Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Complaints about a story

I recently had a complaint about a story I told. This may be the third time of storytelling full time (15 years) that I've had a complaint like this.

A few days after the performance, which was open to the public and was primarily for preschoolers, the person who booked me told me there had been complaints. Plural. She herself had not come to any of the four performances, so she hadn't heard the story (do I sound a little peeved about that?). "Did you tell a story where an elephant gets cut up into pieces?" she asked.

Well, yes. I did. I told Unanana and the Elephant, a folktale from South Africa. The elephant swallows many people, including Unanana, who is there to rescue her baby. She throws hot peppers up into the elephant's trunk and he sneezes everybody out. Then he runs through the grass and trees until he runs into a tree and falls over dead. Unanana takes her machete and cuts the elephant up into big pieces. She gives the pieces of elephant meat to all the people (they were starving in his belly). They take them home, they roast them over hot fires, and you know what they eat for dinner that night. Elephant!

In the version I heard first, Unanana makes a fire in the elephant's belly and begins to cut him up and cook him until he falls over dead! Then Unanana cuts a door in his side and lets everyone out. What reaction would THAT have gotten? A friend whose husband grew up in S. Africa told me the version I now tell.

I was completely shocked at this complaint. I've been telling Unanana for 19 years. Two weeks ago, a preschool director specifically requested this story for her kids. It's not a gruesome ending, very matter-of-fact. Years ago, some kids told me they sat in the library parking lot with that story cranked way up on the car stereo, everybody joining in. It's a good story with a great heroine. It's not about cutting up animals.

I talked the situation over with other performers. One former librarian reminded me of what we did with complaints at the library: we always asked, "Have you read the book?" Ah. Later that day, I saw the woman who booked me and gave her a copy of my CD so she could listen to the story. I also asked how many complaints there had been. One e-mail, it turned out, with claims that others were upset. Sounds like hearsay to me. I've been promised a copy of the e-mail.

It's hard not to go on the defensive about this. It's also hard not to rant about extreme political correctness. I suspect the children listening had no problem with the story. I also suspect that any story I told would offend that particular adult listener.

In the end, I felt that I dealt with this as well as I could. I don't know if that CD will be listened to. I don't know if I'll get a copy of the e-mail. I continue to stand by my artistic choices.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Making a living as a storyteller, Appendix

This is just a little dessert to my white paper on making a living as a storyteller (what? you don't eat paper?!):

Frequency in Marketing

This gem came from Guerrilla Marketing several years ago. It made a huge impression on me and changed how I look at direct mail.

1. The first time a man looks at an advertisement, he does not see it.

2. The second time, he does not notice it.

3. The third time, he is conscious of its existence.

4. The fourth time, he faintly remembers having seen it before.

5. The fifth time, he reads it.

6. The sixth time, he turns his nose up at it.

7. The seventh time, he reads it and says, “Oh, brother!”

8. The eighth time, he says, “Here’s that confounded thing again!”

9. The ninth time, he wonders if it amounts to anything.

10. The tenth time, he asks his neighbor if he has tried it.

11. The eleventh time, he wonders how the advertiser makes it pay.

12. The twelfth time, he thinks it must be a good thing.

13. The thirteenth time, he thinks perhaps it might be worth something.

14. The fourteenth time, he remembers wanting such a thing a long time.

15. The fifteenth time, he is tantalized because he cannot afford to buy it.

16. The sixteenth time, he thinks he will buy it someday.

17. The seventeenth time, he makes a memorandum to buy it.

18. The eighteenth time, he swears at his poverty.

19. The nineteenth time, he counts his money very carefully.

20. The twentieth time he sees the ad, he buys what it is offering.

Thomas Smith, 1885, London

Making a living as a storyteller, Part 7

Here's a little bibliography from my white paper on making a living as a storyteller:

Useful books for the journey

Earn what you deserve by Jerrold Mundis. Beyond any other book, this one got me away from the “starving artist” mindset. Here’s a phrase to remember: “resentment blocks flow.”

How to be your own booking agent and save thousands of dollars by Jeri Goldstein. Incredibly helpful info on the arts world.

The storyteller’s guide by Bill Mooney and David Holt. This is a goldmine of information from storytellers who really make a living at this fabulous art.

