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Making Fairy Tales from Personal Stories - Part I

by Doug Lipman

Table of Contents:

The Process
Three Steps
A Sample Session
Step One: Exploring the Personal Story
Developing the Personal Story
Step Two: Finding the Fairy-Tale Symbols
Choosing the Essential Elements
Going Back to Step One
Step Three: Working with the Fairy Tale
Karen's First Telling of the Fairy Tale
Refining the Images
A Second Telling of the Fairy Tale
Refining the Story
Checking the Fairy Tale Against the Personal Story


The Process

"I have to tell that story - but I don't want anyone to hear it."

A student in my beginning storytelling class had a common problem. As she began to recognize the importance of storytelling, she saw stories from her own life that needed to be told. This particular one, however, dealt with her experiences as an abused child, and the family member who had abused her was still alive.

On the one hand, her professional and personal growth demanded she tackle this story and come to terms with it. On the other hand, the situation made the story simply too confidential to divulge. Was there no way out of this frustrating dilemma?

Many storytellers, at one time or another, share this young woman's frustration. Our public selves depend on putting our private, emotional lives in order. Storytelling, expectedly is our strong suit for dealing with complex emotions. Yet many of our personal stories are just too private, too humiliating, or too compromising to the rights of others to be shared with an audience.

A solution to this dilemma came to me one day from an unexpected source. I, too, had a personal story I needed to work on but did not want to tell in public. At about this time, a book I had ordered came in, and I read it: it was Once Upon A Time by Max Luthi. Note 1 I was impressed by Luthi's analysis of the style of the fairy tale, especially by his description of the essential qualities of fairy-tale symbols. Luthi helped me see how fairy tales, using only flat, stylized symbols and characters, could nonetheless portray complex human emotions.

Suddenly, I had an idea: why not translate my personal story into the symbolic language of the fairy tale? No one would know what the underlying story was, but I could still deal honestly with the accompanying emotions.

My first attempt was a success, so I began to teach this technique to students and at workshops.


Three Steps

This method has three basic steps. The first is to tell, analyze, expand and re-tell the personal tale in a relatively safe workshop or one-on-one session.

The second step is to find symbols from the symbolic language of the fairy tale to correspond to each major element of the personal story.

In the third step, the teller shapes a fairy tale, using the images developed in step two. At some point, the tale develops its won life as a story, without reference to the personal experiences.

Once the third step is completed, the teller can check whether the tale actually reaches the goal: a fairy tale with the same emotional content as the confidential personal story.


A Sample Session

What follows is a re-creation of an actual private session, written from notes and memory. This version give the feeling of an actual session, without including too many details or digressions. Comments on the coaching as well as more general coaching suggestions will be given in the second half of this article.

The storyteller's name (a pseudonym) is Karen. My comments and questions during the session are labelled "coach." The section headings, of course, were added later for easy reference.


Step One: Exploring the Personal Story

Coach: What personal experience do you want to use for today's process?

Karen: I'm not sure I have the right kind of personal story in mind. Does it have to have a beginning, middle, and end?

Coach: The personal story can be a specific incident, or any general theme or issue in your life. Anything you think of will probably do.

Karen: I know what I want to use. When I was little, my older brothers fought a lot. I thought they would kill each other. I was always in the middle, trying to stop it.

Coach: Do you remember a particular fight between them?

Karen: I remember one scene - well, actually two.

Once, my parents were away, and Will, my older brother, threatened to break Tom's guitar over his head. Tom was younger than Will but older than me. I was sure Will would do it. I could just see the blood that would come out of Tom's head.

Another incident began the day I saw a TV show about an evil robot, and I got terrified. I started having nightmares. And then, three weeks later, my brother Tom got, as a gift, a mechanical robot. When I would go into his room, if he wanted me to leave, he would turn on the robot and say it was going to get me. I would start crying, and run out of the room.

