Welcome to the National Storytelling Blog! Within our membership, we have people with expertise in all facets of storytelling. Here we offer their insights and highlight their stories for you to enjoy, learn, and connect.
by Megan Finnerty
That’s a big promise. But that’s what my how-to workshop at the 2014 National Storytelling Conference promises: a way for you to make your community more awesome with little to no money and just the help of a few friends.
Across the country, live storytelling nights are proliferating in restaurants, bars and indie performance spaces. Call it the “This American Life” effect. Call it “The Moth” effect. Call it the storytelling podcast effect. Many of these high-profile nights have a few things in common: they’re supported by robust staffs, they’re in fairly large cities with big creative communities and they tend to work mostly with professional writers and performers, or, you know, ringers.
But the kinds of live storytelling nights that truly transform people, their ideas about themselves and their hopes for their city don’t require all that. They just need you.
The model Liz Warren, Marilyn Omifunke Torres and I use to run the Arizona Storytellers Project can be adopted by any storytelling professional in any town, with most any budget, and can be used to create the kind of community-revolutionizing nights that civic leaders, and storytelling lovers, dream about.
How? By focusing on story development more than story performance. Many of the biggest storytelling nights find and grow talent at random. They put calls out and the bold, the professional, the vain, the specially educated – essentially, those already so inclined to share – show up. This storytelling night model works in reverse. We highlight the skills of the professional storytelling mentor or educator to train all kinds of people to tell a compelling story, thus shifting the focus onto the craft and not just the charisma.
These nights train people to tell stories rather relying on the outspoken, clever and notable to step forward. Through that extensive pre-telling workshopping process, these nights inspire listeners in a unique way because they can all see themselves on that stage. They know the only barrier to their own night of telling is their willingness to reach out to the organizers.
Community storytelling nights that empower ALL members to share entertaining, universally appropriate, engaging stories are powerful because they allow privileged voices to be heard, they make spaces for the expression of the full range of human experiences, and because of their diversity, they more accurately reflect the communities they’re in.
And when people feel empowered to tell their stories, and others feel excited about listening, something in a community changes, even in one as sprawling and car-addicted and cut-off from civic life as Phoenix can be. People feel closer to each other. They feel more accepting of those unlike themselves. They feel more connected to their city and the people in it. They feel more ready to invest in it financially and emotionally
Or at least that’s what all the emails we get say.
These nights send a message to the whole community that everyone has a story worth telling, and that everyone CAN tell it. These nights also send a message to the community that everyone is worth listening to. Through workshopping, we can share powerful, deep, funny and risky stories with the kind of emotional safety for teller and listener that just can’t be achieved through hat-draws and public call-outs.
On a recent night of live storytelling, nine community members shared stories of life and death. Only one teller had previous training. All others managed to share super-risky stories in total confidence, keeping the audience entertained, emotionally moved, but also still within their comfort zones, because all of the tellers went through the workshop process.
So that night, we heard from a woman who gave birth to twins, but only one came home with her from the hospital. We heard from a man who cheated death countless times, cancer, plane troubles, an elevator fall. We heard from a woman who had a profound brain injury, and who is now functioning with about half her previous mental capacity. We heard from a man who survived heart surgery with his sense of humor in tact.
It was the kind of night that could’ve been traumatic to tell, and traumatic to listen to. But instead, as the 150 listeners filed out, I overheard one woman say to another how much the sharing of such important stories meant to her, adding: “This is more how people should live.”
It is how more people should live, telling stories from the heart, but doing so in a way that’s entertaining and emotionally safe. You can make this happen in your community.
Megan Finnerty is the Page One reporter at the Arizona Republic and the founder and host of monthly nights of live storytelling called the Arizona Storytellers Project. She believes that with a time limit, some workshopping and a little empathy, everyone can learn to tell a story. That’s why she also works as a storytelling consultant to business and community leaders seeking to create meaningful connections through authentic communication. She enjoys cocktails, bright lipsticks and feminism.
It was one of those meetings where they’ve agreed to speak with you about your “consulting,” but they weren’t really sold that somebody local could help them.
I handed a small packet of information to each of the two folks I was meeting for lunch. On top of each packet was a copy of my “DaddyTeller” book. Our meeting had nothing to do with the DaddyTeller content, but I knew that both of the people I was meeting had some family with daddies and grandpas in it.
Suddenly, one of my potential clients picked up the DaddyTeller book. She cradled it in one hand while with the other hand she softly stroked the cover of the book. Her demeanor changed, it softened. “Oh, you’re an author, too.”
I had transformed, in her eyes, from some storytelling consultant (“What’s that?”) to An Author. I was someone with authority and expertise. My self-published book, one I poured my heart into, was the key to connecting with this client.
