Monday, December 31, 2007

High points, low points, what a year!

This has been my busiest storytelling year yet. Today was my 234th performance. Whew!

Here are some high points: storytelling trip to Belgium in February, doing a workshop at the National Storytelling Conference, going to the National Storytelling Festival, the Iola residency, vacationing in North Carolina, working on Queen Berta and King Pippin, finding other great stories to tell, starting to develop my Punch and Judy show, getting a great review in School Library Journal, going to the WOW weekend, getting my fence repaired, my mother's visit last week for Christmas.

The lowest point was my father's death while I was in Belgium and the subsequent grief. Big.

Other low points? Getting a cold just before the National Storytelling Conference. Car trouble in Choctaw, OK. Other than that, I don't remember. I'm such a pollyanna, I tend to forget the low points.

That makes me think of one of my favorite quotes:
I keep the telephone of my mind open to peace, harmony, health, love and abundance. Then whenever doubt, anxiety or fear try to call me, they keep getting a busy signal and soon they'll forget my number.
--Edith Armstrong.

Happy 2008, everybody!

Friday, December 28, 2007

I got a new microphone

When I first started telling stories in larger venues than the library, I got a lavalier microphone. That's the kind that clips onto your clothes, with a wire going to a little battery pack, which sends a signal to a transmitter, which in turn is plugged into a powered speaker. I used that lavalier for a number of years before I decided that it just wasn't loud enough. When I turned my head away from the microphone, I faded right out. If it got tangled in my clothes, the noise was awful or my voice was muffled.

I shifted to a microphone on a stand. I've used this for about ten years and have been happy with it. It's not wireless, but that doesn't matter--I've got a long cord that goes to my little powered speaker (Galaxy PA5X Hot Spot). I can reach about 250-300 kids in a gymnasium with this setup.

Still, I was thinking about how nice it would be not to be tethered to the microphone and stand. I took a deep breath and ordered a headset microphone from Mass Street Music. Yup, like Madonna or Garth Brooks, but without the undergarments or hat. I got an EV RE2, with a beige headset.

I haven't used it yet, though I've had it for a couple of weeks. I tried it out in my house. Hard to tell what it's like. The cat had no comments. I've only had one performance that required any amplification since I bought it, and I actually forgot to take my new toy. I don't think I'll need it until the end of January. I hope I like it!

By the way, that little Hot Spot is great. It weighs only about 20 pounds and is dead easy to use. I've had problems with it twice in the last ten years, and both times the folks at the factory in Wichita have fixed it quickly and for free, assuring me it was still under warranty.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Storytelling Tip #4

If you tell folktales, learn to use The Storyteller's Sourcebook: A Subject, Title, and Motif Index to Folklore Collections for Children, eds. one and two.
This is one of my favorite resources for folktales. You can look up stories by title, subject, folktale motif, ethnic group and geographic area. If you know of a story and are wondering what versions might be available, this work is invaluable.

It's expensive, so unless you're deeply committed to telling and researching folktales, use these at your public library, if possible. I own them both and have been known to look up stories for folks who don't own them. Once a librarian, always a librarian.

There are a couple of confusing things about The Storyteller's Sourcebook. One has to do with the editions. There are two, which would lead one to believe that the second supercedes the first. Nope! The first edition covers books up to 1982, and the second edition covers books from 1983 to 1999. I'm still not sure why the publisher didn't call them Volume I and Volume II. Because of this confusion, I suspect lots of libraries got rid of the first edition and that's why a used one costs so much less than the second edition.

The second confusing thing is actually how to use the works. Once you get the hang of it, it's a snap, but it takes time. I'm not sure I'll succeed in explaining it here, but I'll take a stab.

Let's say you remember a story about pulling up a turnip. You pick up one of the two editions (this one is in both) and flip to the subject index. Under "turnip" you'll find a funny telegraphed entry. Here's the entry from the first edition (what I've put in as boldprint is underlined in SS--I'm just not sure how to do that here):
TURNIP: Bear gets tops of turnips--K171.1; pulling up turnip, chain--Z49.9; farmer takes an extraordinary turnip to the king as a present--J2415.1; man takes figs to king instead of turnips and they are thrown at him, "Thank God they weren't turnips"--J2563; man in moon for stealing turnip--A751.1.4.1; sheep live inside huge turnip all winter--X1401.1.2.
Ah, that second one looks right! You flip to the front part of the book where the motifs live. This is the Stith Thompson classification, and it has great headings such as "Marvels," "The Wise and the Foolish," and "Deceptions."

