Learning about the art of sharing stories

Published 9:25 am Saturday, May 19, 2012

Column: Bev Jackson Cotter, Art Is…

Will you tell me about an experience you have had that changed the direction of your life?

Bev Jackson Cotter

Will you share with me a story of when your community supported you or when your community let you down?

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Imagine yourself sitting face to face with someone with a different ethnic background than yours and answering these questions, knowing the details and your emotions are all out there for a stranger to see.

It is fun and rewarding getting to know a person when you share a conversation that is deeper than “Hi. How’s the weather?”

My husband Michael and I recently had the opportunity to attend a storytelling workshop sponsored by the Bush Foundation. Its purpose is to provide a safe place where people can learn the art of storytelling, the value of sharing and the understanding of another way of life. It was a most amazing day.

We started out sitting in a circle, then standing and moving about the room, joining shoulder to shoulder to the person closest to us and matching strides, couples joining together until we were in groups of about 12 people, and then gently forcing that tightly knit group around the other groups until we reached the opposite side of the room. We were strangers when we started, not so when the exercise ended. And, we knew we were in for an unusual experience.

Throughout the day we were divided into several different groups, each time responding to questions that required thought, detail and vulnerability, and during each session we found new friends and learned much about each other. There was no shortage of stories.

It was particularly interesting listening to someone you did not really know tell your story back to you as accurately as they could. What touched me most was how often he or she focused on the point that was for you the most vulnerable or the most exciting, and often was able to connect it with their own lives.

All the while, we were learning more about the art of sharing stories. Like the value of attention, getting first sentences, descriptive details and conclusive endings. I was surprised at the similarity in story themes no matter the age, personality or background of the teller. Whether happy or sad, and no matter how varied the topics, every one strived for the same “and they all lived happily ever after” ending. Some stories concluded that way. Others did not.

That evening, as we drove back to Albert Lea, Michael and I talked and talked about the valuable lessons we learned. The No. 1 lesson was respect for others no matter what the ethnic background, education, religious choice or interests.

Oftentimes, when speaking to a group, I am asked, “Where do you find your stories?” Our stories are all around us. When my sister died about a year ago, she left diaries dating back to the 1930s. I loved reading about the World War II years when she worked as a welder at the American Gas Machine Co. while her husband served as a medic in England. Her comments were brief, but I learned much about our family’s Rosie the Riveter. She was writing about her everyday life, but her stories are priceless.

Recently I ran across a quote from a Frank and Ernest cartoon. Frank was applying for a job and when asked about a resume, he replied, “I don’t have a formal education, but I do have a list of the mistakes I’ve made and what I learned from them.” I don’t know if Frank was hired, but I’ll bet there was an interesting story behind every one of those mistakes.

The art of storytelling is not difficult to learn. Now it’s your turn. Will you share with someone an experience that changed the direction of your life?


Bev Jackson Cotter is a member of the Albert Lea Art Center where the show “Two Lives, One Mission: The Art Collection of Dr. Thoburn and Marjorie Thompson” will be on display through May 26, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The Art Center is located at 224 S. Broadway Ave. in Albert Lea.