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 Sara Beth Nelson
My husband John and I cross the threshold from the still sunny summer evening into the dark music hall. There is a man at a podium. I show him the electronic tickets on my glowing phone screen. He stamps our hands with thick blue ink.
I go to the table on the right with papers and a large glass drinking mug. I write my name on the paper and drop it into the glass.
Folding metal chairs are set up facing the stage with narrow aisles down the center and sides. We sit. The rows are so close together my knees almost touch the seat in front of me. I sit on the left aisle so I can get out if my name is called. John sits next to me.
On stage, there is a microphone and a whiteboard. The whiteboard waits for the scores. The theme of the evening written across the top: On the Road.
The room fills and fills. Soon I am touching people on all sides. The house lights dim and we are in the dark.
The host gets on stage. The lights are bright. He squints. He sweats. He can’t see us, but he is all we can see. He announces the first storyteller and tells him to prepare. He introduces the judges, picked and trained just that evening. They call out the names they have created for their judging teams. The scribe writes the names across the top of the white board.
The host tells a story about trying to be like Jack Kerouac. He brings up the first storyteller. The man complains about the blinding light. He tells his story. People clap. He sits down. The host talks again, tells the next teller to prepare. He asks the judges for scores and the scribe writes them on the whiteboard.
The next storyteller goes. And then I get called. I stand to the side of the stage while the host finishes asking for scores. He introduces me again. I climb the steps to the stage. I stand in the light. I don’t squint, but I want to. I can not see anyone. Just shadows around the edges of the room. I tell my story. It is about a road trip John and I took through the UK. People laugh at the right spots; disembodied voices. I waver in the light and accept the applause. The host comes back and I step down. The host asks the judges for my scores. I’m not a contender for first place, but they’re not terrible.
My friend, Ray, tells a story. He gets a high score and will probably win. He’s won the story slam before.
There are more stories. Some profound and others silly. A man who is blind tells a story about eating fancy dinners at conferences in different countries and the French chef who kindly cut his food before sending it out.
I have numb spots on my behind from the hard seats. The final scores are tallied. Ray wins. The crowd erupts. The host struggles to explain over the cheers that someone else must go on from this slam to compete in the grand slam since Ray is already going. The blind storyteller is in second place. Everyone else sees what he does not. They see on the board that his score is next highest. Friends reach over and grab his shoulder. They whisper in his ear as the host announces his name. He will go to the grand slam.
The room seems immediately cooler as bodies move apart. Air and space flow again in between. John and I weave around others going to the bathroom, to the bar, out the door. We go into the night.
Understanding reality storytelling, and sharing what I have learned with the national storytelling community, is a continuing project of mine. One around which I am planning my dissertation. The picture I’ve painted here is just one night at one event. At the conference this summer I will be sharing insights I gained regarding reality and festival-style storytelling after conducting oral history interviews with a couple of Georgia storytellers.
About Sara Beth
Sarah Beth Nelson is a Doctoral Candidate in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina. She conducts research on modern oral communication with the focus of her dissertation being the reality storytelling movement. Sarah Beth also performs as a storyteller in fringes, festivals, and many venues in between. When not telling true stories from her own life she shares classical myths she has reimagined to feature empowered heroines.
Contact Sara Beth
by Karen Chace
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Fred Rogers
From the moment my students stepped into the room for the after school storytelling program, ‘after school’ being the operative words, I was already at a disadvantage. By then they had been sitting at their desks for almost five hours, with only 20 minutes for recess, barely any time at all to add movement and play to their day. How could I keep them motivated through 13 weeks of class, especially for those students who return year after year? I quickly learned that play and movement were two key ingredients.
While I began to create different worksheets to help them sequence and visualize their folktales, I knew it was equally important to get them on their feet, let their bodies feel the stories. Sometimes it was a combination of both. One of my newest creations, Exaggeration Station, was a perfect marriage of the two. The objective is to encourage them to play with the elements of their story.