Find section Z (Miscellaneous groups of motifs), then find 49.9. Here's the entry:
Z49.9. Pulling up the turnip. Final formula: The mouse holds onto the cat, the cat holds onto Mary, Mary holds onto Annie, Annie holds onto grandmother, grandmother holds onto grandfather, grandfather holds onto the turnip--they all pull and pull it out. Tolstoy: Domanska TURNIP pb; Haviland Fairy 44-47; Tolstoy GREAT bp. Russia; Withers I SAW 98-99.
This is the synopsis of the story. At the end of the entry, you see author's last name, one word of the title and page numbers. Flip back in the Sourcebook to the bibliography and find the authors, in alphabetical order of course, and you'll find the title and other bibliographical information. Armed with this, go to your library catalog and see if you can find the story.

I love reading the telegraphed descriptions and the synopses. For Pete's sake, sheep live inside huge turnip all winter! I may have to go find that!

Huge kudos to Margaret Read MacDonald for the first edition and for bringing Brian Sturm in to work with her on the second edition.

Shameless plug: I tell the Bulgarian version of The Turnip on my CD The Ghost With the One Black Eye and Other Stories.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve traditions

It was always best if it snowed on Christmas Eve, more likely in Vermont than in Rhode Island. My grandmother and great-aunt usually arrived on that day. Granny came with Veeeee, her cook and general factotum, from Springfield, Massachusetts. Auntie Alice came from Montreal.

Sometimes went to the afternoon church service, though as we got older we stayed up for the midnight service.

In the late afternoon, we had tea with Granny and Auntie Alice. This wasn't just for Christmas Eve, but an everyday occurrence with that generation. As we got the tea ready, making sure the kettle boiled a yard high, scalding the pot, putting in one spoonful of tea for each person and one for the pot, we often heard gentle bickering from the living room, as the two sisters settled in to being around each other for one of the few times in the year.

In our family, children were not allowed to have real tea until we were thirteen, lest it stunt the growth. Before then, we had cambric tea--a tiny amount of real tea, lots of milk and lots of sugar. This was served, as was the tea for the adults, in bone china cups with saucers. These were put on a tray with a jug of milk and a sugar bowl, and carried ceremoniously to the living room. With real tea, we'd ask Gran to read our tea leaves afterwards. She did so in a voice full of mystery.

An hour or two after tea, the adults had a drink and we got ready for supper. Some years we had a special supper of fondue, either beef or cheese. Yum. Veeeee never ate with us, insisting on staying in the kitchen.

After the meal we cleared the plates. Every one of us remembers Veeee's fluty voice, "Don't stack them now, don't stack, just put them anywhere, don't stack."

When the kitchen was neat (and many dishes put away in the wrong places), we gathered in the living room. Veeeee always chose a straight-back chair near the door and the rest of us sprawled around on the sofa, the floor, in the chairs. Dad pulled out the Christmas anthology and the reading aloud began. Of course we always heard the Gospel, and most years we read the abridged version of A Christmas Carol. Every year Dad said, "We can't possibly read the whole thing. It takes hours!" (True--my friends Mary and Andy have hosted a full reading of it for many years, and it does take about four hours.)

We passed the book around and read various parts. One of my favorites was my mother reading "Dulce Domum" from The Wind in the Willows. Mary or I always read (or joined in reciting) "'Jest Fore Christmas" by Eugene Field. Tiny birdlike Auntie Alice perched on the ottoman, in later years tipping dangerously as she fell asleep--she always caught herself in time. Sometimes we read "Crisp New Bills for Mr. Teagle," by Frank Sullivan. Occasionally we tried a story we hadn't heard, such as the deadly grim "Solange the Wolf Girl."

Then it was time to hang stockings. These were Dad's wool socks, which he'd get back several weeks later, possibly with a hard candy stuck in the toe. There were seven cuphooks screwed into the mantlepiece, one for each kid's stocking. I'm the youngest so mine was at the end. We made sure there was a glass of milk and a couple of cookies for Santa Claus on the mantel as well. I always wondered if Santa Claus disliked lukewarm milk as much as I did.

