in Storytelling

Can I use your personal story?

Tyson Dudly / Unsplash

Tyson Dudly / Unsplash

Lately I’ve heard of several incidents, where people found out their personal stories are shared by others in front of an audience. This was done without permission. Even more annoying – when confronted, the people performing the breach willingly embarked on lengthy, pseudo-scholarly explanations, about how their behavior is the custom in their professional domain.

My basic advice is this: when you want to take something personal from another, don’t assume it’s only about legality or that the ethical code of your professional domain applies elsewhere. First check what is considered appropriate.

Always ask permission

If a storyteller perceives herself anywhere close to professional, she will ask permission to tell a personal story she’s heard from another storyteller. It’s not illegal not to ask – asking permission is part of an ecology of trust and mutual respect.

This practice goes beyond personal stories: if I hear another storyteller tell a folktale with some kind of unique adaptation I will be happy to use myself – I’ll ask permission.

If the answer is NO, that’s what it is – NO. I’ll accept it fully, and take care not to make the person who refused my request feel a sense of unease. Not even under the disguise of scholarly explanations.

My story, my rules

If you are looking for an explanation for why not, the explanation needs to arrive from the professional domain you want to take from, together with its ethical code, not from your professional domain.

Oral isn’t public property

It is not true that once a story is told it becomes public property. Let’s see you say that to an author that occasionally tells his stories to an audience. Writing isn’t considered public property once published. Why treat an oral personal story differently? A told story enters the commons and lives there (too), but it is not public property.

It has to do with identity and intimacy

A personal story, told in the first person, even if totally made up, is perceived by an audience as part of the storyteller’s identity. The audience understands (even if subconsciously) the storyteller CHOSE to share with them, and that this choice is supported by mutual sense of trust among all present. It’s an intimate act.

Betraying trust sells for a very high price

If someone catches you cheating (say they find out it’s not your story because they’ve heard the same story from another), the sense of trust is shattered. Trust is very expensive these days. Therefore, even when exposing this kind of betrayal is practically unlikely, we storytellers don’t follow that track. It is a violation of the delicate balance between storyteller-story-audience we work with throughout life. It is even more serious than a breach of ownership rights among storytellers and other colleagues.

The creeps

It feels very uncomfortable for a storyteller to know that one of her identity stories is used by another on stage. To my opinion it’s creepy. It is a spiritual abuse I can feel physically.

The politics

We see this practice among groups too. Like Palestinians claiming the Native-American story as theirs. Like modern America claiming the stories of Indian tribes as ‘Native Americans’.

Make up your own

A personal story can inspire another story but it has to be ANOTHER story – not a variation. Providing credit isn’t an excuse to take part of another’s person identity.  Make up your own stories.

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  1. Great post and very important. “Spiritual abuse” is such a great phrase. This is important with personal tales and original adaptations as you say. Tough to know sometimes when there is original spin in a folktale retellings, so it is great to check.