One day, Will said to me, "You are too old to be scared of this robot." He forced me to go into Tom's room. When Tom turned the robot on, Will held me so I couldn't run away. He said, "Look, it's smaller than you." He made me push the robot over, and then turn it off. I was still terrified of it. But that was the end of an era.

You see, there was a triangle that would happen. Will would threaten to hurt Tom. I'd try to stop Will from hurting Tom by beating him off with my fists. I'd run to comfort Tom - then Tom would start to hit me. Then Will would comfort me!

They called me "little momma" or "peacemaker."


Developing the Personal Story

Coach: Let's explore the issue first. How did you feel when they were fighting?

Karen: It made me crazy! I couldn't catch my breath; my heart would race.

Coach: What were you afraid would happen if it didn't stop?

Karen: That Will would kill Tom. Blood would come poring out of him. I was afraid of the loud, intense yelling.

Coach: I see. How did you feel about Tom?

Karen: He was my good friend. Later, I idolized him. But back then, I was always being sent away by him. I could hear him playing music through the wall of my room. I saw Tom as Will's victim. Now I can see that Tom was passively doing things to irritate Will, too.

Coach: How did you feel about Will?

Karen: He was my hero. He defended me on the street once, when some other kids were going to hit me. But he was six years older. He was removed from me, interested in his own stuff. And his room was upstairs, while Tom's and mine were next to each other on the first floor.

I never felt antagonism toward Tom, even though he was torturing me; he just used the robot to make me stop bothering him.

Coach: Where was Tom when Will made you knock over the robot?

Karen: Tom was there, but he didn't try to stop it. He knew his reign of terror was coming to an end.


Step Two: Finding the Fairy-Tale Symbols

Coach: Okay, that's plenty to go on. We're going to make fairy-tale symbols for each important element of your childhood issue. But before that, we need to examine some aspects of fairy-tale style.

The idea for this workshop came from two books by Max Luthi. People have been arguing for some time about exactly what a fairy tale is. Everyone who hears or reads enough traditional fairy tales has a good idea of which ones are fairy tales and which ones aren't, but folklorists have argued for decades about a precise definition. Our English term "fairy tale" is clearly a bad one, because everyone agrees they don't have to have fairies in them. The more precise German term is "Marchen," which is the word folklorists use.

We're not talking about made-up, literary "fairy tales," just about traditional ones. And we're not talking about non-Western traditions.

Some folklorists have said that you can recognize fairy tales, because they have the supernatural in them. But some versions of a tale will have something supernatural in them, while other versions don't; and they're all clearly the same fairy tale.

Some have said that fairy tales can be recognized by their form: they all start with some problem or disaster, and then the hero goes on a journey and solves the problem. The trouble with that definition is that some fairy tales don't follow that pattern, while many tales of other kinds do.

Luthi's brilliant idea is that what makes a fairy tale a fairy tale is its style - an overall, distinctive literary style - which may, of course, include a preference for certain kinds of content and certain elements of form, but is separate from them. Luthi spells out some specific elements of fairy-tale style. The ones that are important for us are the use of extremes, precision, flatness, externalization, one-dimensionality, and inclusiveness.

Extremes and precision. Fairy tales all use extremes. You never have a fairy tale about an insurance agent trying to move up one floor in a large office building; you have a scullery-girl becoming a princess. Everything is taken to the furthest possible extreme. The symbols of evil aren't just a little bit naughty; they are huge, terrible monsters, and wicked sorcerers.

Everything in a fairy tale is also precise. Fairy tales love little boxes, and rooms - not baskets or porches or caves. You seldom have an open field in a fairy tale, but you often have a clearing in the woods, with its distinct boundaries. The fairy tale likes metals and jewels, not liquids and wood.

The fairy tale likes set numbers, which give the effect of precision; three, seven, twelve or one hundred have the effect on us of naming a precise quantity, much more so than other numbers do, not to mention "a few" or "many."

And the precision extends to time. If you have seven years to finish a task in a fairy tale, you don't do it in about five and a half. No, you finish it on the last second of the last minute of the last day.

