October 22, 2012

A Hopeful Shanachie Tells A Story About Storytelling

On October, 20, 2012, redOrbit’s word of the day was shanachie, which is derived from the Old Irish ‘senchaid,’ a variant of ‘senchae,’ which means historian. In today’s usage of shanachie, it means a skilled storyteller. This made me think about the importance of storytelling, and I found myself researching storytelling. Then I thought, “hey, I teach writing, and I write myself. I know about storytelling.” So, let’s take a look at the two major types of storytelling. Let me be your shanachie about storytelling.

The first form of storytelling is oral storytelling, also called oral tradition. These storytellers verbally pass the stories down from generation to generation. One person literally tells another person a story, and the listener learns the story to pass onto another and so on. In oral tradition, the stories are not written down; they are orally communicated and passed on.

Oral tradition is popular amongst Native American tribes; however, just about every culture used (or continues to use) oral tradition at some point in their histories. This partially comes from the fact that the poorer classes were illiterate and often suppressed to stay that way. The only way they could pass on their stories existed through oral tradition. But even some highly literate cultures used oral tradition. PBS noted that the early Christians who wrote down the gospels must have written them from oral tradition since the gospels were recorded at least a generation after Christ’s life and death.

These early Christians are not the only ones who segued from oral tradition to written tradition. Many of the Native American tribes now have their oral tradition written down. The tribal members still communicate these stories orally, but the rest of the world can at least see a glimpse into their stories through the written forms. Writing down oral tradition stories does change them, and many have found that the stories lose much of the power in the written form.

Finally concerning oral tradition, we all still participate in this daily. When we tell how our days went or when an older family member tells stories of her life or when our grandparents tell of our ancestry, we experience the storytelling of oral tradition.

The second form of storytelling is written. This is the most common form of storytelling we encounter today, and we encounter written stories in many formats: flash fiction, short stories, novels, nonfiction, Facebook, and Twitter, just to name a few. The written storyteller obviously writes the stories down thus the primary mode of communication comes from the written word.

What is interesting about this mode of storytelling is how technology is really affecting it. I mean, Twitter alone limits the stories to 140 characters, and many, many people have been highly successful at creating stories with that limitation. Facebook does not limit posts, but people still seem to separate their stories into multiple posts.

We still have the traditional short stories and novels (which include the novella and the epic), but we’ve also learned about the written storytelling form of flash fiction: a story in less than approximately 1000 words. Still, Ernest Hemingway created the six-word story—a story told in only six words. His most famous: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

We love the written storytelling in all its forms, for sure, and we keep developing it, advancing it, tweaking it to fit the times. We’ve even moved from written storytelling to visual storytelling. Any afternoon spent trolling YouTube will show that.

So, a shanachie is a skilled storyteller. I’d say we should all become one. Tell our stories; tell others’ stories. Write them down, speak them, whatever. Let’s step into the role of shanachie for the good of our cultures. I know I am. Now, so should you.

Image Credit: jannoon028 / Shutterstock

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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