Then it was time to either get ready for bed or ready for church. The last part of the tradition was insomnia on Christmas Eve, as I considered what would be in my stocking and under the tree the next day.

Merry Christmas

Lovely commentary on Christmas in this video:

Saturday, December 22, 2007

National Storytelling Network

I'm the Kansas liaison to the National Storytelling Network. I often forget this, as I'm a mediocre liaison. My job is to connect the storytellers and other interested folks in Kansas with the National Storytelling Network and vice-versa. Also, I try to keep Kansas storytellers apprised of related events happening around the state and the country. The main way I do this is through the KS Storytelling yahoo group. (Feel free to sign up.)

So what's the National Storytelling Network and why should anybody join? This organization began in the 70s as the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (NAPPS), briefly became the National Storytelling Association, and has been the National Storytelling Network for several years now. It is based in Jonesborough, Tennessee, but there are members around the country and the world.

You can get the official scoop on why to join on the NSN website, on the member benefits page. Like so many nonprofit organizations, NSN has some challenges ahead, and some of these benefits may change, but I'll remain a member no matter what.

I'll give you my reasons for having been a member since 1991.

I'm a member because this is a way I can hang out with other storytellers around the country, especially at the National Storytelling Conference and the National Storytelling Festival. Nota bene, these are two very different events. The conference is much smaller, around 400 people, and is made up mostly of workshops. The festival is all performance, all the time, with thousands of listeners.

I'm a member because I enjoy receiving Storytelling Magazine every couple of months. I like reading about what's going on around the country and the world in the field of storytelling.

I'm a member because I like being affiliated with an organization that knows what I do and doesn't try to squish it into some other artform, like theater or performance art.

I'm a member because NSN offers grant opportunities, discounts in its online store and on the conference--these directly affect my wallet.

I'm a member because I do believe we should preserve and perpetuate the art of storytelling, and it's easier for us to do this together than individually.

My friend Cynthia Changaris said it eloquently in a letter in 2006:
I belong to NSN because it has offered me a rich banquet of storytelling, storylearning, and connection to storytellers all over the world. My relationships and my life have been enriched immeasurably by my membership. I feel connected to the heart of storytelling and story because of my connection to NSN.
I agree. I definitely recommend joining the organization. Let me know if you have questions about NSN and I'll do my best to find answers.

Friday, December 21, 2007

What is storytelling?

Dang. The gauntlet has been thrown. Tim Ereneta wrote about storytelling definitions in his blog, Sean Buvala echoed the topic in his. I find myself saying, "Eh, do I have to?" Can't I just walk past that glove on the ground?

Maybe. Or maybe a little clarifying would be useful. I once, briefly, had a boyfriend who was a filmmaker. As we were getting to know each other, he proudly proclaimed, "You know, I'm a storyteller!" I didn't say what I was thinking: "Right. Your documentary tells a story, but lissen up, buster, you're not standing up telling a story out loud without a lens, without props, with only the pictures in your mind as you make connections with the audience. Do not call yourself a storyteller!" No, I smiled and said something fatuous, I'm sure.

Anyway, it has become high fashion for filmmakers, novelists, musicians of all styles and anybody else who does anything creative to say that they are storytellers. Yes, they do tell stories--we all do, in an attempt to define our lives-- in their way, but please, let them keep their named professions and let me have mine.

So what do I mean by storytelling? I mean the oral transmission of stories, usually live (though of course I have recordings, and though they were recorded with a live audience, the present audience is far from where I am), usually without the use of notes and with a fluid or nonexistent fourth wall.

Oral transmission. I'm saying the words out loud. I'm not painting them, filming them, drawing them. Dadgummit. Already I'm in trouble, because I've seen incredible deaf storytellers who may or may not speak their stories. Never mind, I'm keeping this.

Stories. By this, I'm thinking of narrative, something that has setting, action, plot. At times poems will fit the definition. Does that mess me up? Not too much.

Usually without the use of notes. Hmm, I've seen storytellers who have notes nearby in case they get lost. Is that okay?