Flatness and externalization. Luthi says all figures in a fairy tale are flat, without depth. Characters do not have deep feelings. They don't have internal conflicts.

Instead of using deep, inner feelings, everything is expressed through external actions. A mother is not described as harboring negative feelings toward her daughter; she tries to kill her. The hero does not "turn mushy inside" over the princess and feel his heart beat faster when he thinks of her; he asks for her hand in marriage.

Relationships between characters, too, are externalized in actions and gifts. The princess does not give a speech or daydream about how impressed she is with the shepherd boy, she gives him her ring. After a long absence, the hero does not recognize his true love by the undefinable lilt of her voice or the glow of her smile, but by the token he has given her.

Furthermore, any possible internal conflicts are projected onto more than one flat symbol. A real young man might have feeling of wanting to obey his parents and rebel against them at the same time. But no fairy-tale character has such ambivalence. Instead, there are two brothers who stay at home, and a third who leaves.

One-dimensionality and inclusiveness. The Fairy tale puts all the world on a singe dimension. In a legend, when a supernatural event happens, a new dimension is encountered, and it is frightening: the hero's response is "Oh, oh!" In a saint's legend, the supernatural is a revelation of God: the response is "Ah, hah!" But in a fairy tale, the supernatural is treated no differently than anything else. The hero does not say, "Oh my gosh - who ever heard of a talking horse?" Instead, he just answers the horse's question as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened. In this way, Luthi argues, the hero has the ability to connect to any part of the universe, including its normally unseen helping forces.

At the same time, the fairy tale includes all of the universe. There is never good without evil - both extremes are present. It includes nature (both living and dead), and the works of humans, and the supernatural. As Luthi says, it includes "the basic motifs of human existence" ... life and death; good and evil; temptation and intrigue; weakness and innocence; despair, guidance, and assistance." 2 Of course, the only way to include so much in such a short form is to simplify everything and make everything as extreme as possible.

Luthi maintains that the overall effect of this precise, clear, flat simple style is an empowering message: "even if you yourself do not know whence you come and whether you are are going, even if you do not know what forces are influencing you and how they are doing so, even if you do not know what kind of relationships you are embedded in, you may rest assured that you do stand in the midst of meaningful relationships."3

There is something especially appropriate about this style for stories where we may be or may once have been stuck. "The fairy tale portrays, in a wider sense than is generally realized, a harmonious world. The confidence from which it flows is transmitted to both those who tell it and those who hear it ... it gives not only pleasure, it gives form and inspiration."4


Choosing the Essential Elements

Coach: Now that you know about fairy-tale style, we can start to translate your story into symbols. What elements from your personal story need to be present in your fairy tale?

Karen: Well, the relationships. The triangular behavior between my two brothers and me.

Coach: What was the essence of your experience of that triangle?

Karen: The conflict between them. Wanting to save one of them for the other. It really was my greatest hurt: watching them fight, witnessing the conflict.

Coach: It seems to me we have two possible directions. One story could start from the triangular relationships, in which Will hurts Tom; you comfort Tom; Tom hurts you; and Will comforts you. Another could start from your experience of pain in watching them fight. Either would make a wonderful fairy tale. Which of these seems more important today?

Karen: Watching the conflict, definitely.


Going Back to Step One

Coach: Okay, let's explore the conflict that you had to watch. Do your brothers still fight?

Karen: Yes. Will went off; he left home. He's very different from either Tom or me. He has a different way of communicating. At my wedding, Tom will be the best man; Will will just come in at the last minute to play the piano. But Tom and I have a real alliance.

Coach: Is it still torture for you when they have a conflict?

Karen: No, that ended when Will went away to college. But I still feel responsible for the two of them.

Coach: So what is your journey? What is the resolution for you of the hurt of watching them fight?

Karen: I don't know. Avoiding conflict now? Helping them resolve their differences?

Coach: It's okay not to know. I just want to see what you already know about the characteristics a resolution would have.