Attracting perfect customers: The power of strategic synchronicity by Stacey Hall and Jan Brogniez. I’ve had great results with some of the exercises in this book (warning: new-agey!).

Who says: essays on pivotal issues in storytelling by Carol Birch and Melissa Heckler. This comes under the category of learning about the artform.

Only one more little piece to follow.

Making a living as a storyteller, Part 6

Here are a few more chunks of my white paper on making a living as a storyteller:

Don’t be a luddite! Online marketing is your friend.

· Have a website. If you can’t afford a full website, get a page on and be sure to keep it updated. Already have a website? Get a basic page there anyway.

· Get listed everywhere. Get an entry in the National Storytelling Directory, list your business on your local convention and visitor’s bureau, look for community and arts websites in your area. Nobody will beat a path to your door if they don’t know who you are.

· Don’t spam! If you send out mass e-mailings, you must include an opt-out line (“If you don’t want to receive these messages, please reply with Unsubscribe in the title line.”).

· If you do send out mass e-mail messages, you run the risk of being put on spam blacklists, or at the very least many of your messages won't get through regular spam filters.

· If you do send out mass e-mail messages, always use BCC so the addresses of everybody on your list are hidden.

· Consider having a blog, so your fans can listen in to your thoughts.


· Apply to be on your state arts commission roster. Learn how the commission underwrites performances. To make this easier for the agencies booking you, learn how to do the paperwork yourself and offer to help fill it out.

· Pay your quarterly estimated taxes—and remember that when you have to pay taxes, it means you made money in the year. Good on you!

· Take the long view. If a gig doesn’t work out this time, maybe it will in a year or five.

· Have fun!

Making a living as a storyteller, Part 5

I'm going to start to lump more sections together. Here's part 5 in my white paper on making a living as a storyteller:

Know that everything you do is marketing.

· Need to get a temp job to tide you over? Tell the people you work for that you’re a storyteller—though it has been years since I’ve had to do temp work, I built my mailing list with names of folks with whom I worked.

· Remember that your listeners are everywhere. That kid with his mother in the coffeeshop might be a fan, the person cutting you off in traffic might love your stories, the cashier at the supermarket might have a granddaughter just the right age to listen to you. Be polite and friendly.

Ask for referrals.

The person who has just raved about your work may not think to tell others about it, so ask for the names of others who might be interested in your work.

· Ask in person after the gig.

· Ask in a thank-you note. You always send these, right?!

· Ask in a separate mailing.

Here’s a phrase I use: “Most of my work comes by word-of-mouth. If you enjoyed my storytelling, please pass my name on to principals at other schools.”

Try direct mail.

· Consider sending postcards instead of full mailings.

· Don’t send one mailing and expect to get lots of work. It takes time for potential clients to pay attention. “I’ve had your postcard in my file for a few years and only now have the grant money to bring you in,” one principal said to me.

· Keep in mind that if you get even one gig, you’ll pay for much of the cost of a mailing.

· Never use glitter in your marketing materials. It just annoys people.

To be continued...

Making a living as a storyteller, Part 4

Part 4 of my white paper on making a living as a storyteller:

Learn about running a small business.

· Visit the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) or Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) for free advice on running a business. They can help you write a business plan and set goals.

· Learn from other storytellers. Sean Buvala offers an intensive on the business of storytelling, as do other tellers, such as Doug Lipman and John McLaughlin.

· Pay attention to other people’s successful marketing endeavors. Always be ready to learn.

To be continued...

Making a living as a storyteller, Part 3

Part 3 in my white paper on making a living as a storyteller:

Connect with other storytellers whose work you respect
• If you get requests for bookings in your area that you can’t fill, refer other storytellers.
• Be an uplifter; encourage other storytellers. Remember that a rising tide lifts all boats.
• Find story buddies for mutual coaching.

To be continued...

Making a living as a storyteller, Part 2

Another section of my white paper on making a living as a storyteller, continued from the last post.

Know that building a storytelling business takes time and effort.

When I left my job and moved 1500 miles to begin storytelling full time (tip: don’t do that), I read many business books that said it would take 3-5 years to establish a business. I thought, “Hmm, not for me. It should only take me a year to be completely self-supporting.” It took five years before my business was solid, and even then, some years have been harder than others. Good thing I had savings and a cheap apartment.

