Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Reflections on Telling and Writing

I’ve been thinking a lot of late about the differences between telling and writing. Specifically I’ve been thinking about them in connection with personal tales. Here are some of my reflections – with a photo of some reflections to suit!

Personal tales

In storytelling, personal tales can play various different parts. They can be told in storytelling workshops where all kinds of ‘exercises’ can be based on them. They can be told in performance, perhaps as a kind of preamble to a bigger fictional tale. In Chinese storytelling traditions, I’ve read, this is a common technique.

But personal tales can also be told for their own sake and, in my recent thoughts about them, I’ve been considering some of the features that make them work in the telling. One way I decided to explore this was by consciously writing down some of the personal tales that I commonly tell either in my work or in personal life. I know this may seem very odd. Why bother to write down tales I normally tell, perhaps in conversation, sometimes in the course of a storytelling session? Well, doing so has made me newly aware of some of the distinguishing qualities of the spoken tale and how these have to change when you’re writing things down. Conversely, it has also made me understand from the opposite perspective what the storyteller has to learn to do when unpicking a written tale to make it work for a telling.

For instance, one of the stories I’ve told very often to children – and I’m naming it Dead Daffodils – is a story from my own childhood. It’s about a bunch of dead daffodils and why the man who was carrying them when I came upon him cycled away with them in his hand. Where was he taking them? Why didn’t he thrown them away before he got on his bike? This story really stimulates children. They ask all kinds of questions about it and come up with amazing scenarios.

When I’m telling Dead Daffodils, I don’t ever say very much – or ever need to say much – about where exactly it happened. It’s enough briefly to say I was standing on a little bridge, the man came out of a cottage and the stream that went under the bridge also ran past the cottage garden.

Nor do I need much description. Dead daffodils speak for themselves. When I wrote the story the other day, however, I enjoyed thinking about what dead daffodils look like. I enjoyed thinking about where the story took place. I also greatly enjoyed reflecting on why the story has stayed important to me. So my written version includes something of all these different elements and far more than I would say when telling the tale.

When you’re telling, you can afford to be casual – much more informal than I have been in writing the story. With children, for instance, you can rely on them to ask you what they don’t understand or if there’s something they just want to hear more of. With adults too – say round the table or in a workshop situation and possibly also in adult performance – all kinds of details can be taken for granted. You get on with the story far more quickly than if you’re writing it down.

So now I’ve told you the story in brief and shared some of my reflections on it, I’ll give you the story in my written version. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed my rediscovery of it in the act of putting it into writing and I hope my reflections on the process also give a few pointers to some of the things you have to do to unpick a written story when you are thinking you want to tell it.

Dead Daffodils

They were daffodils all right, but they were definitely dead. Browning and withered, they looked paper-thin, or is it only my deducing imagination that sees them now that way, the petals almost wholly transparent? In any case, they were clutched in a bunch, quite a sizeable bunch, which the man still held onto as he reached out to grab the handlebars of the bike that was propped against the wall of the cottage. He’d just emerged from the door of the cottage and I was very surprised that, as he lifted the bike, he still kept hold of the daffodils instead of throwing them out, chucking them onto the edge of the garden or, more likely you might have guessed, throwing them onto the reedy bank of the stream that flowed past the cottage and under the bridge where I had paused for a rest, feet on the ground, legs straddling my bike.

So many years later, I can’t work out whether the stream that ran past the cottage flowed towards or away from the bridge where I was standing. I do definitely remember that I’d stopped there for a rest after cycling from Fishguard, which was where we lived at the time. In an urge to explore, I’d taken a turning I’d never taken before and whizzed down a hill till I came to this bridge. It looked attractive and so did the cottage, like a picture-book cottage, and that’s why I stopped there, I guess. I don’t think I could find it again. Nor for ages have I wanted to try. The surrounding context has gone. So although I’m often back in the area and in the car on my way to the dump or taking a back road to Fishguard, I don’t keep a look out for that particular place as I’m going about. Yet it has stayed in my mind, me in the dip to one side of the bridge, him now getting onto the saddle, and, still with the bunch of daffodils in his left hand, beginning to turn the pedals, a little uncertain at first, then joining the road the other side of the bridge and – I’d swear it – completely unaware of my presence.

Although I don’t think I could find the place now, it has always remained in my mind and so much so that, on numerous occasions, I’ve brought it out and offered it to classes of children as the setting of a mysterious event, the kind of thing that can happen and did and that you can think about many times over, wondering what lay behind it. There have been many intriguing responses.

He was going to visit his dead girlfriend’s grave and he didn’t want to take live flowers, he always took ones that were dead.

He had a special compost heap in a field a little way off and when you threw dead flowers on it, it brought them back to life.

He’d murdered the old woman that lived in the cottage and he was taking away the daffodils that he’d previously brought her when she was still alive in case they were produced in evidence against him.

He had a special workshop where he could extract a rare essence from the centres of dead daffodils and he’d discovered he could sell the product for a lot of money. So he was taking the dead daffodils to the workshop.

The story naturally stimulates children’s thinking which is why I’ve always enjoyed fetching it out of my memory bank and rolling it out before them. I love the ideas they come up with.

The same kind of thing has happened to me as I’ve been writing the story. The process has led me to ask whether I’ve always had a proclivity to set aside some experiences as if they were stories, ready to be brought out later, retold and reconsidered. Or perhaps it’s more to do with the way I experience such an incident in the first place. Does my mind go, ‘Ah! Here’s a picturesque place and it’s time for something to happen and, oh my goodness, it’s happening right now,  look at that, right in front of my eyes?’

I know that when I was young I was heavily influenced by Enid Blyton. Many of us were as children. Like the Famous Five, I became a detective, plying my underhand trade in the ordinary streets of the largely eventless place where I lived. I once saw two fathers fighting, both of them fathers of children I knew who also came to the same school as me. I once saw my own father crying, and I kind of knew why, and it wasn’t the truth that it was a headache that was making him weep, which is what he said when I asked him what was the matter.

Perhaps it was easier by far to store up and consider the mystery of a man cycling away with a bunch of dead daffodils in his hand than to experience the deeply mysterious and perhaps unresolvable pains of the adult life. But I don’t discount the effect of the daffodil man who has contributed to my recognition of the pleasures of observing what happens when you are ready to see it and the store of things it can give you to ponder later.

Next Week: More Reflections on Telling and Writing 


You can also read occasional blogs by me on the Early Learning HQ website.  Early Learning HQ offers hundreds of free downloadable foundation stage and key stage one teaching resources. It also has an extensive blog section with contributions from a wide range of early years professionals, consultants and storytellers. For details of the Society for Storytelling, click here.


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