Karen: Well, I never used to stand up for things, as a child. I avoided conflict at all costs - even potential conflict.

Coach: Did that ever change?

Karen: Oh, yes, now I'll stand up and say what's wrong or object to something, even at the risk of provoking conflict.

Coach: What effect has this had on you and your life?

Karen: It's made me my own person. I'm not as passive, as accepting of things imposed upon me.

Coach: Okay, I see a basic journey like this: we start with you being pained by watching a conflict; we end with you being your won person. Somewhere in the middle, there's a turning point where you begin standing up for yourself.

Karen: Yes.

Coach: The classic symbol for "being your won person" is to become king or queen. Do you like that symbol?

Karen: Yes, but a princess would be even better. A princess is more interesting.

Coach: Great. The story will end with the female hero becoming a princess. And we know it will start with the painful watching of some conflict. But in the middle we need some turning point, some point at which the hero stand up for herself. In you life, was there a first time you stood up for yourself, even at the risk of provoking conflict?

Karen: Once, in high school, I argued with a teacher, about getting a zero for a paper. Up until then I had been such a goody-goody. I finally stood up in class and said, "If you're going to give me a zero on that paper, then go to hell." I went home and proudly told my family at the dinner table. I was shocked at their reaction: they thought I should apologize to the teacher! But it didn't matter. The mystique was broken. I was no longer just Miss Goody-Goody.

Coach: Okay, we'll need an incident in the fairy tale where the hero stands up for herself, and the mystique will be broken. Who should the hero stand up to?

Karen: An evil magician. A sorcerer. The one who causes the conflict in the beginning.

Coach: And this sorcerer caused her to be not fully herself?

Karen: Exactly

Coach: One fairy-tale image for not being fully yourself is to be put under a spell, or transformed into another shape.

Karen: A spell would be right. And then she'll stand up to the sorcerer and break the spell.

Coach: Great. I think we're ready to look at the beginning now. What do we know about the opening conflict that the hero watches?

Karen: You know, there's a story called "The Language of the Birds," about a boy who understands the speech of birds. He hears crows squabbling and talks to them to help solve the problem. It turns out that they are laughing because the boy will one day have his feet washed by his father. He tells his parents, and they banish him.

I've always liked that part of the story, and never knew why. It fits perfectly with my experience as "the little peacemaker," because the boy was just trying to help by solving a conflict, and he got grief for it.

Coach: He should have been rewarded, and instead he got banishment.

Karen: Right! And the story of "The Six Swans," where the girl has to knit shirts of nettles to save her brothers - she has to fix something that was never her fault. The image of banishment as a bird has always stuck with me: to have to wander, at the mercy of the seasons.

Coach: So should our hero's "reward" for trying to solve this conflict be banishment as a bird?

Karen: Yes. She gets turned into a bird, and has to join a flock of birds as they fly north and south with the seasons. And the original conflict should be someone trying to harm her baby brother.

Coach: It could also be someone who fights with many people - it doesn't have to be her brother.

Karen: But the baby brother feels right.


Step Three: Working with the Fairy Tale

Coach: I think we have the central structure of the story, as well as fairy-tale symbols for the important elements. Karen, go ahead and see if you can tell the story ... It doesn't have to be perfect.


Karen's First Telling of the Fairy Tale

Once there was a king and queen. They had one daughter. They always wanted another child. Then, after years, they had a baby boy.

But when the king and queen went away, the boy would cry and cry. The girl heard him. It was the nursemaid who was poisoning the baby, a little at a time.

One night, the girl saw the nursemaid do it. She said, "No, don't!" The nursemaid turned her into a swan.

When the king and queen came back, they asked the nursemaid what had happened to their daughter. She said the girl had been out in the woods, and a huntsman had shot her by mistake. The parents sent for the huntsman. Since the nursemaid was really a sorceress, she made the huntsman lie. The parents asked the huntsman for the body of the girl. Then huntsman killed a deer, took out its heart, and said that it was all that was left of the girl.