To be continued...

Making a living as a storyteller, Part 1

Tonight I was a guest on Eric Wolf's Art of Storytelling With Children Podcast, speaking on the topic of making a living as a storyteller. It was a hoot! I highly recommend checking out all the fascinating podcasts Eric has done (and will do). He covers a wide range of topics.

At any rate, I promised to put my "white paper" on the subject up here. It actually is a bit like the storytelling tips, but more on the business side of stuff. I'm splitting it into sections for the blog. This is Part 1.

Making a living as a storyteller
Here are a few ideas on how to have a successful storytelling business. This is not an exhaustive list, just some of what I’ve gleaned in the many years I’ve been a full-time storyteller.

Be good, very good, at what you do.

• If you are just beginning to tell stories, put in the time—volunteer, find a coach, find gentle listeners, watch yourself on video, go to storytelling conferences and workshops, learn as much as you can about the artform. Be insatiable.
• Find your own voice. Don’t try to be the next X (fill in any other storyteller’s name).
• Remember what Texas teller Elizabeth Ellis said: “If anything can keep you from being a full-time storyteller, let it.” This is hard work. Do it full time only if you are absolutely passionate.
• Donald Davis said in a workshop, “The best way to get work is when people call you.” Build your reputation for excellence and integrity, and create ways for folks to find you, so clients will call you instead of vice-versa.
To be continued...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Gram's Place weirdness

The hostel is named Gram's Place for Gram Parsons, not for anybody's grandmother. Just so you know.

It's a strange place, stranger than I expected. In fact, I've decided it has all the charm of a wet washcloth mouldering in the sink. I figured out why, in part: the guy who started this establishment and poured his soul into it died last summer. The folks running it now seem a bit overwhelmed.

The place is really two small houses joined by some strange roofs. I dug around and found a video of it.

This afternoon the guy from the cable company came to the door. He didn't realize he was at the wrong gate, so he asked for Mark (that's the guy who died). One of the other guests went to get the current manager or his wife. The cable guy was just doing his job, but he made the mistake of parking his truck in the driveway, blocking the manager's car. The manager came in the gate and started swearing at the cable guy. At the same time, the manager's wife came out from another part of the hostel and began yelling at the cable guy. I was sitting at a counter right next to all of this.

None of this yelling was necessary. The manager was really belligerent. That was making the cable guy mad, but he left as quickly as he could.

I'm reminded of how much I value politeness and respect.

I don't think I'll stay here again.

Notes from Tampa

I've been in Florida since Saturday. This is my first visit to the Sunshine State. It has been unseasonably cold (down to the 40s at night) but today finally warmed up. It's nowhere near the 4 degrees (Fahrenheit) that it was at home on Saturday. Brrrr.

I had four shows on Sunday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, for their Wee Folk series. The crowds were predominantly preschoolers, with a few older kids and their accompanying adults. My first show was the weakest of the four, not sure why. The sound techie said that this is often the case. I don't think the kids or parents noticed. Many kids shook Trixie's hand at the end, except for the last show. I had a little guy who was afraid of her from the start. When that happens in performances, I always put her back in the bag. I don't want anybody traumatized by my puppets! Mavis and the baby puppet were okay with this young fellow. That crowd got to say goodbye to Mavis instead.

Yesterday I went back to the airport to rent a car. This trip is in three parts: TBPAC, then two days on my own, then the International Performing Arts for Children Showcase. For these two intervening days, I'm staying at Gram's Place, a hostel I found on the Internet. I've got my own room and bath here, so it's not exactly hostel living. Tomorrow I go back to a fancy hotel, which I'm sharing for the duration of the conference.

I had a pleasant day. I left the hostel around 8:30. First I took myself out to breakfast at a diner, a real one where the waitress called me "Hon" and "Baby." After gallons of bad coffee, I went to the Florida Aquarium. Very cool! They have an exhibit where they bring two penguins out to walk around among the crowd. The penguins were quite interested in strollers and shoelaces. There's also an exhibit where the public can touch the rays. Who knew stingrays were social creatures?!

