Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Frank McCourt the Storytelling Teacher

Eric Konigsberg has written in the New York Times (20 July 2009) a wonderful tribute to the author, Frank McCourt. Here are some snippets about storytelling to whet your appetite for the complete article:

Storytelling Produced the Writer
Frank McCourt, who died Sunday (19 July 2009), was the first to say that those years [teaching creative writing in high schools], while depriving him of the time actually to write, were what made a writer out of him.

Literature is Telling Stories
“His students learned from him that literature was nothing more — and nothing less — than the telling of stories…. But, as many of them have said, the most inspired and inspiring hours spent in his classroom were devoted to listening to him share experiences from his own life.

“A lot of the class was him telling tales and telling them over and over,” said Alissa Quart, an author and a 2009 Nieman Fellow at Harvard who was Mr. McCourt’s student during her freshman year at Stuyvesant, in 1985-86. “He used to sort of recite from memory the stories that became ‘Angela’s Ashes.’ ”

Telling Your Story
“Looking back, it was all part of a technique,” said Vernon Silver…. “He wanted you to tell a story too.”

“A common exercise was asking students to describe what they had done when they got home the night before. “He would coax it out of us, showing us how to pay attention to mundane but telling details,” Mr. Silver said.

Attention to Detail
“I remember a dialogue with a shy student. The kid said, ‘I did my homework.’ McCourt said: ‘No, no, no. What did you do when you walked in? You went through a door, didn’t you? Did you have anything in your hands? A book bag? You didn’t carry it with you all night, did you? Did you hang it on a hook? Did you throw it across the room and your mom yelled at you for it?’”

And on and on, until enough significant glimpses of the boy’s life emerged to begin to paint a picture.”

Dangers and Delights of Transparency
“In the teachers’ cafeteria veterans warned me, Son, tell ’em nothing about yourself. ...You’re the teacher. You have a right to privacy. The little buggers are diabolical. They are not, repeat not, your natural friends. ... You can never get back the bits and pieces of your life that stick in their little heads. Your life, man. It’s all you have.”

He went on: “The advice was wasted. ... My life saved my life.”

Read the entire article at this link:
Eric Konigsberg, The Storyteller Begat the Teacher who Begat the Writer, New York Times, 20 July 2009.

Dr Geoff Pound

Geoff can be contacted by email at geoffpound(at)gmail.com on Facebook and Twitter.

Image: Frank McCourt.