The queen planted her heart. It grew into a rowan tree. The girl, now a swan, fed at the rowan tree. When she ate the berries, she turned for one hour in the princess.

She went to her baby brother. He was too weak to help. She went to the huntsman, and to the queen. Together, all three confronted the sorceress, and defeated her.

The sorceress was forced to end the spell, and then banished. The girl was now a princess. When the queen died, the princess married the huntsman, and together they ruled wisely and well.


Refining the Images

Coach: Great! There were some wonderful images that came to you: the rowan tree, the swan eating from it, and turning back into a girl for one hour. How did it feel to you?

Karen: Well, I didn't know how to wrap up everybody at the end. And I couldn't imagine the confrontation of the nursemaid. I didn't know how they stood up to her evil power.

Coach: Here's a thought I had. See if you like it - and don't forget that it's your story, and this may or may not belong in it. You just mentioned the evil power of the nursemaid. Since fairy tales externalize everything, why not make her evil power into a character of some kind? I thought of it because it would be a parallel to your story of standing up the the robot.

Karen: Oh, yes - it could be the nursemaid's raven that they kill. Then she would lose her evil power.

Coach: That's so much more precise an image.

I think we can also make the poisoning more precise at the beginning. Do you see how gradual poisoning is not fairy-tale-like? What if the raven is harming the boy?

Karen: Yes - it could come every night and peck at the baby boy.

Coach: Do you want the conflict to happen every night, or just when the parents are away?

Karen: Every night. If I make up an excuse for the parents to go away, it just adds an unnecessary element that might be a red herring.

Coach: Something that happens every night has a "daily" quality that fits with experiences in the family. Family arguments don't just happen once; they feel like a daily event.

But I think we can make the raven's harming of the boy even more precise. The image that I had was of a raven sitting on the side of the boy's crib each night, and plucking out a single hair.

Karen: That works, because the nursemaid is trying to get power over the baby boy, by collecting his hairs. And then one day, the girl follows the raven to the nursemaid, and finds the ball of hair.

Coach: That will work!

You mentioned that you don't know how to wrap up all the characters at the end. It all worked for me, except that I was troubled by her marrying the huntsman.

Karen: I didn't know what to do with everybody.

Coach: Do you want her to marry at the end?

Karen: Yes.

Coach: Here's an idea, but it may be "off the wall." What if the raven turns into a prince, whom she marries? That way, the evil power becomes an allied part of her power, once she stands up to it.

Another image could be more precise, too. She turns back into a princess for one hour. I like the idea, but "one hour" could be made less vague. Either it could be until the stroke of midnight or something, or it should be tied to a physical phenomenon. For example, she could turn into a girl when the top of the sun falls behind the horizon.

Karen: It should be something tied to the season, like her wandering as a bird.

Coach: That ties in nicely.

With the rowan tree, instead of her eating some of its berries, maybe there could be just one berry? Again, we're striving toward the clearly defined.

Karen: I see what you mean. But I don't know how to fix it.

Coach: I bet it will come to you if you tell the story again. Take about five minutes to meditate on the images. Don't try to take charge of them yet; just let them play in your mind. Then tell the story again.


A Second Telling of the Fairy Tale

Karen: Once there was a king and a queen. They had a daughter, the princess. They always longed for a second child. Then, one year, a baby boy was born to them.

But there was a very strange thing. Every night, the baby boy would cry and cry. The king and queen slept in a different part of the castle, and never heard his crying. But their daughter did.

The daughter went to the crib at night, and saw a raven fly in through the window. The raven flew to the edge of the baby's crib, reached down, and pulled out one of the baby's hairs. Then the raven, with the hair in its beak, flew back out the window.

The princess followed the raven to the room of her nursemaid. There, she saw on the table a ball of hair. She went to the the table and picked up the ball of her brother's hair. Juts then, the raven returned with the nursemaid. The nursemaid said, "So you have followed my raven here. I am a sorceress. You will now follow the swans."

