The Art of Storytelling

by Caroline Allen


As a creative writing teacher in Seattle, Washington, I have helped hundreds of adults write stories. I teach evening classes in a borrowed middle school classroom, complete with too-small desks, posters on bullying and saving the rainforests tacked to the wall, and even a snake in a glass aquarium in the corner. After years of taking fiction classes, I was tired of the tight exclusivity of established programs, and developed a curriculum called the Art of Storytelling, a simple, organic step-by-step creative writing process that covers characterization, setting and theme, and works for anyone with a penchant for writing.

In the first class, I have students pick a topic to write about. "Pick three stories from your life that are worth telling," I advise them. "Pick the stories that have almost become mythology, that you tell and re-tell. Choose the first three that come to your mind.

Even a bicycle accident when you were nine years old is good, especially if you're unable to get the event out of your mind."
Students balk at having to come up with a story idea in 15 minutes, but most end up with five or six -- the time my husband left me and I burnt his clothes in the front yard, the first time I skydived and nearly died, the hunting trip where my father almost shot another hunter, the day my brother nearly drowned and I had to save him.

We choose one of the three topics and then spend an hour just writing, hand writing our stories on paper, from the beginning, through the middle to the end. It's shocking how many would-be writers want to avoid the actual process of writing. As a journalist for 20 years, a fiction writer for 12, and a teacher for 10, I've discovered that new writers can become almost fascist about wanting to analyze writing without actually doing the writing. So, I make the time in class for students to write. I hold the space for them.

As homework, we type up our rough drafts. Most of my students have jobs and families and I rarely give more than 2 hours of homework a week - most of the writing is done in class. We read our rough drafts out loud to each other (although no one is forced to read). The deepest sort of bonding happens through storytelling. How many times have we judged a person upon first meeting only to hear a story about her life and in one instant have all our preconceptions blown out of the water? I love a classroom full of varying age groups and incomes, and different ethnicities. Storytelling is the great equalizer. I have seen a kid hunkered down in his leather jacket, slumped forward in the desk, angry and isolated, suddenly look up with new and startled eyes as a middle class, middle aged woman reads about the love she has for her daughter. It's transformational.
Universal themes are our next order of business. Students explore the theme of their story: motherhood, disenfranchisement, death, risk, love. Theme is that which is universal in our stories, what the readers will connect to. As homework, students search for a famous quote that gets to the essence of their story. For example, an American woman wrote a story about being a confused expatriate living in Japan. She found the Japanese saying: The nail that sticks up is driven down. What she discovered from contemplating the quote and her story was that she'd felt driven down her whole life, not just in Japan. She was different, and people had reacted strongly to this difference. I ask students to write such epiphanies in a "process" journal. They are as key to the writing process as the writing itself.

The next few classes center on characterization. We choose a person in our story and practice conveying how they walk and eat, and what they wear. We put their words into written dialogue. We develop an ear for how people speak. There is a Zen process of detachment that happens with characterization. As we look at our husbands, mothers and siblings, we must step back and see them as separate individuals and release them from our needs and desires.

Setting is also crucial; it is the ground upon which our characters walk. Most new writers will put events in a vacuum. But it's important to remember that an occurrence in the urban chaos of New York City is altogether different than an event amidst the wild winter storms of Tofino.

Throughout the process, we write using vivid details, exploring the odors and clamor, the heft and quality, the tang and flavor of a particular time of our lives. We work hard at bringing the sensual to the page.

At the end of the class, students bring their revised stories, as well as bottles of Merlot and Chardonnay, blocks of brie and goat cheese, and bars of dark chocolate. We hold a salon. We read to each other. We witness how far we've come, and where we still need to go. We learn that writing a story, like life, is always a work in progress.

Caroline Allen came to Tofino on a journalism assignment more than a year ago and cannot get the place out of her mind.

She will be holding a 5-week Art of Storytelling creative writing class beginning in February at the Tofino Community Center. Cost is US$295. One scholarship is available. Contact Caroline via email at carolineallen@aol.com, or phone (206) 323.1945 to reserve a space in the class or for more information.

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