From there I went to the sign store, to pick up my banner for the exhibit booth--I'd left mine on the plane in Houston. Grrr. Good thing I had the file on my computer so I could get a replacement.

Then I went to a big bookstore in St. Petersburg. I wasn't really in the mood to look at books. I checked out the Florida guidebooks on where to find nice beaches. I drove over to the west coast, stopped to get a picnic lunch at a health food store, and continued on to the beach. I didn't swim, but I did roll up my trousers and wade. The water was pleasantly cold. The air was probably 75 degrees. I didn't see anybody swimming (I might have, if I could have found a place to change into my suit).

From there, I came back to the hostel and here I am. I'll write about something that happened here in another post.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Writing with kids

I'm back in Salina, KS this week, making up for the two snow days of December. As I write this, it's snowing and very cold. I hope school is on tomorrow.

Today was fun. I was at Sunset Elementary School. Today was a writing day with fifth graders. In the first session, I had all four classes (10 year olds, more or less) together for a storytelling performance. Because most of the kids at this school have heard me tell stories through the years, they know me. One teacher said that when she wrote my name on her whiteboard as "Miss Howe," the kids asked "Is that Priscilla?"

We had a good time in the storytelling session. Trixie and the baby puppet came out briefly, and the kids asked if I had other puppets. I promised to bring them out briefly in the writing sessions.

I did three writing sessions (one was with two classes at once). I began with a quick show-and-tell of three more puppets (the Gunniwolf, Mavis the monkey and Trixie's little sister Roxie). Then on to the writing. I read aloud a folktale, written in a slightly archaic way, and then told it. The difference in the kids' attention was startling. We talked about the two versions, what makes a good story, about the importance of imagination in writing and telling stories. In the storytelling session, I had given them an idea of one story structure, so now I gave them another. Then I introduced the idea of writing practice, and gave them an abbreviated set of rules for writing practice from Natalie Goldberg's book Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life. Here they are:

1. Keep your hand moving.
2. Don't think.
3. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar.
4. Be specific.
5. You're free to write the worst junk in America.

The students wrote these down and I explained what they meant. The goal is to stretch the writing muscles, not to have something perfectly written. I gave them a topic and set the timer for three minutes. Ready, set, write!

When they were done they read aloud in small groups. Then the whole class heard a few of them. After this, we did it again, this time for longer. More kids wanted to read aloud.

We didn't have much time, so we rushed on to one more story structure game. It's a game where we write a story line by line, folding the page backwards after each line and then passing that paper to the next person. I prompt the kids for each line: "Who was it?", "Where was he/she?", "What did he/she do?" and so on until the story is done. After each line, the paper is passed to the next kid. They're not supposed to look at the previous lines, so when the paper is unfolded, it's a completely ridiculous story. Some of them make a strange kind of sense.

The kids were great. Though some occasionally got stuck on the timed writing, generally they dove right in. I love the intensity in the room as they're writing, writing, writing, occasionally shaking a cramp out their hands. The more they do this, the more easily the words will flow out of their minds onto the paper. They seemed to like the last game, though we could have used another 15 minutes for them really to enjoy it.

Tomorrow is a storytelling day at three other schools.

More family stories: Traces of the Trade

There are stories that families tell and stories families don't. While we were growing up, we heard in a vague way that our ancestors were slave traders. It was always tossed off cavalierly without any detail. This was a story we didn't tell.

About ten years ago, my cousin Katrina Browne began making a documentary film called Traces of the Trade about our ancestors, the DeWolfs. We began to hear the vast scope of our family's involvement in slavery and to understand more clearly the issues of race, entitlement, and privilege in this country, not just in the distant past but today as well.

As part of the project, Katrina took nine DeWolf descendants on a physical and emotional journey retracing the Triangle Trade from Bristol, RI to Ghana to Cuba and back home--during slavery, ships carried rum to Africa to trade for slaves who were taken to Cuba to cut sugar cane which was taken to Rhode Island to make rum.

Of course I knew about slavery. The first "chapter book" I ever read when I was about seven was about Harriet Tubman, and I'd read myriad books on the topic ever since. The horror of slavery became even more real for me when I heard that Katrina had found manacles and a whip used on slaves. Awful.

