they were not the same tales in the way a written short story is always the same. The tale is a different animal every night. Same skeleton, no doubt, but in the hands of a storyteller, the skeleton of a story comes to life, and by God! a new creation is forged on the anvil of listener-anticipation, by the fire of the skilled storyteller.
So borrow some kids tonight (if you have to), turn off the TV, hide away the story books, and start stretching. If you survive the tightrope of a young audience, take it from me, adults are a walk-over.