I prepared a worksheet for the students to complete before the game, which mirrored the nine poster boards placed around the room; this gave them a chance to think through their choices. Since we were in the school library I used the book stands for the poster boards, placing them on the shelves, no higher than eye level. They were organized in a pattern that wove them up and down the aisles so the children could easily move through the game. We immediately followed up with Walk the Talk, another movement activity, and they quickly incorporated what they discovered while playing Exaggeration Station.
More than once I’ve reconfigured a childhood game into a new classroom activity. Sometimes inspiration comes in an instant in the most unexpected places. One day I was working with my third grade storytelling troupe. We were using the school hallway for a version of The Virginia Reel. Rather than standing still and facing each other, they were paired up, walking side by side, one teller sharing their tale with their partner. As they were executing the activity I suddenly noticed two girls reach out to hold hands. Immediately, the memory of an old schoolyard game popped into my head and a brand new activity, Red Rover, Red Rover Send Story Right Over, was born.
Another day we began by completing my written exercise, Language Ladders. Immediately after finishing their worksheets I cued up the music and we began to “Dialogue and Dance!” By merging the tactile exercise of writing, then quickly moving to an interactive game utilizing their new story dialogue, it reinforced and stimulated their work.
After fifteen years of teaching I still continue to think about new ways to bring movement into the classroom. It’s no surprise we all love to play so why not incorporate as much as possible into our day and play with a purpose!
Want to add some more play to your classroom, to your storytelling? Register for my workshop, Story Play, at the National Storytelling Conference this summer; I promise we will have fun, and chocolates!
When she isn’t writing or telling stories Karen is teaching and coaching the next generation of storytellers. Her award winning book, Story by Story: Creating a Student Storytelling Troupe, is based on teaching the art of Oral Tradition to over 500 students. Her greatest joy is watching a shy child transform into a confident performer.
Karen produces and hosts the television series the Story Café in Massachusetts, offering colleagues the opportunity to share stories and highlight the unique diversity of their work. She is also the co-founder of Once Upon a Generation, an intergenerational storytelling project with storyteller Andrea Lovett.
by Kevin D. Cordi, Ph.D.
The lights were low. I deliberately waited a full minute and a half after my introduction before entering the stage in true Houdini-style. He would spark their curiosity and leave them wanting more.
Loren Niemi and I traded hawking in the hallway, and soon after, the show began at the National Storytelling Network Fringe event in Kansas City. “The Unfolding Life of Houdini” debuted, and here is the story of that evening.
A room filled with storytellers mixed in with the Kansas City community might be a tough audience for a debut. Untrue. The NSN Fringe is a warm and welcoming community inviting risks within story. I saw friendly, but honest faces. Since the audience was storytellers, they knew the value of story and this made me desire to share my story more. Even though my Scottish accent trailed into Appalachian, they were with me, wanting more. When I secured the old fashioned handcuffs on Diane Cox and she slipped right out, she played along and improvised more of the story. A storyteller always heightens the narrative.
After the show, there was appreciation. I can’t think of another place where a long line of people simply waited to hug you! I so valued the Kansas City man who said, “Your performance was the one thing I am taking home from this conference, I had to tell you.”
Fringe celebrates risk. After twenty-seven years as a storyteller, this show was unlike any other I have developed. It became a challenge. Starting with a disappearing wand, I merged into a roving reporter, the first allowed in Houdini’s home. As the reporter, I discovered all the allure that is Houdini. In the span of 55 minutes, a picture transformed into an escape with handcuffs and later a séance. We chatted with a spirit who hated Houdini. I channeled Houdini’s father and his wife, both revealing more than they intended. Add to the conversation, a blow hard magician and a quiet evening with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes. All this became a rich multiple narrative performance for the Fringe. In it, I hope people are challenged to look at stories as through multiple lenses and perhaps share many voices contained in their story.
