Thomas Sleete on storytelling for Salt and Iron: Seasoned Writing

The Story of a Storyteller

You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built in the human plan. We come with it.

Margaret Atwood

Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is.

Tim O’Brien

I know that this will sound strange, but I can remember telling stories to my fellow classmates and other kids my age in elementary school. Throughout my teaching career, I became known for my God-given ability to tell stories. One of my most popular tales described the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. There were times when former students would ask when I was planning to tell the story, and they’d come to my class to hear it again. I kid you not.

I once took a group of 90 ninth graders to visit Ford’s Theater in Washington, D. C. When we arrived, the guides at the theater went on their lunch break. Not being foolish enough to ignore the unparalleled opportunity to teach about something where it actually occurred, I decided to tell the story of the assassination to my students right there on the spot.

When I had finished, I was stunned to hear applause from the other side of the theater. Two busloads of senior citizens had come into the auditorium while I was talking. Both middle schoolers and senior citizens enjoyed and learned from what I had related, dramatically illustrating to me the power of a story.

Mouth to Heart

As the years went by, I would assign my students to interview family members for their reaction to major events in their lifetimes. JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation, 9/11—as the years passed, the events changed, but the importance of collecting family stories stayed constant.

An interviewer once asked the brilliant historian Barbara Tuchman how to teach history. He prepared for a lengthy elaboration, only to receive the answer: “Tell stories.”

In promoting their new book, The Art of the Tale, authors Steven James and Tom Morissey wrote:

Research over the last 25 years continues to confirm what the greatest teachers in history have always known: stories reach the heart, change perspectives, inform listeners on a deep level, and have the ability to transform lives. Storytelling is mouth to heart resuscitation.

The telling of stories must use the same technique as did my favorite professors in college and the historians I respect: tell the tale, but let the listener come to his own conclusions. Today this type of teaching is under attack by those who see teaching as indoctrination: the promotion of the views held wherever they happen to fall on the political spectrum.

The recent passing of David McCullough brought that point home to me. Critics often disparaged him as a “popular historian,” as opposed to an academically inclined historian with an axe to grind. The audience for those rigidly dogmatic histories favored by the critics amounts to little in comparison with the millions who have read, learned from, and enjoyed McCullough’s engaging storytelling.

As humans, we possess the innate desire to hear or read stories. We want to hear from our parents and grandparents’ about their lives and our family’s history. At bedtime, children from all cultures like to hear stories before they go to sleep. My wife and I took turns reading to our children every other night, and those books and stories have lingered in their memories. We all treasure that intimate time and the prayers that followed.

Stories of Faith

Most importantly, stories communicate our faith. How could anyone not be enthralled by Elijah and the prophets of Baal, or Judith and Holofernes, or David and Goliath? The New Testament is also brimming with engaging human stories: Mary Magdalene, the apostle Paul, Peter, James, John, Andrew, and Stephen. These stories inspire us, instruct us, and show us that so many of our problems have been conquered by men and women of faith.

Jesus certainly knew the power of storytelling. He used parables to illustrate the lessons He taught, instead of talking down to his listeners or berating them, as the Pharisees and Sadducees did.

Jesus was and is the master storyteller. One need only look at His historical impact to see that this is true. His vital message cut to the chase for an audience that was ambivalent toward Him at best, despite many influential opponents. To top it all off, Jesus’s last instructions to His followers were to go out into the whole world and tell the people His story.

Laura Holloway, the founder and chief of The Storyteller Agency, put it best when she said, “Storytelling is our obligation to the next generation.”

Author: Thomas F. Sleete

Thomas F. Sleete is a retired American History teacher and educational consultant with over 44 years of experience. That from which he derives the most enjoyment in this world is his interaction with, and love for, his grandchildren. The Lord guided and comforted him through the loss of his wife, and one way he seeks to glorify the name of Jesus at every opportunity is through his writing.

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