The princess opened her mouth to scream - but all that she heard was the cry of a bird. She lifted her arms to hit the nursemaid - but instead of arms, she saw wings, with feathers instead of fingers. With a loud cry she spread her wings and flew away.

The next afternoon, the nursemaid ran to the king and queen. "A terrible thing has happened. The princess was playing in the garden when a flock of wild swans swooped down and carried her away."

The king and queen gave orders, in the hope of getting their daughter back, that any wild swans seen flying anywhere in the kingdom should be shot at. So, the first time the princess flew as a swan over her home, she was shot at. A single tear fell from her swan's eye as she flew away. From that tear, there grew a tree.

The princess found a flock of swans to fly with, and learned to live their life. One day, after months, the swans said to her, "Tomorrow will be the first frost of the year. We must begin our flight south for the winter." the princess grieved: "Now I shall be even further from my home."

That night, just before sunrise, she flew alone to her old home. She sat beneath the tree in sorrow. Just then, a fruit in the tree ripened, and a piece of it fell into her mouth. At that instant, she turned back into her own form.

She ran to wake her parents. But soon the sun rose, and as soon as it did, she became a swan once again. How would she live through the winter? She had no choice but to fly south with the flock.

Every year, just before dawn on the night before the first frost, she came to the tree, caught a piece of fruit in her mouth, and turned into her own form. But every year, the sun rose before she could reach her parents, and she became a swan again.

When the baby brother grew big enough to play by himself, he played in the shadow of the tree that had grown from her tear. One year, he arose before dawn and wandered out to the tree to play. It was the night before the first frost, and he saw the swan come down, eat the fruit, and turn into a princess! She quickly told him the story of all that had happened to her. Her brother said, "We must kill the raven."

They ran to the nursemaid's room. On the way, the brother picked up a sword. The woke the nursemaid and the raven. The brother handed the sword to the princess and said, "You must be the one to strike the blow."

The princess raised her hand, and cut off the raven's head. The nursemaid groaned, "My power is gone!" The nursemaid became thinner and smaller. She turned into a dried-out husk, like the skin of a snake, and she slithered away.

when the princess looked down, instead of the body of the raven, she saw a handsome prince. He said, "I was in the sorceress's power. She forced me to do evil for her. In one more year, your brother would have been in her power, also."

When they told the king and queen what had happened, they rejoiced. The princess married the prince, and together they ruled over his kingdom. The sorceress was never seen again. And when the brother grew up, he inherited the kingdom of the king and queen, and ruled over it wisely and well.


Refining the Story

Coach: How did that feel?

Karen: Good. I'm still not comfortable with the raven turning into a prince.

Coach: What I like about the idea is that Tom turned from your torturer into your best friend. Are you more uncomfortable with the idea or with visualizing the actual transformation?

Karen: I can't visualize the transformation at all.

Coach: Maybe that will come in the future. You know, Luthi actually says that abrupt transformations are typical of the style, and even help us see them: "The more mechanical and extreme the metamorphosis, the more clearly and precisely it unfolds before us."5

Karen: And it seems too contrived to have a prince appear at the last minute like that.

Coach: It's your story! Next time you tell it, you may find yourself changing that part completely. But keep in mind it's typical of the fairy-tale style to provide the hero with exactly what's needed at exactly the right moment.6

I thought you made several brilliant additions. The transformation into the swan was beautifully done, I loved her finding the flock of swans. And the nursemaid's new alibi was perfect. And I loved the idea of the fruit falling into her mouth just before dawn. What a powerful statement: "You must kill the raven." And I also loved the idea that the brother was close to being in the sorceress's power. Great!

There are a few images I thought could be made even more precise. One was the "ball of hair," I wanted it to be physically less fuzzy. What if it were in a container, like a sphere of glass, or something?

Karen: Yes - inside a jewel!

Coach: That's the idea. Now, the fruit falling into her beak tied several things together, but it could be physically more precise - like the fruit suddenly ripening and a single seed falling out of it.

