ENGL 591
Special Topics in Folklore and Folklife:
Living Words: Folklore and Creative Writing

Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. — Eudora Welty

What drives me on, I realize, is a craving to force entry into another heart, to trick the tumblers of natural law, to perform miracles of knowing. It’s human nature. We are fascinated, all of us, by the implacable otherness of others. — Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods

My grandmother tells me
About her first love
Johnny Hansen was his name
She’ll always remember
A warm autumn day
She was fifteen
Or almost fifteen
. . . — from “Mahogany China,” by Jim Dodge

How do we know what moment is worth telling? How do we listen for and find good stories? What spoken words linger in a listener’s ear? Where does the power lie in ambiguity and in fragments?

Folklore and creative writing make good partners. Proverbs and jokes pare down words and turn on themselves quickly; they urge us to condense, to write concisely. Auction chants, drum beats, jump-rope rhymes, and unaccompanied singing offer rhythms, new and old. Folk speech anchors words in place. Riddles lead us to danger and wisdom. Foods we eat, objects we make, rituals we practice enliven scenes of all kinds. And stories—whether mythological tales, “fairy tales,” legends, supernatural tales, tall tales, or stories of personal experiences—provide the inspiration, provocation, and backbone for many poems, novels, and non-fiction essays.

In this class, we will encounter these forms of folklore through readings, recordings, and film and use them to further our writing. Through workshops and discussions, we will explore the unsuspected depths of everyday cultural forms and practices. In-class storytelling, interviewing others, discussing in workshops the oral words we collect, and translating oral words to printed text will offer ways to attend to writing. Course readings will pair poetry, fiction, ethnography, and non-fiction with folklore texts.

Possible readings include Coyote and other mythological tales, tales of the Brothers Grimm, The Poets Grimm (20th c. poems that revise Grimm), and legends of La Llorona and other supernatural figures; others will be determined by student interest. Requirements include in-class presentations, short paper, and a semester project. Writing assignments will be tailored to the different interests of students, including those in MA, MFA, PWE, and TWL programs.

Please e-mail me at myocom@gmu.edu when you register for the course. I want to plan our semester’s readings around your writing interests.

What is Folklore? Answer at The New York Folklore Society Website


Course Readings:

Here are a few of the book we'll be using. As I make final decisions, I'll add more. Please don't buy other books, even if they're on the shelves at the GMU bookstore.

– Patrick Ford, editor. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales (University of California Press) 0-520-03414-7
– David Thomson. People of the Sea. (Counterpoint Press, 2002) 1582431841
– Jack Zipes. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm All-New Third Edition (Bantam) 0-553-89740-3
– Steve Zeitlin. A Celebration of American Family Folklore (Yellow Moon Press, 1992) 0-938756-36-2

I'm considering these:
– Jeanne Marie Beaumont and Claudia Carlson, editors. The Poets’ Grimm: 20th Century Poems from Grimm Fairy Tales (Story Line Press, 2003)
– John Miles Foley. How to Read an Oral Poem (University of Illinois Press, 2002) 0-252-07082-8
– Kira Van Deusen. Singing Story, Healing Drum: Shamans and Storytellers of Turkic Siberia (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004) 0-7735-2617-X; (Univ of Washington Press, 0-295-98418-X)

Possible activities for ENGL 591 “Living Words: Folklore and Creative Writing”
(Spring 2006, Margaret Yocom, myocom@gmu.edu)

Finding moments that are tellable. What makes a story / a moment tellable?
Storytelling activities that help us find stories (tellable moments) where you didn’t see stories before. (Example: William Stafford’s essay on telling his children what happened to him the night before and realizing he had a poem-- “Traveling through the Dark” in Crossing Unmarked Snow)

Collecting a story from a friend / discussing a favorite traditional tale: workshops on that tale to discover as much as we can about it

In-class writing and storytelling exercises to help start or develop a piece of work that could proceed from traditional materials.

Discuss and play with the language of oral materials: repetition, fragments, gaps

How the word sounds on the page. Experiment with ways to line-out orally told stories on the page, giving them the appearance of poetry; folklorists call such a layout “ethnopoetics.”

Reading folktales, legends, and more to discover the resonances of objects such as skin, shoe, hand, foot, raven, ring

Reading, listening to folktales, legends, and ballads to explore characters (like Coyote in Native American mythology or characters in the Grimm Brothers collection of international wonder tales or religious figures such as the Virgin of Guadalupe). Experimenting with collected language poems.

Reading about festivals, celebrations, rites of passage such as Halloween, Day of the Dead, funerals, reunions

Read family folklore materials to discover material for poems/stories/non-fiction about family. Interview family members. Discuss family photography.

Read about traditional food and foodways to develop material for poems/stories/non-fiction about food and the life around food. Interview tradition bearers.

Telling stories / reading poems, stories, essays aloud in class and at an open mike

One folklorist’s views on poetry’s connection to traditional arts: "Artifacts rarely mean in the manner of lucid prose. Poetry, explosive with ambiguity and uneasy in the confines of time, comes closer to the artifact's mode of significance. Music, moving more than allusive, repetitious in transformation, come closer still. At last, the artifact finds its own way to meaning, and in learning it we begin to hear the voices in things . . . Then we accept the strange responsibility of putting into words that which is not verbal" (47)

– Henry Glassie (1999) Material Culture (Bloomington: Indiana Press).


What is folklore? the study of traditional expressive behavior (like storytelling) and its products (like stories).

What do folklorists study? Here's a list --

After you read this information, please email me and tell me what you'd most like to read, talk about, do in our 591 course on folklore and creative writing. myocom@gmu.edu


folk narratives

mythological tales
international wonder tales (“fairy tales”)
contemporary legends
legends of the supernatural (ghosts, fairies, and much more)
tall tales
animal tales and fables
family stories and oral history
personal experience narratives

folk dramas
folk gestures
folk speech
rhymes and folk poetry

games (jump-rope rhymes), rap, auction chants, cowboy poetry, and more

names and naming
personal, family names
place names, and much more

folksongs and ballads

blues, and much more

folk dances


beliefs (“superstitions”)
word magic

making shrines and spontaneous roadside memorials, and much more
divination of the future, and more

birthdays, saints days, weddings, funerals, and much more

MATERIAL CULTURE (Also called Folklife)

folk arts

quilts, carvings, roadside shrines, murals, lawn art, and much more
folk dress and costumes

folk architecture

porches, fences, house types, barn types, and much more