Unlike a traditional storytelling show, I shared Houdini’s life not in his voice but in the voices of people he knew. The reporter stayed as the transition link between the people. The performance merged improvisation, multiple narratives, and magic. This is not to say it didn’t have other places to grow.
Since the NSN fringe was connected to the conference, there was room to garner feedback. I am indebted to my fellow colleagues and friends who helped shaped the show. Before the show, the kind and careful listener of British (although now living in NH) teller Simon Brooks listened and recorded the show one hour before curtain (There was no curtain.) His advice even at this late hour helped fine tune the work.
After the Curtain
After the show, the magic continued. Lilli Pang from Australia shared constructive feedback. At Breakfast, Jim May challenged me to build more of the narrative arc. Bob Reiser took notes and dedicated time to help me build more ideas as well. When asked, people provided ideas, reactions, and other Houdini knowledge. This doesn’t always happen at fringe festivals, but when the audience is peppered with storytellers who are attuned story listeners, magic happens.
As I was leaving, Anne Rutherford shared poignant narrative places to revisit in the work. She praised the direction. I left the festival and conference knowing the magic of community and knowing that Houdini will come again, with a different trick and an even craftier narrative because of the assistants who, when asked, told me the way to make the magic last.
As I boarded the plane, I took a breath and wrote all I had learned. I still have questions about my work. I carefully mapped my development and my new goals. I took my time so I would remember.
When we perform at a conference or a fringe festival, we need to take time to reflect on what we learned. One of my college students Rachel Kerber shared a Latin creed that I am using to guide me, “make haste slowly.” We need to slow down what we know even if we are in a hurry. Take time to learn. We need to slow down to see the world. Let me say, as I take a breath, thank you NSN and my fellow magicians.
Kevin enjoys the wonder and appeal found in taking risks and playing with his stories with others. He believes stories improve when shared with deep listeners. He is the author of “Playing with Stories: story crafting for writers, teachers, and imaginative thinkers” (Parkhurst Brothers, 2014). He is now touring the Houdini show and when he is not doing that, he teaches literacy, story, and education classes as an Assistant Professor at Ohio Northern University. You can find him at www.kevincordi.com
by Ed Stivender
A question that is often asked of me is “How did you get started in Storytelling?”
I suppose it all began the day my sister and I decided to have a show in the basement
for the family. It meant that my Mom had to take the clothes down from the line. We hung a sheet on one of the rafters to serve as a curtain. I don’t remember what story we acted out that first time. I do have a clear memory of placing a towel over my shoulder to serve as my prince’s cloak. I was the prince, my sister was the heroine to be rescued. And I remember the applause at the end.
Not too much has changed since those days, except for the location of my shows. I am still working closely with my sister, Nancy Clancy. But she’s the one that does the rescuing now. Although she doesn’t take part in the shows anymore, she does oversee my touring schedule, setting up the arrangements with sponsors, pinning directions on my luggage as I head for the airport, making what I do as a professional storyteller possible. And I am very grateful to her.
As I write the words “Professional Storyteller”, I chuckle. It is a job that didn’t exist when I was growing up. There never was a visitor on Career Day in high school that told us about the skills and training needed to prepare ourselves for the profession. I never imagined that I would be able to apply my natural skills as a class clown to make a living doing what I love – developing versions of traditional, literary and classic stories, performing them all over the world, to varied audiences who bring their own insights to the venue to help me sculpt the material into final form. Being able to do this is one of the Personal Miracles of Storytelling. But it is only one of many miracles. However, I don’t think of it as Magic.
There is a lot of talk about the “Magic” of Storytelling. Sometimes the word appears in publicity documents as a way of bringing audiences to a festival or performance, or to entice them to join a group that participates in that magic. Sometimes the word appears in presentations or seminars as if it really described what happens in the Storytelling Event.