With a fluid or nonexistent fourth wall. Huh? The fourth wall is a theater term, that wall between the actors and the audience, so the audience is just looking in on the action. In storytelling, the fourth wall goes up at times, say when one character is talking to another, but for the most part, the storyteller is directly addressing the audience. Bill Harley wrote about this in an essay called Playing with the Wall in the excellent book Who Says: Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary Storytelling, edited by Carol Birch and Melissa Heckler.

Now I have to write about that title. According to the introduction of the book, "Five years into her storytelling career, Carol grew tired of hearing people say, critically and knowingly, under their breath: "Well, that's not storytelling!" She wondered, "Who says?" Her book helps me think about what storytelling is, and why. It's probably time I reread it.

Shoot. I'm not happy with my wishy-washy definition above. I don't know that there is one for all storytellers. Maybe we each have to work out our own.

Here's what I do: I tell stories out loud in front of an audience, without notes or a script or props (except for once or twice when I use a puppet in a story, and one story that uses a harmonica). I don't dress in costume, I don't have a set. I don't memorize the stories, though if I tell them a lot they do settle into a groove, and if there's a particularly nice turn of phrase, I remember it and use it every time. I use my body, my voice, my facial expressions to underline the words. I adjust my performances to the listeners, watching how they listen and paying attention to what works and what doesn't. I allow improvisation in.

Storytellers range from those who tell at the kitchen table on up to what have been called "platform storytellers." I'm one of those (do you like my platform shoes?) because in my profession, I tell in a more formal way than just hanging out shooting the breeze.

I've seen some great storytellers in costume, with props, with stories that are told word-for-word but still sound natural. I'm getting even more mired in what storytelling is and isn't, aren't I? Must be time to stop for the night.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Storytelling Tip #3

Check your facial expressions and body language in a story with a mirror or a trusted listener.

When I first began telling the story Unanana, I had to check to see if the expression I was using to show the baboon face looked enough like one. I tested which baby face worked by asking a live audience (risky!). This is where making faces in the mirror endlessly as a kid pays off.

Notice that I say "trusted listener." When you're first working on a story, it's just a tiny newborn, not ready for the cruel world, not ready for critique. Be sure that the person you're asking for advice is supportive.

Although I don't much like to watch videos of myself, they can be helpful in seeing unconscious movement and physical tics. More on essential and inessential gestures soon.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Snow day!

I'm out here in Salina, KS for two days. The plan was that I'd do a day of writing workshops with fifth graders today and then have performances at other schools tomorrow. It wasn't until I'd arrived last night that I learned that school would be cancelled today.

There was a massive ice storm here. Lots of houses (and the middle school) are still without electricity. Limbs are down all over town. I went out for a walk this morning and took some pictures. It was brilliantly sunny and the trees sparkled. I used my old-fashioned camera (remember, the kind that uses something called "film"?) so I won't have the pics for a while. I dug around on youtube and found some footage, not of the sunny scenes but of earlier devastation. I'm not sure if this is Salina, but it might be:

So today was a day off. I've been getting over a cold and didn't mind having more time to feel better. I had full confidence that I'd be in the schools tomorrow.

It was a pleasant day, a motel-based solitary retreat, with a short meeting in the afternoon. I stopped at Big Lots on the way back to the motel and was surprised to hear the cashier say that school was cancelled tomorrow as well. I thought about going home, but by chance I'm in a room with a jacuzzi. I'll hang out here and make my way home tomorrow before the next snowstorm blows in.

Time to fill the tub.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Storytelling Tip #2

It occurs to me that after that first tip, there is no order of precedence for the rest. I'm calling this Tip #2, but most likely it's not more important than Tip #34 will be.

Here it is: Know your story inside and out.

Goes without saying, right? Maybe, but I hear storytellers sometimes who have not done this step.

Try to imagine every character, every setting, every action completely. When you do this, you will be able to answer any question that comes up about the story. What color shoelaces does the heroine have? How old is the big brother? How does the cat cross the room? You don't need to put these in the story--in fact, if you did, the listeners may keel over from boredom--but you do need to know them. When you imagine the story that deeply, your choices about what images you use will be clearer. Hmm, is that true? Sometimes I make these pronouncements and only later do I wonder if it works for everybody.

