Memory Boxes...Treasures of Once Upon a Time




                                                                                            by    Marilyn A. Kinsella


This workshop was developed for the St. Louis Storytelling Festival in 2005. It was presented at the Missouri History Museum (formerly the Jefferson Memorial), Lindell & DeBaliviere, at Forest Park

Memory Boxes...Treasures of Once Upon a Time
Presented by regional storyteller Marilyn Kinsella
Let’s go on a treasure hunt. Dig around in your memory box and discover a wealth of priceless stories. Using sensory prompts and creative writing techniques, storyteller Marilyn Kinsella will guide you through the step-by-step process of revealing the golden treasure of your story. Marilyn has been telling stories since 1981. Her collection of over 150 stories includes many she wrote about growing up in Smalltown, USA. She masterfully takes a memory and stretches it into a story. Now, she is going to reveal her secret key to opening those stories.



easel paper and markers


4 boxes (prefer cigar boxes) filled with mementos


Index cards with smells or events


Large pieces of paper for attendees


I.  Bio – how I came about developing this workshop

In 1981, when I started storytelling, I thought I only wanted to tell folktales. After all, they were ripe for the pickin’.  I didn’t have to make up the story. It was already there – handed down for generations. You know, if a story can survive revolutions, the discovery of new continents and the invention of silly putty, it has to be good. All I needed to do was pare it down to its bare bones and flesh it up with my own words. There are thousands upon thousands of folktales – more than I could learn in a lifetime. And that’s what I told for the first five years – folktales.

Then one day while coming home from the Illinois Storytelling Festival, I began to think about something a little girl had told me after one of my storytelling sessions. She said, “Tell me how you make music with your words.” It was such a wonderful moment that I shared it with others. But when I was coming home from the festival I began to think about it, I started to remember when I took piano lessons that I gave up after only two years. I remembered my mom telling me that she thought there was something musical inside me. I thought about how storytelling and music really do have a lot in common. Suddenly pieces started to come together and I had one of my first personal stories.

Since then I have written at least 30 personal stories. For many years I thought it was pure inspiration. For when I start to write them…they write themselves. It is a strange phenomenon. I never knew when it would happen, but if I was receptive to the moment, I had a story.  I was hoping there was a way to trigger this so I could write more stories. I read some creative writing books and found out that I was subconsciously doing some of the exercises that writers have been doing for years.

So, what I’d like to do is give you some touchstones for your stories. Several things could happen – it could be that you will be inspired and will walk away with a full-blown story; it could be that you will write a short vignette that may or may not be part of another story at some other time; it could be that your paper will remain blank and that’s okay because I can only tell you what works for me. You may be a mechanical writer that needs to do research and write things out in an outline and write your stories. There is no right or wrong way. It’s what works for you!

In this workshop I may use the word “touch stone.” It is a phrase that has been used for other meanings, but for me, it is the way I choose to go into a story that is my touchstone. It may be a phrase like the little girl who said “how do you make music with your words;” it may be a thing – a music box, a hummingbird, an artist’s palette, etc; it may be a place – Teen Town; one of our senses – a smell, taste or sound; or an event – The Fourth of July celebration. I think there may be other touchstones such as an emotion that can trigger a story. When I lost my mother, I never thought I could write out her story. But, in my grief, I found the words. I have since discovered that while grieving we are more sensitive to our world. It’s as if our senses are heightened and the story is there.

What I propose to do in this workshop is to provide some touchstones for you to work with.

So, keeping that in mind, I’d like to tell you a story about a story.  Back in 2003, I decided I needed to have a story about the 1904 St. Louis Fair. When I came to visit the History Museum before all the renovations, there was a room with a lot of mementos from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. I was very taken with a woman by the name of Jesse Tarbox Beals. She was the only woman photographer officially sanctioned by the commission. I thought her life was extraordinary. I read her biography, looked at her photographs, and did endless research on her and the rest of the fair on the Internet. Still no story.

Then one day I was writing on Storytell (a storytellers’ listserve). The subject came up about the Fourth of July. I started to write about our family celebrations and how it was also the birthday of Great Aunt Josie who lived next door to me. Now, it was Great Aunt Josie who first introduced me to the 1904 World’s fair. She used to tell me little stories about going there. She turned 16 during that summer and about the fireworks on her birthday. Whenever she talked about it, her eyes would glaze over and she’d say, “It was grand, simply grand.”