This talk about Magic makes me very uncomfortable. If taken literally, it implies a realm of power and the manipulation of that power by the storyteller who plays the role of sorcerer. This paradigm of the storyteller as magician has its basis in primal societies where certain individuals are given rigorous training to prepare them for the role of manipulator of Mana (power) for their tribe. Applying this model to Contemporary American Storytelling is less than helpful. For one thing, ours is a pluralistic, multi-cultural society, which lacks the unifying simplicity necessary for the world-view necessary for belief in shamanistic medicine.
For another, our society lacks the rigorous training for the shaman-candidate to take on the mantle of the shaman. The sorcerer’s apprentice can wreak havoc, as Disney so clearly showed us in Fantasia, when Mickey misread his master’s book.
And so, in my workshop, I will take another tack, apply another model – that of Science. It is my hope that applying the tools of Science to the Storytelling Event, we can reach a better understanding of what really goes on. Science can bring us to the edge of the Miracle, then, after which it falls silent.
The workshop is then about the Miracle of Storytelling. In a sense, it is an inquiry into the dynamics of the Miracle.
It is a Miracle, for instance, that, in our electronic age, when the television, video games and the home computer vie so strongly for our time and focus, that people choose to come together for the simple pleasure of attending to a story.
Come learn more from Ed’s workshop at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference, July 21-24, in Kansas City, Missouri. www.storynet.org/conference
A self-described “full-time Daydreamer who moonlights as a Storyteller”, Ed Stivender has entertained audiences around the world since his debut at the Jonesborough Festival in 1980. Dubbed “the Robin Williams of Storytelling” by the Miami Herald and “the Catholic Garrison Keillor” by Kirkus Reviews, he is the author of two books and numerous recordings.
A popular workshop leader and MC, he is known for his delightful mixture of whimsy, wit and wisdom as he invites his audience to an interactive dance of the imagination. An award-winning Philadelphia Mummer, he was inducted into Storytelling’s Circle of Excellence in 1996.
by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg & Laura Packer
Transform your love of stories into a more abundant career and life through Transformative Language Arts (TLA): storytelling, writing, drama, music, and other word-based arts for social and personal change.
We are honored to offer our workshop, “Your Calling, Livelihood and Life” at the NSN conference this July, allowing us to share with you stories and strategies, and creative potential and prompts for using your art to enhance your life and livelihood. Between the two of us, we have many decades of experience in crafting livelihoods that help us live our callings and follow our passions. Here’s a little interview we did with each other about this workshop:
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (CMG): Laura, what led you to aim yourself toward a livelihood in storytelling, consulting and coaching?
Laura Packer (LP): I always wanted to be self-employed but for many years I wasn’t sure how to do so as an artist. I have always been creative, but I bought into the myth of the starving artist and was afraid. I had a variety of jobs that left me exhausted and burned out.
I was lucky, in that I had mentors and role-models around me who were making their living as writers, storytellers, consultants and other fields. All of these people were working very hard but clearly loved what they did. I wanted that. I began focusing more and more on transitioning from a day job to full time work. First I worked part time and eventually made the leap. It was terrifying but I knew this 2was my work in the world. I knew my role was to create and help others create. It felt, and feels, right in a deep and fundamental way.
I support myself now with a hodgepodge of creative work. I am a performing storyteller. I am a freelance writer. I blog. I coach other storytellers, writers and artists. I am an organizational storytelling consultant, helping both for- and non-profits use storytelling effectively. I lead workshops around the world at conferences, in homes and in other interesting places. I do contract training work that helps people live better lives. It’s a deeply fulfilling way to live and never dull.
And what about you, Caryn?
