Storytelling in a Slower Time: Have We Lost Our Oral Tradition?

Summer Sundays, my thoughts turn to baseball and the way my father would “listen” to a St. Louis Cardinals game on the radio while he napped. Our house was full of stillness those days. After a week of labor on the farm, we slipped easily into rest come Sunday. My mother read the newspaper and sometimes nodded off herself. I did what I did so much of the time as an only child; I lived inside the stories I made up in my head, or else in the ones someone else had invented and put into a book I could read. My life as an only child was a life of the imagination. Depending on my age at the time, I might be imagining myself loading caps into my trusty Winchester rifle, getting ready to defend myself against the “bad guys,” or I might be hitting a wiffle ball, pretending I was in Yankee Stadium, launching one into the short porch in right field. Being an only child responsible for my own entertainment led me to fall in love with stories.

Sometimes on Sundays, if my father felt restless, he’d say, “Let’s go for a drive.” We’d get into our car and drive the country roads, meandering, so it seemed to me, but sooner or later my father would say to my mother, “How about we drop in on. . .” and there he’d mention the name of someone and the next thing I’d know we’d be sitting on a front porch or in a kitchen or outside in lawn chairs, and I’d be listening to people tell stories. I was often the only child present because my parents were older parents when I was born, and the people we visited had usually sent their own children off into their adult lives. So I sat and I listened.

It was my great fortune to grow up among people who were natural storytellers. They knew how to arouse a listener’s curiosity, to take their time, to let a story grow gradually, increasing in tension or complication until I could barely tolerate a fraction of a second longer because I was so involved in the tale that I absolutely had to know its resolution. And then they knew to pause, to let a resolution hang there, just out of reach, increasing my expectation even more, before finally moving to the end. They knew how to make that ending resonate with the detail finally revealed, the question finally answered, the punch line delivered. They knew when a story was over and they didn’t go on a moment longer than necessary. They were my first “teachers” when it came to how to tell a story, and I was lucky to grow up where I did when I did during a time when people gathered simply for the purpose of one another’s company and the delight of a story well told.

These days, I worry that young writers have lost the feel of such a story. I worry that our contemporary fast-paced life has lessened the time we devote to the oral tradition. Maybe I’m just old and crotchety, but I wonder whether the speed of time has eroded our joy in the “once upon a time” mode of storytelling that we used to value.

I remember those Sundays when time seemed to stop. I remember the steady creak-creak of rocking chairs, the slow turn of oscillating fans, a breeze ruffling the leaves on an oak tree, someone saying, “Here’s one. There was this old boy up near Chauncey, who had a goat who could tell fortunes,” and there I’d be in the midst of a world made from wonder and mystery and colorful language and vivid detail. A goat who could tell fortunes, I’d think to myself. How could that be, and I’d settle in, listening to an expert storyteller line it all out for me. This was the great gift that my father and those like him—hardworking people on farms in a poor township in southeastern Illinois, some of them like my uncle who couldn’t read or write. But, Lord, could they tell a story. Each time I write I try to honor what they taught me.


  1. Billy on May 22, 2017 at 9:52 am

    Thanks Lee! I think you are right about younger generations losing a sense of story. It seems that as our cultural institutions rapidly change we are losing the spaces where we gather to hear and share stories. The place I go with my 3 year old is the weekly story time at the library and we hear basic stories. It’s well attended by families and people seem hungry for this environment.

    • Lee Martin on May 22, 2017 at 11:34 am

      Billy, your comment about story time at the library makes me think about how we’ve set up all these boundaries between one another–so many ways these days to avoid public contact. I love hearing about story time at the library. Good for you!

  2. Sophfronia Scott on May 22, 2017 at 10:28 am

    Lee, we must be on the same wavelength.

    1.) Yesterday after a busy morning at church I napped and then sat in the window seat in our living room looking through library books. Tain played with his Legos and we both noticed and appreciated the quiet of the day. It reminded me of weekends when I was a child watching the dust motes floating in the sunlight and listening to the quiet.

    2.) I’ve also been thinking about my father who could neither read nor write but was an excellent storyteller. And most times we heard these stories while visiting family member or when adult friends visited my parents. I still think about the stories I remember.

    3.) I wrote about the oral storytelling tradition a few days ago in a brief review I posted about Richard Bausch’s new story collection “Living in the Weather of the World.” He is an amazing storyteller, both orally and on the page, but reading his stories made me realize there’s probably not a difference where he is concerned. His stories can exist either way. Here’s what I wrote about the book:

    4.) A friend who was about to embark on a book tour for his novel recently asked me for tips on improving his reading. I told him don’t forget he’s telling a story.

    Thanks for this post Lee.

    • Lee Martin on May 22, 2017 at 11:35 am

      We must, be Sophronia! It’s so good to hear about your Sunday spent appreciating quiet.

  3. Heidi Stauff on May 23, 2017 at 2:55 pm

    You’re right—storytelling is a dying art. I remember being riveted by my grandfather’s stories as a child. Whenever we had company over, he’d tell stories about his life as a runaway teenager hopping trains and later crisscrossing the country via chain-gangs.

    He only had a sixth-grade education but he memorized poetry and would quote it to us often I can still hear him reciting ‘Annabell Lee’ by Edgar Allen Poe and how he got all misty-eyed at the end. As a child, that curiosity about the poor lady “in her sepulcher by the sea” is what drew me to love literature and later writing.

    • Lee Martin on May 30, 2017 at 12:28 pm

      That’s another thing we’re losing. The recitation of poetry. I had to learn and recite Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, and it was one of the early examples of the music of language moving me merely by the sound it made. Thanks for that reminder.

  4. Maureen on June 27, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    Lee, I like the way you take time to respond to all comments on your blog.
    In doing this, you draw to yourself a large circle of friends.

    This is so nice.

    I live in Europe and enjoy reading your blog.

    • Lee Martin on June 28, 2017 at 10:28 am

      This is very kind of you, Maureen. Thank you for reading my blog and for taking the time to make this comment.

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