How about you? How are you connecting with the people who hire you? Are you handing them a business card and expecting them to be wowed? The silent assumption is “Here’s my card. Add it to the dozens you already have.” How about handing them your book with your business card? The silent assurance then is, “Here’s my book, a gift for you, and I’m starting this relationship by giving you something unique and useful.”
Remember, I am writing here of creating a tool that helps you build your business and art. I’m not talking about creating your masterpiece novel. Why do you as an artist and teacher need a self-published book? Here are a few reasons:
First, your book will establish authority with your clients and readers, that is, you prove that you have the skills and you can also put your ideas into concrete words and action.
Second, your book (copies of which are very affordable when you self-publish) becomes your new business card. It’s a tool. It’s easy for a client to lose one more business card, but, if you have done your marketing work correctly and targeted people that you can help, your book becomes the tool that props open the door and helps the person who receives it. Helpful tools, like your book, are rarely lost.
Third, you could create an income stream that, once you get started, will come into your bank account monthly without requiring much ongoing work. It’s not magic but I do enjoy the auto-deposits at the end of every month. My books have also helped me to secure gigs and long-term contracts for both live workshops and the “Oh, we’ll buy a book for everybody” opportunities.
Finally, writing and creating your book organizes your thoughts and provides a chance for self-reflection. While I have several books to my name, the first DaddyTeller book came about because a coach I trusted pushed me to “Do something for dads if you think they are so important.” Creating a written text from the ideas floating in my overactive brain was hard to do. I had to be able to reflect on and then articulate why it was important for men to connect with their kids through storytelling. Eventually I was able to create a tool that is now been in the hands of many families.
Let me be clear: self-publishing your book is a great deal of work and there are expenses. Remember that, once upon a time, publishing your first CD (or cassette for some of us) of your recorded stories was mysterious and overwhelming. Everything worthwhile and profitable takes time to learn. Jump on in. Don’t be afraid to learn. You will be creating a book and a tool that builds up the work you do and the presence of storytelling in the world.
I will help you get started on this path. Come join me for my workshop on self-publishing at the 2014 NSN Conference here in my home state of Arizona. You’ll be in for a fast-paced, participative, mind-spinning, Saturday-morning ninety minutes of information. You’ll walk out with title ideas and a simple plan of how to turn that idea into a book in about ten weeks. Come ready to move and interact.
Your book is the tool to building a stronger storytelling business and presence.
Sean Buvala has been storytelling since at least 1986. He started his work by accidentally using active storytelling to convert a classroom of slightly (but comically) homicidal 8th-grade teenagers from angry kids to storytelling practitioners.
From bosses in boardrooms to folks at festivals, Sean tells and teaches stories in many settings. He’s the founder (and janitor) at Storyteller.net.
Along the way, there has been some award-recognition and authoring of a growing pile of books, articles, podcasts and videos. Traveling internationally (meaning that he’s been to Canada), he makes his home in Arizona with four kids and one wife.
by Rachel Nelson
As the fates would allow, I was born into a family that gave me an old-fashioned apprenticeship in the profession of music.
While still a baby, I rested on one of two pianos in a studio where my parents were rehearsing a 2-piano version of Rachmoninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. As a toddler, I’d crawl under the piano while my mother practiced her opera and art songs. These early experiences taught me how to shape a musical phrase.
I thought all families were like ours: on camping trips, we’d sing car songs together in harmony. Family members had a habit of dropping sung quotations from songs or musicals into everyday conversation: “She kept asking ME questions!” was my eternal sibling excuse, which I stole from Amahl and the Night Visitors. My sister and I would sing portions of that opera together we learned from hanging around Mom’s rehearsals; later we went every Saturday to my father’s European-style choir school.
I guess I didn’t have a chance. “I swore I’d never be a musician,” I told a fiddle student last week. “Yeah,” she nodded. “See how that worked out.”
My first artistic job (after street busking) was as theater musician for feminist theater At the Foot of the Mountain’s production JUNKIE! My role was to use music as intermediary between the audience and the action on stage. I loved that job.
So I took other jobs as theater musician/composer, researching ways to tell the emotional underbelly of stories with music. I discovered ways to entrain and pull in audiences with repeated beats or musical phrases.
When I began telling stories myself, it was natural for me to use music. I became my own theater musician. If you’re curious about the power of music in story, try turning the volume off and watch an action or love scene from a movie you’ve just seen. Notice how much of the story, and its pacing, came from the music.
Thinking back now, I realize that although there may have been more music in my family than most, there is a way that music was everyone’s first language. The cadence of a parent’s voice as they croon us off to sleep – this kind of speaking is like a song, and we learned early to understand it. We understood tones of voice long before we mastered words. The very first sound each of us heard was our mother’s heartbeat, while we were still in the womb.