CMG: I knew from an early age I was born to create. First it was art and music, but in my teens, poetry took up residence, and it never left. I tried other careers, ones that seemed more likely to bring me some financial stability while writing, or that built on my writing abilities: I worked as a journalist, house cleaner, marketing consultant, political organizer, energy conservation educator, newsletter editor, freelance writer, odd-job do-er (and boy, were some of the jobs odd!), and much more. Ultimately, I found that while writing itself doesn’t pay the bills, I have more than one thing I’m supposed to do as my work, and actually, more than I can remember at times. I’m here to be a teacher, mentor, writer, consultant, facilitator, event planner, etc., and to continually dance toward my balance in it all. I made a choice about a decade ago not to apply for a full-time teaching job, but to teach a little more than half-time so that I can continue to lead writing workshops, collaborate with visual artists and musicians on community projects, give presentations and readings, and do other work that speaks to my soul. Sometimes in a week, I’ll give a presentation on the Holocaust (based on my book, Needle in the Bone), facilitate a writing retreat for people with serious illness, catch (and record) neighborhood stories in a run-down urban community from the people who live there, and do a presentation with weather chaser/photographer based on our book, Chasing Weather. In a sense, it’s all transformative language arts: using the power of words to help people find greater meaning, courage and joy. What’s a typical week like in your work life?
LP: When I’m home I spend most mornings writing and following up on job leads. I make sure there is some kind of creative nourishment each day. My afternoons, when I have a natural dip in energy, I devote to moving around, so I exercise, run errands and do the other busy work of life. In the evenings I again spend time writing, reading and reaching out. I’m on the road a lot these days, so another kind of typical week has me travelling to a new place, teaching and performing for a few days and then coming home. I try to weave house concerts or coaching in there, too.
It’s exciting, figuring all of this out. It’s a puzzle with constantly shifting pieces: What kind of work schedule will help me be most productive? How do I reach potential clients and help them decide to hire me? When I have work, how do I prepare and give every client my best? What work is right for me to do and what should I pass on? I’m looking forward to our workshop, because we will pose these questions and help people think through answers that will make their livelihood more fulfilling and enriching while taking care of themselves and their communities.
CMG: When we think of right livelihood, we often focus on the nuts and bolts of making a living, and there’s a lifetime learning curve when it comes to picking up and honing necessary skills in everything from bookkeeping to marketing to arranging logistics. But our livelihoods are meant to be entwined with the core of our lives. I believe we’re here to do our real work, whatever that work is, but in a way that lifts up our spirit, health, and community, and feeling out what that work is and how it unfolds is as creative a process as the stories you tell or poems I write. At this workshop, we will definitely discuss ways to follow our love of stories into enhanced livelihoods, but we’ll also talk about the story behind the story: what it means to be in continual conversation with your calling, to search for and learn from what signs and wonders come your way, and engage in long-term understandings of your deepest values so that you can do your work ethically and sustainably.
Come learn more about this topic at Caryn & Laura’s workshop at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference, July 21-24, in Kansas City, Missouri. www.storynet.org/conference
About Laura and Caryn
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Ph.D., the 2009-13 Kansas Poet Laureate is the author of 19 books, including The Divorce Girl, a novel; Needle in the Bone, a non-fiction book on the Holocaust; The Sky Begins At Your Feet, a bioregional memoir on cancer and community; and five poetry collections, including the award-winning Chasing Weather: Tornadoes, Tempests, and Thunderous Skies in Word and Image with weather chaser/photographer Stephen Locke. Founder of Transformative Language Arts at Goddard College where she teaches, Mirriam-Goldberg also leads writing workshops widely, particularly for people living with serious illness and their caregivers. With singer Kelley Hunt, she co-leads writing and singing retreats. www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.com
Laura Packer knows that the best way to the truth is through a good story. Whether folktale or true, epic or flash, her stories captivate and amuse audiences around the world. Laura has told, taught, ranted, raved, consulted and considered storytelling around the world. When she isn’t telling, she runs venues, coaches, writes, and helps people and organizations find their stories, hone their vision and use their voices to make the world a better place. For her story and more, go to www.laurapacker.com. For her blog go to www.truestorieshonestlies.blogspot.com. And to learn more about her organizational storytelling work go to www.thinkstory.com.