Karen: That solves the problem of why she wouldn't just eat the fruit any time she wanted to.

Coach: Now the idea that the brother was almost in the sorceress's power also worked. But "one more year" could be made more precise. How about tying it to something physical, such as the container that the hair is in? "one more hair, and the container would have been full. Then he would have been in her power."

Karen: I'll think about that.

Coach: One thing to keep in mind about fairy-tale style is the rigidity of form. Things repeat, almost word for word, but with small differences. This suggests the passage of time in an almost ritualized way. I thought you might be able to make use of that quality when she's a swan. Could you ritualize her attempts to get help while she's herself for a few minutes?

Karen: I didn't know how to work that out.

Coach: Maybe she tries to wake her brother while she's still a bird. Or she tries her parents, then her brother. Only when her brother is old enough to help does he hear her. The swan calling to a sleeping person might be the thing that stays the same in each of three years, for example. What could change might be who she calls to - or the physical nature of their response. Do you know what I mean?

These are just things to keep in mind when you work on this next. I feel that the story is basically there. Do you want to hear other thoughts about keeping things consistent?

Karen: Yes.

Coach: When the brother says, "You have to kill her," the reason might be that the sorceress has growing control over him. He might say, "I have no power over her; she has my hair."

Karen: That fits right in.

Coach: I was very surprised by the sorceress turning into a snake.

Karen: I meant that she turned into the hollowed-out skin of a snake.

Coach: Because you have so many bird images, I wanted her to turn into something that flies: either a tiny, harmless bird of some sort, or else an insect.

Karen: Insects are like husks.

Coach: I also liked the tree coming from her tear. But, partly because of your childhood fantasy about your brother bleeding if they kept on fighting. I wanted it to be a drop of blood. Maybe the royal archer struck her with an arrow, and one drop of blood fell on the ground?

And there was one striking thing missing for me from the raven. I wanted it to make a loud sound.

Karen: Really?

Coach: When I asked you about the scary things about your brothers fighting, you mentioned loud sound.

Karen: You know, I don't like any loud sounds, not even when my husband uses an electric knife.

Coach: This might be the perfect place to encourage a sound to be as scary as it wants to be.


Checking the Fairy Tale Against the Personal Story

Coach: One last question: how does the story you just told measure up emotionally against the childhood situation?

Karen: Well, I think it needs more emphasis on how painful the crying was to the princess - and how painful it was to see the raven hurting the baby. Maybe should would try and beat it off with her fists. That part needs a lot of beefing up.

Coach: Anything else?

Karen: No, the rest of it seems to do it.

Coach: Congratulations! You finished one whole round of this process! And I think this story has great potential. I think you'll end up telling it in your work.

Karen: This has been helpful. There have been many tales that have images that grab me. Some I choose to tell professionally. But others just have one or two images that attract me - now I have a better idea of why, and a way to make use of those images.

The second part of this article will explain how I conceptualize each stage of the process, using this sample session as an example. In addition, since the coach must learn to vary the process to meet each teller's unique needs, I'll explain common problems that did not arise in this particular session. Finally, to help make sure that other coaches succeed in this technique, I'll discuss its limitations and hidden benefits, as well as the demands it makes on coach and storyteller alike.

Until then, I'd love to hear from any storytellers who try this or a similar technique. 7 We are each a deep well of untold stories; this is one of many dippers that can reach down into its waters.



1 Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976; see my review in The National Storytelling Journal, Spring 1987, pp. 28-30, which also reviews Luthi's The European Folktale: Form and Nature. (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1982. This has since been reissued in paperback.)

2 Luthi. Once Upon a Time, p. 73.

3 Luthi. The European Folktale, p. 93.

4 Once Upon a Time, p. 57.

5 The European Folktale, p. 36.

6 The European Folktale, pp. 29-30.

7 I would love to hear about anyone's experiences using this technique; either as a coach or as a storyteller.

(This article appeared in The National Storytelling Journal, Fall 1988.)

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Doug Lipman

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