At the beginning, Katrina wondered about "productive guilt" and if that was the reason that so many of the descendants became clergymen (and women), writers and artists. I don't know if she followed that line of questioning. Also at the start of her project, many family members wondered if Katrina was doing this to diminish feelings of guilt for having had a relatively privileged upbringing. It quickly became clear to most of us that this was not at all why she took on the massive challenge of telling this story. It is a story that should be told.

The film is now finished and will be screened at the Sundance Film Festival. I have only seen trailers, which were incredible. Katrina managed to make the experience both intensely personal and universal.

Our cousin Tom DeWolf also wrote a book about his experiences on the trip, called Inheriting the Trade, which has just been published. He'll be at Sundance with Katrina, and he'll also be on Book TV on CSPAN2 at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 19 and at 1:00 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 20. That's a filming of his reading of the book at Linden Place in Bristol, the former DeWolf mansion last week.

I'm really proud of these two relatives for telling this difficult family story! You can read more about it on my sister Mary's blog--I was trying not to duplicate her comments.

Monday, January 14, 2008


I've got a few harmonicas. I thought this was the whole collection, until I remembered the one in the car (for emergencies) and the one in my briefcase, and the one in the kitchen that lost its pins. There's a pretty blue echo harp that lives with the props for the puppet show Rumpelstiltskin. There might be a few more lying around the house, too.

These two were my first real harmonicas. Yes, of course I had one as a kid, but I just played as kids do: I blew in and out tunelessly, driving everybody crazy. When I was a freshman in college, I went to the music store and bought a Hohner. I followed the directions enclosed and was playing "When the saints go marching in" by the end of the day. I carried that harmonica with me everywhere--notice how these two are squashed from being in my back pocket, and one is missing its screws. I played as I walked, getting the rhythm from my pace much as I do when I'm working on a story. Once again, I drove everybody crazy, but at least I was playing actual tunes.

I've got a reasonably good ear for music, or what Howard Gardner calls "musical intelligence." Anyway, if I hear something, most likely I can play it, if there aren't accidentals (sharps and flats in unexpected places). Someday I can even deal with those, if I learn to play the chromatic Hohner harmonica my friends Dave and Joanna gave me:

That nifty button on the side makes the sharps and flats. The little one next to it is a Yamaha, given to me by my friend Yuko in Bulgaria.

This is the one I use most often, a fancy pants Lee Oskar. I keep it in my puppet bag for performances. Before this, I played a Huang, which I loved, but the replacement I got doesn't sound as good (the one in my briefcase replaces the one missing its pins).

I play the harmonica sometimes before performances as kids are coming in. We usually play "name that tune," with standards such as The Itsy Bitsy Spider, Old MacDonald, The Chicken Dance, etc. The music focuses the listeners and gives us all something to do if we have to wait for other kids.
This is a cool box o' harmonicas my friends Thom and Sarah Howard sent me out of the blue a few years ago. Seven keys in a velvet-lined case!

And this tiny one with its cool satin box is a mystery: my siblings found this in Dad's desk after he died. Dad couldn't carry a tune in a bucket with the lid on top and he certainly never played an instrument. Why was this there? Was he planning to give it to me someday? I think I'm the only one of us who plays. Hmm.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Storytelling Tip #1a

At first I labeled this post #6, but I've gone back in to edit the post--it's really 1a, even though I said in the beginning that the tips are not in order of importance.


One of the keys to being a good storyteller is being a good listener. Listen to natural storytellers, listen to other performers (not just storytellers), listen to the audience, listen to the people who hire you, listen to the words, listen to the thoughts, listen to the spaces between the words, listen to your body, listen to children, listen to dogs and cats, listen to your heart and listen to your daydreams.

By listening, you let the world inform your art, so that your art can inform the world.

