Monday, December 27, 2004

"Is this one the storyteller?"

This will most likely be my last post of the year. I'm visiting my parents at the retirement community where they live. In the dining room, their neighbors ask, "Is this one the storyteller?"

I'm not doing a house concert here, but I have the last three times I visited. I set up my microphone (my voice is just the wrong pitch for people who are losing their hearing) and tell whatever seems right for this fairly literate bunch of elders. They don't necessarily remember the stories from time to time, but they remember being connected in a community of listeners. They remember the experience. Many have asked me in this visit if I'm going to tell stories. I promise I will next time.

On another note, I'd been looking forward to reading stories aloud on Christmas Eve. I was disappointed to learn that my parents no longer have the collection of stories we always used(TEH, do you have it?). As Mom puttered around, Dad and I tried to remember the lines to "'Twas the night before Christmas" and "Jest 'fore Christmas." We didn't get them all, and we didn't feel like going on the Internet to find them, but we managed tolerably well. I did tell my parents "Crisp new bills for Mr. Teagle." Dad asked if I remembered "Solange the Wolf Girl"--an old joke, as that was a terribly dreary story we only read aloud once.

In case you're wondering, here are sites of "'Twas the night before Christmas" and "Jest 'fore Christmas" (by Eugene Field):

Happy 2005!

Monday, December 20, 2004

More on the search for stories

Kids often ask me where I get stories. This gives me the chance to go into a riff about 398.2 in the library, and about little ideas that are the seeds of bigger stories--the tagline on my logo is "All my stories start with a seed of truth." I have many stories that I describe as "personal fiction." Sometimes I tell kids that to find a story to tell, I often have to read twenty or thirty stories before I find THE one that I want to try.

There's only one big rule in storytelling, as far as I'm concerned: only tell stories you love. If you don't love it, don't tell it. All the other "rules" are merely suggestions.

There are times I find a story I love because it just cracks me up and I can see myself telling it easily. Or I'll find one that makes my heart sing and I know I have to tell it even if I don't know why. There are times I find a story I love, and I know it will be a challenge. "Tristan and Iseult" was--and still is--like that. I read the story and thought, "Yes! This is right for me!" It's a big meaty story with so many parts to it, so much to imagine and play with, and I love it. The first time I told that story in full, it took two and a half hours. I've reduced it to 95 minutes, plus an intermission. I'm thrilled when I get a booking for this story, though most venues aren't ready for a long traditional tale.

I've told stories I don't love. It was always a mistake. That happened more often in the beginning of my storytelling career, when I thought I had to say yes to all jobs. "Sure, I can tell Norse myths, no problem!" Then I'd go look for a Norse myth that I'd like and wouldn't find one, but I was already committed. Once I agreed to do a whole shadow puppet program, without ever having done shadow puppets. I pulled it off, but it was not my best work and I whined about it for a good two months before the actual show.

Sometimes I have to grow into a story. I'll find one and think it's right for me, but I have to work on it for months or years before it's really ready for performance. I've been working on "Tristan" for about nine years. I began working on the Medieval French story "Aucassin et Nicolette" last February, and I have no idea when it will truly be ready. I'll let you know when it is.

Friday, December 17, 2004


I returned the stack of books to the university library today. I meant to put them in the slot and leave, but I wanted to find In my solitary life by Augustus Hare, cited by Katharine Briggs in the collection I just perused. Hare is the source of the story "The dream house" in which a woman dreams every night of a wonderful house, then years later buys that house for a low amount. When she asks the estate agent why it was so inexpensive, he explains that there was a ghost in the house, so nobody could stand to live there. "But madame, you have nothing to fear. You are that ghost." (Paraphrased, of course.)

Once I found Hare's book, I happened to find myself in the folklore section (GR in the LC system, 398.2 in Dewey). Ahem. I dragged home a pile of books, including a French one written in 1950 about etiquette around the world (Savoir Vivre International), a collection of West African trickster tales and some stories from Brittany.

I have friends who don't use the library. Maybe they don't feel like it, maybe they don't remember to take the books back on time (I renew online), maybe they like to own the books, maybe everything they want is on the Internet, maybe they aren't comfortable with the homeless in the library, maybe they've forgotten how to use the library and are not confident asking. I know that one--I didn't read any of my reserve readings in college for the first year and a half, until I found the courage to request them. Once I got over that, I never again hesitated to ask for help in the library.

I love libraries. Did I already mention that? I use the public library, the university library, and sometimes the suburban system about 35 minutes away. When I leave with my arms full, I feel rich. There's so much possibility in the library: books of stories, novels both fluffy and serious, self-help, cartoons, essays, movies, CDs, books on tape. Learn to fix a faucet, knit, design a brochure, identify the stars. Read about Tibetan Buddhism, ventriloquism, hooliganism. It's all there--and if it isn't and I want it, I request it on interlibrary loan. Libraries were made for dilettantes like me.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Stalling, stalling

One of the trickier aspects of living a creative life is actually getting to work. I can spend hours stalling. Don't get me wrong, I love my work, but some days I'm like a dog circling a likely spot to lie down. I circle, circle, almost sit, then circle again. Right, I need to work on this new story, but first let me make a cup of tea. Okay, I'm ready now, but I think I'll just check my e-mail. Now I'm really going to work--wait, I didn't write an entry for my blog.

I'm noodling around with a story called "Crisp new bills for Mr. Teagle" by Frank Sullivan. If it turns out to be a keeper and I decide to tell it in paid performances, I'll write to the New Yorker for permission, but right now I'm just playing with it. I've been trying to explain it to people, because that's one way I work on stories: I tell friends about what I'm working on, and that shifts into actually telling the story.