Because we all had this kind of introduction, all storytellers use musical concepts as we sculpt our stories: the melody of vocal cadence rising and falling, dynamic changes from soft to loud, rhythms of speech, and the power of the “almighty pause” (making listeners hang on the edge of their chair for whatever comes next). Our speaking becomes a sort of song.
How fun, having this groundwork, to get together with other storytellers at the NSN conference to experiment with adding bits of music or rhythm to our stories. In my Saturday workshop USING MUSIC WITH STORYTELLING, quick examples will catapult us into pair work, allowing you to switch off between listener and teller as you research ways to use pulse, melody, refrain, or musical audience participation to enhance your stories. We’ll see how repeated motifs can entrain our audience, bringing them together. Some of our research will use tandem telling, with one partner providing the music while the other tells. The last part of the workshop will provide time for fishbowl coaching for those who wish to share a work-in-progress.
In 2012 at the Northlands Storytelling Conference, those of us who began our conference weekend with this workshop found ourselves greeting each other like old friends all weekend. Music does that – what storytelling does: it makes connections, breaks down barriers. Not surprising for that language older than words.
P. S. As the fates would allow, my fringe musical memoir THE URBAN HERMIT was drawn in this year’s NSN fringe lottery. My Thursday evening show is an opportunity to see how I use music, rhythm, and song to enhance a longer story. The music does some heavy lifting in this tale, using songs, fiddle, guitar, Tibetan bowl, hand broom, hand drum, and washtub bass to illuminate character. Come visit the streets of Minneapolis as a young misanthrope finds connection through street busking.
Rachel Nelson is a fiddling fool. Since learning to tell stories, she finally knows how to keep the attention of audiences prone to nodding off during fiddle tunes. Years as a theater musician and songwriter led to her present career as storyteller/songwriter – 2 sides of the same coin. Rachel has studied physical acting with Kari Margolis, and now enjoys mixing up story, spoken word, music, and movement in her stories and fringe musicals. She loves teaching storytelling and story-to-song school residencies. She performed LIVING THE QUESTIONS at the 2008 NSN conference. Look for her 3rd CD this fall.
by Pam Faro
You probably had to be there…
Raising a quizzical eyebrow, she speaks with feigned ignorance and asks the oh-so-pregnant-with-meaning question: “Now, Pam…What are you a Master of?”
I take my cue…spread open my hands, raise eyes upward, and with a voice exuding a beatific awareness of the numinous, I answer in a breathless, awestruck-yet-knowing tone…“Divinity!”
– Always, people chuckle! (Um… ah, well – likely it’s a case of “you had to be there” …oral language, you know…)
This silly-fun little scene is one my storyteller/author friend Cherie Karo Schwartz (Circle Spinning: Jewish Turning and Returning Tales) and I have played out from time to time in the 10 years since I got my MDiv. In the fall of 2000, having been storytelling professionally for 12 years by then, I took a gulp as well as the leap and went to grad school, and got a Master of Divinity degree. I did not seek ordination in my denomination (ELCA Lutheran), however, for I discern no “call” to congregational/pastoral ministry. Rather, my call is to storytelling.
“Where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
I bet a lot of you reading this could actually, if inclined, say that storytelling is your call…
You know the deep gladness of
- researching / finding
- creating / developing / preparing
- working with / playing with / honing, and
- sharing and telling your stories.
And, you know the world has such deep hunger for
- the human-to-human connecting that the act of storytelling creates
- the stories that we tell – whether they entertain, delight, provoke, move, challenge, empower, comfort, guide, inspire…or all of the above.
I dare to say that storytelling itself is a spiritual endeavor – regardless of any-or-no connection to any faith tradition.
Sharing ghost stories ‘round a campfire? Telling funny trickster-and-other folktales to a gym-full of 500 PreK-5th graders? – Spiritual?!
Yes! Agree or disagree with me? Interested in exploring the notion? Come to my workshop at the National Storytelling Conference and let’s explore together!
My interest in specifically “interfaith storytelling” – intentionally sharing sacred stories from across different faith traditions – was deepened by a graduate class I took about the fascinating and rich combination of cultures and faiths in medieval Spain. I researched and put together a program of stories from that time and place (“Andalusian Trilogy” – for more on this project, you may wish to see this page on my website, and/or this blog post). I tell these stories to (yes, entertain, and) help create connections and heal brokenness, stories that underscore common lessons and values that different faiths profess – for too many people today only point out the stories that keep faiths disengaged from each other.