As I wrote about July 4th, I started writing about Josie, about visits on her back porch, about a special July 4th when she turned 75, about the facts that I had researched, about the fireworks. This story started out about a memory of place that touched off many other memories that connected into a story. It was not a story about Jesse but about Josie!

And before I give too much of it away, I’d like to tell you an abbreviated version of the story – for you to enjoy, of course, but also to use as a reference for the rest of the workshop.


II. Story – When Memories Come Fourth

After telling the story, show the creative thought process by doing a free association "bubbling" exercise on large poster paper.


III. Exercises

Discuss “Touchstone” In this workshop I use the touchstone to refer to the object, smell, or event that touched off a story.

Exercise One: Choose a Touchstone

From a variety of objects, choose one that you feel drawn to. Do not pick an unfamiliar object but one that feels like it holds a story. If you do not feel drawn to a particular object, select one of the event’s cards that you feel may hold a story. If there is nothing that inspires you, think of an object that you hold dear and use a mental image of the object for the next exercise.

Exercise Two: Free Association

Place the object or event in the middle of the page and draw a ring around it. Write down the words or phrases that spontaneously come to mind. Circle the word and draw a line from it to the touchstone. Now take those words and continue to write free associations for them – connect them to those words. Keep branching out as far as you can. After a few minutes I will give you some prompts to help you think of things that may have not occurred to you.  

Look at your free association grid. Do you see any patterns? Words repeated but in different places? Give your self some time to meander over it.

Exercise Three: Story Start

 Write out 3 or more sentences about a story you are beginning to formulate. (5 minutes)

 Tell it to a Neighbor. Select a partner to tell your story to. Each has 3 minutes

Exercise Four: Where Am I?

 Decide when your story is taking place (how old are you) Where it is taking place – a living room, kitchen, attic, back porch, yard, gym, school room, etc.

Exercise Five: Virtual Image Tour

 Close your eyes and let the workshop leader take you on a tour of the main place in the story. See, touch, hear, smell, taste, feel.

Partner up with someone new and tell them about what you saw. Each partner has 3 minutes

Exercise Six : The Proverbial Fly on the Wall

 Write out your story again but leaving out “I” and “me”. Tell it in third person (5 minutes)

 Partner up and share this version (3 minutes each)

Exercise Seven: You Look Mah-ve-lous!

Write out a detailed description of someone in your story. What he/she is wearing, describe the hair, aroma, shoes, age, facial features or even your feelings about this person.

Exercise Eight: Who’s Talking Now

Write your story in someone else’s voice. Take a character from your story and tell it as if it were he/she telling the story. This may or may not work for the entire story. It will alter it, but just play with the idea.

Exercise Nine: Topsy-Turvy

Write out the story from something that is at the end of the story and put it at the beginning. Rewrite it.

Exercise Ten: For Real

Write out the story the way you want it adding details, dialog, writing techniques, and imagery. Give it a satisfactory ending by tying some images from the story together at the end. (5 minutes)

Partner up – three minutes each.


bulletScott Edelstein’s 100 Things Every Writer Needs to Know;
bulletJulie Cameron’s The Artist’s Way; 
bullet Everyday Writing Panning for Gold in the Kitchen Sink by Michael Smith
bulletLesley Newman’s  Writing from the Heart.
bulletWith thanks to Tom McCabe, Jack Stokes, and Don Davis

Hear what others had to say about the workshop:


“I loved the story within story detail and imagine you created real people.”  


 “I consider myself an inspired writer as well and today, you were my inspiration.”                             


Very helpful from the beginning!”                                                                                                  


“Loved the story and the hands-on approach. I’ll be taking a report to the (??) – writing class at Life, Long Learning Institute.”                                                                                                           


“Delightful – enjoyed hearing your story and learning more about the process – even though its hard for me to write on the spot – glad you made us do it.”                                                                                   


“This has been a great springboard. Thanks – I have a be-jillion stories to tell.”                            


“Interesting workshop to jumpstart into story telling.”                                                                       


“Thank you for the World’s Fair story. I have one of my own I want to develop and be able to tell. I have a silver spoon and program from the fair. Not long enough! Please do a whole day!!”                             


“I really enjoyed this and got ideas for teaching which is what I wanted!                                                  


“This a very good workshop. Your exercises worked!”

And I received this lovely email from Gloria...

"I enjoyed attending your workshop.
I also, enjoyed your "Fourth of July" story about your late aunt.
It encouraged me into continuing writing the stories that come into my head. You
reminded me of myself; when I was a little girl I loved to make up stories to
tell, and hearing you made me realize that I too have a gift of telling stories."



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