Mr. Teagle remembers on Dec. 24 that he doesn't have a gift for his wife. He writes a check for cash at the bank and is taken aback when the bank gives him the money as a gift. The elevator boy, the doorman, the super all give him money. A cigar store proprietor gives him a box of Havana's finest. Cartier won't take payment for the emerald he chooses for his wife. On and on it goes, with everyone he meets extolling Mr. Teagle's good character and giving him gifts, until he breaks down sobbing, "God bless us everyone!"

This story has cracked me up for years. We had it in a collection of stories we read aloud from every Christmas Eve, along with "Dulce Domum" from "The Wind in the Willows" (I always hear the sad part of the story in my mother's reading voice) and an abridgment of "A Christmas Carol."

When I work on stories, I try to figure out what the nut is. What is the inside of the inside of the story, or as Doug Lipman calls it, "the MIT" (Most Important Thing)? Why do I love Mr. Teagle so much? Maybe it has to do with feeling that we all are blessed in this life, just for being who we are, and that if we could just relax, we could let in even more good to our lives.

Time to get back to telling the story to myself. That's my next step. I'll tell it out loud, as I walk around my living room, stopping occasionally to adjust a phrase or the sequence, to consider my facial expressions or hand gestures. I might extend my walk to include the kitchen and the office, but it's a cold day and I have a fire in the woodstove in the living room, nice and cozy.

More later.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

In memory of Dorotha Douglas

Today I did some freebie performances for a preschool, in memory of my friend Dorotha. I do a few of these each year, depending on my schedule.

Dorotha began storytelling at age 80, to prove to her family that she didn't have Alzheimer's. She told stories mostly at preschools, especially Headstart and other programs aimed at low-income families. She refused to take money for storytelling. Dorotha did several programs a week, often learning new stories for the kids. She stopped doing this about six months before she died at age 93 (I think that was when she stopped driving).

Dorotha was great fun to be around, full of life stories. She had worked for puppeteer Tony Sarg in New York in the 20s, had been a teacher, had lived in Mexico, liked to paint, went regularly to water aerobics, and had done myriad other things in her long life. When she was 89 or 90, she went to Ireland on a storytelling tour. "This might be my last trip out of the country," she told me. I wasn't completely convinced.

So today I was thinking about Dorotha as I told stories. I told her version of "Where's the baby," a quiet yet satisfying finger story about some siblings who appear to have lost the baby, and "The gunniwolf," which I first heard told by Dorotha. I didn't sing "Garbage Bill," which she taught me, only because it slipped my mind.

We played "Magic box"--I pulled small items out of a wooden file box and constructed a story around them. One of these improvised stories turned into a version of "The boy who cried wolf." Another was about a pteranodon who lost her egg to a bad dinosaur. Quick thinking by some kids in the story and sticky chewing gum saved the egg.

My puppets Trixie (an old lady), the Gunniwolf (though he looks like a sheep, he's sort of a wolf) and Prince (a frog, of course) were in attendance. One of the tinies, possibly not yet three, was scared by Trixie, who has a piercing gaze. Trixie went to have a nap for the rest of that session.

Though Dorotha died a few years ago, I keep her memory alive by telling her stories. She was a good influence on me. Who has influenced you?

Monday, December 13, 2004

Looking for likely stories

Today I decided it was time to crack the books I got from the university library, to see if there's anything there I MUST tell. I've had these books for almost six weeks--they're due on Saturday!

I'd checked out "Curious Myths from the Middle-Ages" by Sabine Baring-Gould before but I find my interest changes over time. Also, I like borrowing books by S. B-G, who was not only the author of "Onward Christian Soldiers," a collector of folklore, a father of fourteen children and an Anglican clergyman, but also a distant ancestor. Rumor has it that once when he was holding an unfamiliar child on his knee, he asked, "And whose little boy are you?" "I'm yours, father!" This book includes "The Pied Piper of Hameln." Maybe it's time to look at that one again. Who remembers that there were two children who didn't disappear into the rock, because they were too slow? One was mute and the other blind.

I powered through a collection of "wisdom tales" from around the world. Nothing caught my eye. What's wisdom to you may not be to me.

Moving on, I had a look at a book of licentious Bulgarian folktales (in Bulgarian), but there was nothing there I could ever possibly tell in public. Ah, well.

The best book of the bunch is "British Folk-Tales and Legends" by Katharine Briggs, culled from her 4-volume "Dictionary of British Folk-Tales and Legends." I've just begun looking through it. Even if I don't tell most of the stories, it's great fun to see versions of "The two pickpockets," and "Sir Gammer Vans." What a name! That one is a mixed-up story, like the old rhyme:

Late last night in the middle of the day
Two dead boys went out to play
Back to back they faced each other
Drew their swords and shot each other.

Tomorrow I'm going to a preschool for the morning. The groups will be small, so I'll sit or kneel on the floor with the kids. I'll take my puppets and some of my favorite stories for little guys. Hope my puppets behave.

Saturday, December 11, 2004


Welcome to my storytelling life!

I'm so lucky! I get to play for my work, telling stories to kids and adults. I've been doing this full time since 1993, part time for five years before that. My work isn't easy to pigeonhole--I'm as comfortable with preschoolers as I am with the kids at the Juvenile Detention Center or adults at a house concert. Of course the stories I tell to each group vary. You might be able to tell that I like funny stories from those on my website,

Here we are in the quiet time of the year, when I dig around for new stories to tell and old stories to revive. I've begun to think about what I'll use next summer in the library reading programs--the theme in several states is "Dragons, dreams and daring deeds." I have a stack of dragon and Medieval story collections in my office, mostly from the 398.2 section of the library, my favorite area. I may spend some time tonight looking for stories that call to me.

More later.