Clyde Edgerton: Storytelling and story listening
Storytelling assumes uncertainty. The Southern writer talks about how teachers, preachers and leaders can use storytelling to engage their audiences -- and why he has returned to church.
January 12, 2010 | Clyde Edgerton grew up in a family with 23 aunts and uncles and was inspired to be a writer after hearing Eudora Welty read “Why I Live at the P.O.” What he heard in that story was the beauty and simplicity of the particular details that create relationships between people. His nine novels are filled with this kind of Southern storytelling.
Edgerton, who teaches at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, has been a Guggenheim Fellow and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Three of his novels have been made into movies and five have been listed as New York Times Notable Books. The plot of his first novel, “Raney,” revolves around the marriage of a Free Will Baptist and an Episcopalian. His latest book is “The Bible Salesman,” about the adventures of a Bible salesman and a car thief.
Edgerton spoke with Faith & Leadership about storytelling and imagination, teaching and preaching and about the fascination of relationships that continue to inspire his own writing.
Q: How should Christian leaders approach storytelling?
I think they should look at the parables of Jesus.
Because the parables of Jesus are fascinating in that they often talk around a subject. They can be interpreted in different ways sometimes. And they usually are not telling you what to do or not to do.
Leaders tend to think that that’s their job to tell people what to do and what not to do. And you would think, if we look to someone like Jesus as a leader, there clearly are places where he tells you what to do and what not to do, but there clearly are places where he illustrates with a story. So I think illustrating with a story can engage.
Storytelling assumes uncertainty. Storytelling assumes that the other person is involved. When you tell a story you’re using your experience -- when you’re telling a story that you made up -- your experience, your observation, what you know about and you’re using your imagination. And when you tell that story, it lands on another human being who has his or her own experience, his or her own observation and knowledge and his or her own imagination. So it might not be the same story that left your mouth. And if you recognize that, life is much more exciting.
And I think that’s one of the truths about the parables of Jesus. They land on different sets of imaginations. So leading through a story recognizes right away that the way we are designed and made up is variable from one to the other. So, to order proclamations and directions may not set well and may not be as effective as storytelling.
But storytelling assumes story listening. By that I mean when I deliver my story, that might not be the end of it. Why should I not have a story told back to me and in doing so find out that my story did not work the way I had anticipated it? And thus I need to tell another story. Where I’m coming from, two-way communication is helpful in leadership.
Q: You’ve developed a philosophy over the years. I can’t remember the actual quote…
About teaching? “Teaching is the act of inducing students to behave in ways assumed to lead to learning.” It fits in all kinds of little situations. For example, I think preaching is the act of inducing parishioners to behave in ways assumed to lead to “blank” -- whatever you’re trying to get them to do. It turns out that it’s behavior that influences behavior in this business of instruction.
It grants that we don’t know all that we might know about learning, and it assumes that you learn from your own behavior.
Q: But you can’t see your own behavior.
You can see the consequences of it. You can feel the consequences of your own behavior. And you may learn facts or from other people -- say, the world is round, so you learn that. But given an opportunity to learn how to survive in the world or in the wilderness, a little piece of the world, you will learn from your own behavior, your own guided behavior, perhaps.
Q: Do you go to church?
I’m undergoing a transformation in regards to the Bible. I grew up in a fundamentalist family in church, in which there were loving, wonderful people and wonderful music. But the theology, the idea of heaven and hell and good behavior and bad behavior and the way it was all presented to me was such that I rejected it and I still do. And it was hard, and it has been hard, and this is true of so many people for sure, to realize that there may have been some baby in that bathwater they threw out.
So recently, my wife and I -- because we felt a nagging need for it -- we’re back going to church. And it’s been a revelation for me. First of all it’s been really great to know, to meet a preacher, [the Rev. Eric Porterfield, senior pastor at Winterpark Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C.] who seems to be broadminded.