I'm a visual learner. I see the pictures of the story in my head, almost like a movie. I translate those pictures through my heart and bring them out in my words, voice, body and face. More on that later.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Home from WOW weekend

Did I say I was going to write twice or thrice a week? I guess I wasn't thinking about this past week.

I worked like crazy until mid-day Thursday, on Storytelling Magazine, the publication of the National Storytelling Network. I'm the guest editor for the March/April issue, and I had to get all the articles in, which meant herding nine contributors, making sure all the pieces were put together and coherent. (By the way, I think it's going to be a good issue--all the contributors did a great job.) I got it sent off by the afternoon.

The articles in the magazine were on the theme of retreats. On Friday, I got up early so I could go on retreat! I left home at 6:30 a.m., bound for southern Indiana, with two stops in Kansas City to pick up two other storytellers. They made the road shorter. Still, it was about ten hours driving. I hoped I wouldn't fall face down asleep in my supper when we arrived.

We arrived in Bethlehem, IN at the Storyteller's Riverhouse, ready for a WOW weekend. WOW? Working on Our Work, the storytelling retreat set up by Mary Hamilton and Cynthia Changaris. The Riverhouse is Cynthia's B & B. This was their 27th retreat since they began offering these supportive coaching weekends.

My third WOW weekend did not disappoint. Nine of us gathered to work on our work in storytelling. Cynthia and Mary have designed these retreats well, so that each participant feels completely cared for and heard. We each got an hour of undivided attention from the group for whatever we wanted to work on.

I worked on Queen Berta and King Pippin. The story is still rough, but coming along. The comments of the group were helpful, reminding me of where to slow down, where to shine the light a bit brighter, where to allow the audience to settle in to the images.

What I've discovered about the supportive coaching model is that I learn in every session, not just my own. I first learned about supportive coaching from Doug Lipman, years ago. The model used at the WOW weekends is slightly different, but just as effective. The goal is not to correct storytellers so they all tell the same way, but to bring out the very best that the storyteller has to offer. Deep listening is at the heart of the coaching style.

We fit nine sessions into Saturday and Sunday, ending just before lunch. Wonderful and exhausting. After a delicious lunch, thanks to the excellent chef, we packed sandwiches for the car. Then we loaded up and got on the road.

The trip home was a little longer, a little more tiring, due to rain and then sleet. I'd gotten new tires and all kinds of car repairs before the trip, but neglected to get the windshield wipers replaced. Dang. In a case of closing the barn door after the horse is gone, I got new wipers today.

I got home at 10:30 p.m. last night. I'm really tired. That's it for now.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Storytelling Tip #1

There's one big rule in storytelling:

Only tell stories you love.

Sorry, didn't mean to shout, but it's very important. If you don't love the stories you tell, your audience won't love them either. If your audience doesn't love the story, they will let you know in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, depending on how old they are.

It seems obvious, doesn't it? However, I've had experiences where I've tried to fit a story I only sort of liked into a program. It doesn't work.

Once I was performing in a library and the librarian asked if I would tell The Wide-Mouth Frog. I know this story, but it wasn't in my repertoire and it isn't one I love. Still, I wanted to please the librarian, so I told it. It was flat. Boring. Excruciating. It's a good story, just not good for me.

Sometimes storytellers try to shoehorn a story they don't love into a program because it fits a theme or is from a specific country. It rarely works out.

This is one of the few times I'll exhort you not to do something.When you tell stories you don't love, and you do a mediocre job, it reflects badly on your skills as a storyteller, on other storytellers ("Oh, we had a storyteller once. She wasn't very good. We don't hire storytellers anymore") and on the art of storytelling. Please, don't do it.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Quotations on listening and storytelling

Here are a few good quotations I've gathered over the years:

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.
Hannah Arendt

If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memory. Barry Lopez, in Crow and Weasel

To speak is to sow, to listen is to reap. Turkish proverb

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence, in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song—but in this dance or in this song there are fulfulled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in our common destiny. Pablo Neruda

[T]he sound of story is the dominant sound of our life. Reynolds Price

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Karl Menninger

When the heart overflows, it comes out through the mouth. Ethiopian proverb

With me, it's story, story, story. Bernard Malamud

A good metaphor is something even the police should keep their eye on. Georg C. Lichtenberg