Monday, 24 September 2018

Orality Helps to Bring Literacy to Life

I was a story teller before I was a story writer. I would spend hours late at night spinning stories out of my imagination recounting them verbally for the joy and settling of my younger brother as we went off to sleep. I then became fluent on stage and capable to ‘tell stories’ via several amateur movie productions and video clips. I am a keen oral story teller. I still enjoy sitting around a campfire and telling an adventurous thriller.

 I also enjoy relating well-told testimonials of how good God is. My stories, but especially His story telling from His word or other people’s lives touched by His love are powerful when they are shared orally. I recognised the power of this verbal story telling when I began to utilise my own stories (written) in verbal form as a healing technique when working with troubled young people I have had the opportunity to work with in Indigenous communities. Laying in our swags after a full day of intervention and activity, telling out stories of the fictional characters I have written about helped these often angry and frustrated young men relate their own real stories and helped begin a deeper healing journey.

In his seminal work “Orality and Literacy” (1982) Professor Walter J. Ong explored some of the profound historical changes in our thought processes, personality and social structures which are the result,  of the development of speech, writing and print. He not only emphasized that oral and literate cultures use different types of learning and storing information, He considers the impact of orality-literacy development on our understanding of what it is to be a human being, conscious of ourselves and others. In other words our cultures have developed from oral traditions that are at first powerful, and made more powerful and authoritative via our use of literacy. In my own personal experience, the oral story telling gave foundations for my writing. In turn the telling or re-telling of a written form gained deeper meaning in the contexts and authentic reckoning of audiences I have had the joy of sharing with.

A valuable development for me as a story teller and writer was an instilling and development in my journey of a love for learning words. I came to know words before sentences developed into reasonable literature. I saw the power my Grandfather had with his hold on words. Not only to be a wiz at cross words, he could speak eloquently when called upon, could write script , prose, letters and reports with apparent ease.   He helped enthuse and inspired me to dig deeper. I had already had a formative grasp in word discovery and meaning via empowering English teachers at school, but I dug in deeper, going on my own literacy adventures. Reading. Learning the meaning of words I did not know as they came up in Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Charles Dickens and others. Learning Latin roots as I studied the scientific nomenclature of the dinosaurs, animals and plants I loved. Putting words into sentences that built into stories as I wrote. My language changed. How I spoke developed. How I lived was influenced. A transformation began as I began to live out of this deeper world-well of words.

Ong notes that Literacy is a necessity for the development and understanding of science, history, philosophy, and art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself.  There are a “vast complex of powers forever inaccessible without literacy”.  Which seems correct as writers. If our stories stay in our head, or only told around a good coffee with friends, they would not make it to print; and hence would not make it to a wider audience. However this is almost an agony in line with Ong’s recognition of frustrated peoples “rooted in primary orality, who want literacy passionately but who also know very well that moving into the exciting world of literacy means leaving behind much that is exciting and deeply loved in the earlier oral world”.

We are so literature based sometimes as writers that it is very difficult for us to conceive of an oral universe of communication or thought except as a variant of a literate universe. What I attempt to do regularly is to tell out my stories verbally. This simply helps me to overcome my biases in some degree and to open new ways to understanding my own stories, the characters, the settings. The value of this is that it makes my stories resonate with a greater depth and authenticity as it is tested by me and my hearing audience well before it is read at a book launch or recital. There is another beauty with this perspective. It helps others be engaged in our journey.

 Imagine if Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had not had the power of the Inklings to be a sounding board of deepening their stories, testing their script, challenging the logic and narrative depth. In other words “telling” our stories is not only at first a point of clarification. It is vital to our writing construction, but perhaps more importantly our story creativity.

God’s word was first spoken. Genesis (the written form) explains this. But even the scripture before it was recorded was first handed down via an oral culture. In fact the value of our textual scripture is in its power to be received through its preached form. Which in essence is orality. Oh that our communities of faith re-embrace the power of mutual story telling. Where each is submitted to the other to give their testimony. Surely we recognise that ”we overcome by the word of our testimony” and that “Faith comes by hearing”.  But perhaps that perspective is for another time.
Ong noted that for civilization to develop the oral cultures would need to give way to literacy. “We have to die to continue living” is how Ong had related this tension. My conviction is similar yet converse to his tenet. I believe we also have to die to our literacy to continue to live vitally as story tellers. It is interesting that Jesus too had this opinion of dying to live. Loosing ourselves to find ourselves. I will choose to live by dying to self. Within my writing journey I simply aim to die to the cleverness and ability I have to get the story down on paper and continue to revisit the resonating power of orally sharing my journey with trusted people who in turn will inspire my journey and take it to a depth that is honouring of the potential of a greater written telling.


  1. Great post Shane. There is much power in both the spoken and the written word. That's great how you were able to use stories to bring healing to the lives of troubled young people. I remember using story telling in my young son's life during period he was stressed and it was a great distraction and brought healing.

    I find I need to read out whatever I write in order to ensure it is written well. So do agree that speaking out our stories is needed and part of the process of writing then down. Thanks for opening my eyes afresh to the great power of oral story telling.

  2. Intriguing post Shane. I like how you interweave both oral story telling and literacy and allow the oral to inform your written narration as well as drawing from the spoken and written Word of God. Thanks.

  3. Have you tried Bible storytelling in the form where it is not a summary story but as the scripture does (not memorised word for word but picture by picture/idea by idea? See

    1. Great Christine. thanks for the connection. looks beaut. Yes. I agree , that is part of the creative telling that we need to embrace.