Over my years of giving interfaith storytelling programs, responses from people from various faith traditions have been overwhelmingly positive. Two of my favorites:
- After giving the “Interfaith Interplay” program (stories drawn from 4-5 different traditions) at Emory University in Atlanta, a young Muslim student shook my hand and said fervently, “Every single university needs to hear these stories!” (– Yikes, I’m not quite up for that!);
- After performing “Andalusian Trilogy” in Rome’s glorious basilica Sta. Maria del Popolo, a woman came up and, with an enthusiastic smile and wonderment in her eyes, said to me in Italian, “This was probably the first time Hebrew has been sung in this basilica!”
With a bit of trepidation (these aren’t my traditions, after all) I’ve gone ahead and sung in Hebrew (which I’ve studied some) and told Jewish-tradition stories; and I’ve gone ahead and recited Arabic poetry (in English translation) and told stories of the Prophet Muhammed – and have been given whole-hearted appreciation and encouragement by Jewish and Muslim listeners. I’ve told these stories in Christian churches and in public libraries, and similar expressions of “we need more of this!” are always shared with me.
We do need more of this –
We need to share our “sacred” stories with each other, and bridge the gaps between different faith and spiritual traditions. And we need to do our “secular” storytelling – for the storytelling experience itself vitalizes the imagination and feeds the human spirit in real and abiding ways.
Let’s explore together how our spirits are nourished by our deepest myths, our stories of personal challenge and transformation, the sharing of folklore and oral literature, and even by the silliest of Jack tales!
I hope that many of you will be at my workshop at this year’s NSN conference, “Interfaith Interplay: Sharing the Fire and Light of Sacred Stories.”
With a degree in music and a Masters in Divinity, Pam Faro has been storytelling professionally since 1988. A single mom, she supported her family through the 1990s with storytelling; in 2000 her nest emptied, she remarried, and started grad school (THAT was a year!). In recent years she has performed internationally (overseas in Italy, Wales, England, Germany and Australia; “overlakes” in Canada), and rejoices in how storytelling creates connections between people. Multicultural and/or musical folktales, bilingual cuentos, biblical storytelling, and the story of her great-uncle who survived the Titanic are among her specialties. She’s a new blogger at www.storycrossings.com.
By Regina Ress
I learned how to tell stories while substitute teaching in the New York City public schools. Talk about boot camp! I was often working with “at risk” children, many of whom were…shall we say…deeply disengaged from the classroom activities. When I began to bring in stories… not read them, but tell them…my ability to engage the students and my relationship to the students and their relationship to me shifted radically. I used to joke that before I told the story, the kids were throwing the chairs out the window and as soon as I finished, they continued; but during the storytelling, all eyes and minds were with me. A bit of hyperbole, but essentially what I experienced. There was something going on between us during the telling that radically changed the behavior of these children and atmosphere in those classrooms.
As well, of course, there was a lot of teaching and learning going on. I realized quite quickly how much information was being transmitted effortlessly while I told and they listened to those stories. Being a trained teacher, I began to note the cognitive skills along with some basic social/emotional skills that were embedded both in the stories themselves and equally in the experience of listening to stories. And, of course, once they began to fashion their own stories and tell them, a world opened up for these young, often marginalized, New Yorkers.
Great teaching, like great storytelling, is about communication. It is about contextualizing information, creating Aha! Moments, journeying into new territory to find hidden treasure, sharing a passion and meaning making. Sound heavy? Not at all. Teaching can be fun, as much fun as telling a good tale.
We know that storytelling has been used throughout human history not only to entertain, but to transmit information, explain cultural codes, and problem solve (to name just a few of the applications/uses.) We now know it also enhances interpersonal and cross-cultural awareness and encourages personal expression. It engages participants of all age and all levels seamlessly and deeply in the subject at hand. It’s a natural teaching tool and I have used it from pre-schools to University Master’s Programs, in after school offerings for children living in homeless shelters, as an English language teacher for adult immigrants and with incarcerated women, both on the east coast and currently in New Mexico. And, of course, I’ve taught teachers … both for professional development workshops in the schools and, for the past 10 years, for New York University’s Program in Educational Theatre and the TESOL/Foreign Language Program. I know the power of storytelling to fire up a classroom.
I’m bringing some stories and some terrific activities to the National Storytelling Conference in Arizona this summer. We will easily and with great fun experience the power and efficacy of storytelling in the classroom and beyond. The workshop is called Storytelling: The Fire in Great Teaching. Come help me heat up that room in Mesa!
Regina Ress, storyteller, actor, writer and teacher, has performed and taught across the US and abroad for over 40 years. Her recent CD, New York and Me: We’re in a Long Term Relationship ( available on her website and the conference), won a 2014 Storytelling World Honor award. She will be back for her 22nd year in the Hans Christian Andersen storytelling series in Central Park in September and is delighted to host her long running series Storytelling at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. A current project is working with incarcerated women in the Santa Fe County jail.