Any questions? I'm listening.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Blogs I read

A few months ago, my sister Mary showed me how to use Google reader. This is much easier than checking in on blogs periodically, because it shows me at a glance which have been updated. I set up my reader and put it on my toolbar, so I can click it easily. Then I started adding blog subscriptions like crazy. Here are some of my favorites:

Don't think (Mary's view of life, yoga, plastic, Buster and more)
Life, The Universe, And Everything (Mianne's blog on it all, including many Dutch masters)
Le Pen Quotidien (a different fabulous drawing with comments every day)
Pop Sensation (vintage paperback covers that have me rolling on the floor)
Fussy (Eden Kennedy's compelling commentary on life)
Indexed (hilarious diagrams of the everyday)
The Log of Whisper (Kristen and Hans' adventures sailing)
With Vanilla and Honey (not hungry? Erin's blog will change this!)
I Can Has Cheezburger (an embarrassingly addictive blog of cats with captions)
Language Log (fascinating ideas on language written by real linguists)
Rex Parker's New York Times Crossword Puzzle (great help and commentary on the NYT puzzle)

Of course, I read storytelling blogs, too:
A Quarter for a Tale (Sean Buvala's regular blog)
My 2008 or What a Storyteller Does All Day Long (Sean's new blog, short posts with a picture of what he does)
Granny Sue's News and Reviews (Granny Sue on storytelling, life, grandkids, recipes, stories and more)
Breaking the Eggs (Tim Ereneta's blog on performance storytelling in the 21st century)

Heavens! When do I have time to do my work?! Good thing I'm a fast reader!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Tell the World: Storytelling Across Language Barriers

A few weeks ago the UPS man stopped by. Must be a Christmas present. Strange, it was from a publisher, Libraries Unlimited. Huh?

I had completely forgotten my contribution to Margaret Read MacDonald's book, Tell the World: Storytelling Across Language Barriers. This copy was my payment for contributing. I sat right down and started reading. If I've counted right, there are 39 contributors to the book, all of whom have experience performing across languages. It's a fascinating look at what works and what doesn't.

My article is about telling stories in French when I travel to Belgium. Usually I perform in English, but there's one school where I usually perform in French (didn't get there last time) and I tell stories in French to my friends.

In the article, I talk about how I prepare for performances by telling to the friends with whom I stay, how I've learned to ask the listeners for help, how I choose the most appropriate stories for the audience and my own language level. I also say a little about telling stories in other languages to kids here in the US.

Some of the articles in the book are about telling with translators, some are about telling to deaf audiences with a translator, some are about using stories in language instruction, some are about traveling as a storyteller. Reading the last section made me think of the funny connection I made with a little girl on the bus from Turkey to Bulgaria a couple of years ago.

I had a seagull puppet and she had a Barbie. Those were the languages we had in common. We got along swimmingly.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Storytelling tip #5

I heard this one from Donald Davis at a workshop many years ago. It has proved invaluable in my work.

Begin by talking about your story.

By talking about a story instead of actually telling it, you'll take the pressure off of having to get it right. As you talk about it, you start to refine your knowledge of the story and how it fits into your repertoire.

I often say to my sister, "Hey, I'm thinking about telling a new story I just found. Can I tell you about it?" As I tell her, it starts to take shape and I see the pictures more clearly in my mind. Often by the time I've finished telling about it, I've shifted into telling it. Also, since I'm just rambling, I don't mind if she has suggestions or questions.

This works for all kinds of stories, from personal stories to folktales to literary stories.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Queen Berta at the Depot

The World Premiere of Queen Berta and King Pippin is set! That is, the first public performance will be Friday, February 15 at 8:00 p.m. at the Lawrence Visitor's Center (the former Union Pacific Depot), at the corner of Locust and N. 2nd St. in North Lawrence. You heard it here.

I've done five or six performances at the depot (I can't get myself to call it the Visitor's Center). It's a beautiful building on the outside, a classic old train station, with nice landscaping. Inside, it's okay. The floor is brown linoleum. Very brown. There are various light settings, so it's not stark fluorescent, and I usually bring a small oriental rug and a table to serve as a set and help soften the institutional feel to the place.

Though the trains don't stop at the station, they do go by. Lots of them, mostly full of coal or other heavy freight. I live nearby and every time they pass, the house shakes. I don't know how many per day because I no longer notice them when I'm at home, but the folks at the depot told me there were 50-75. I do notice when I'm performing there or in my backyard and sometimes when I'm on the phone inside the house. When I'm telling Medieval stories, the sound is more than a bit anachronistic. My hope is that this story will be compelling enough that nobody notices.