The Man Who Taught Me Storytelling
This piece was retrieved from an old archive of my online writing—there will likely be some rough edges!
So happy to read this interview with one of my old professors, Harold Scheub, about, in part, the nature of storytelling. Scheub says:
In Southern Africa, the storytellers did not get paid, this is not their profession. The fact is that everybody told stories. And this really fascinated me. Storytelling, I learned very early, is a means of communicating, probably the means of communicating ideas, and communicating the organization of a society. And so it seems to me it’s necessary that everybody in one way or another be a storyteller.
Storytellers are constantly in the process of taking ancient images and casting them into contemporary kinds of forms. And so there’s no such thing as an original story. I don’t care where it is, whether it’s written or oral, the fact is that every story has been heard before. Every story has been told before. So if we’re looking for originality we’re going to find it, but in unique kinds of ways. We’re not going to find it in the way the story is told, we’re not going to find it in the story itself. It’s that connection, that’s the important thing. Connections are everything. Connecting the present and the past, connecting the storyteller and the audience.
So you ask a difficult question, because my conclusion is that everybody is a storyteller. We all have stories to tell. And we take these stories from the same repertory. All of us.
I took Scheub’s ”The African Storyteller” class in my senior year of undergrad, in part because I had heard stories about Scheub himself, and because I wanted to get a new take on fiction. I had read plenty of American and British literature, and analyzed it deeply, and I was in need of something different. An injection of the “alien,” one of those words that we loved, by God, to use in those literary analyses.
I was absolutely blown away by Scheub’s sheer passion for sharing these stories. And incredible stories they were. They didn’t focus in on flowery language, in part because he couldn’t ever translate them quite perfectly. They weren’t about sentences that ripped your heart out. They were about a kind of magic, which Scheub tried to convey through his own re-tellings. It was that class, more than any of my fantastic workshops, that taught me about the sheer importance of storytelling, and the reasons for why we do it: to entertain, to shape the world we know into something new and different, to continue a legacy that was born long before us or the countries in which we live.
Scheub remains an inspiration to my own writing, and what I want to continue doing as I drive along this path. I still remember the day I walked out of his lecture, at the end of the semester, having been treated to a 50-minute manifesto on tolerance, equality, and, naturally, the importance of storytelling. It was fitting that class took place in Bascom Hall’s biggest lecture hall, because that way, I could walk down the dim corridor and push through the heavy wooden doors and stand at the top of the hill, look out over the city, and wonder what my place in it all would end up being.
I’m still here, trying to figure it out, telling my own stories as I can.