"What are the differences between writing and oral storytelling?"

This was a question a participant in a storytelling workshop asked the other night. My answer then was nowhere near complete, just as what I write here also will miss some salient points. Here's what occurs to me now:

Oral storytelling 

  • Is an older artform than written.
  • Does not require that the listener be literate.
  • Requires teller and listener to be in the same place (hmm, unless it's on a recording, which places it closer to written).
  • Is not in set form. The storyteller may change the story depending on the audience, circumstances, time allotted, mood of the audience, mood of the storyteller, venue. 
  • May be more concise--too much detail can bog the experience down.
  • The storytelling/story listening experience is usually shorter. Of course there are exceptions for cultures in which epics may last over days, or with serial stories.
  • Depends on nonverbal as well as verbal communication--facial expression and body language, volume, pacing, attitude, etc.
  • May use repetition and mnemonics to help the audience remember people, places and action.
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Written storytelling

  • Requires literacy. Even with a read-aloud, somebody is reading it. 
  • Is usually experienced by the reader without the writer being present. The writer is unaware of the reaction of the reader.
  • Is in set form in each edition (with some exceptions for online experiences).
  • Requires the writer to show attitude, emotion, etc. using words.
  • Have a wider range of length, from flash fiction to multivolume sagas. 
  • The reader may flip the pages back to remind herself of something that happened earlier. 
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Of course, a good story is a good story. One artform is not better than the other. Oral storytelling can enhance writing and writing can enhance oral storytelling--I often write about the stories I tell, in order to understand them.

What did I miss? 

Storytelling live-ish

Imagine this: students in five schools in different parts of the world listening to one storyteller (me) in their own classrooms, and asking the storyteller questions via chat. I'm in my studio (otherwise known as my dining room). The stories are tailored to the audience. The schools pay a fraction of the price of a regular storytelling performance, with none of the travel fees. They can use smartboards, projectors or individual screens. The teacher clicks a link and they're in the session. 

Over the last ten months, I've been testing live online storytelling events using the Zoom platform. From the comfort of home, I tell stories to listeners wherever in the world they are. Here's my setup:

Online storytelling setup

The first try was a short puppet workshop for a group of teachers in Brazil. The next was a presentation for a middle school in Texas, with a goal of bringing kids into an existing storytelling troupe. Then I told stories to two homeschooling families (full disclosure, they were already fans). Today I had two middle schools, one in Florida and one in Tennessee. The school in Tennessee had me in multiple classrooms at once. (Thanks to Mariana, Sue, Melanie, Kelly, Tom, Elizabeth and all the other teachers for being my testers.)

Here are a few things I've learned in the guinea pig sessions

  • Make sure the cat is outside before beginning. He is charming, but a distraction.
  • Mute the audience during the stories, or there will be a lot of extraneous noise (chairs scraping, the intercom, etc.)
  • Use a wired connection, not wireless, for the strongest possible signal.
  • Put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.
  • Don't use a lot of fast hand gestures. Movement on a screen can get blurred. 
  • Dim the brightness of the laptop screen for less glare on eyeglasses.
  • Plan for extra time for questions, since it requires using the chat window.

I still prefer telling stories in person, but this is a great way to get more stories and workshops out into the world.

I'm ready to go live, er, live-ish. Soon look for pricing on my website for full performances, workshops and "story snacks" (5-10 minute mini sessions).

Have questions? E-mail me or put a comment below. 

Staying healthy on the road

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I love performance tours. I am deeply thankful to do this work and for the privilege of traveling to do it (thanks, DreamOn Productions!). I'm writing from Costa Rica, where I'm telling stories for a week. Last week I was performing in Ecuador. (I promise to post pictures soon.)

Alas, I have a headcold. I work hard to stay healthy, especially on international tours, but sometimes I succumb to germs. 

A couple of weeks before I leave for an overseas trip, I start taking echinacea and goldenseal, to boost my immune system. I also take Vitamin D. I pack these, along with multivitamins, ibuprofen, Pepto-Bismol, anti-diarrheal pills, night-time and day-time cold medicine, sinus rinse packs and my neti pot, bandaids, antibiotic ointment, tweezers, Tiger balm and zinc lozenges. 

On top of this pharmacopeia, I drink lots of water. Lots of water. This is the best way to keep my voice in shape, along with vocal warm-up exercises before performances. If I feel throat irritation, I buy lozenges at local pharmacies and health food stores. I'm partial to those made with propolis and honey. I also buy ginger, lemon and honey, which I simmer to make a soothing drink. It's good hot or cold. I find out if the country I'm going to has safe water. If not, I drink bottled or boiled water only. Yes, I have Pepto-bismol, but if I'm careful, I may not need it. 

I try to wash my hands frequently. I tend to forget hand sanitizer, maybe because I don't like the way it feels. Maybe if I'd used it, I wouldn't have gotten this particular cold. Then again, it wouldn't have stopped the person sneezing and coughing on me on the airplane on the way to Costa Rica.

At the first sign of a cold, I take zinc lozenges. Sometimes they can keep a cold at bay. Or at least that's what I tell myself. Warning: don't take them on an empty stomach. They can make you feel nauseous. I do that revolting sinus rinse a couple of times a day so a simple cold doesn't turn into a sinus infection. I've been lucky not to lose my voice on these tours--the only thing you can do in that case is not talk. Yikes!

After a day of work, usually four performances, I take a nap. I like to get a walk in at some point. I also go to bed early--it's important to save my energy for the school sessions. 

Oh, yes, and that's sunscreen in the picture. In Ecuador especially the sun is strong. Sunscreen is essential. Wear it.

Organizing my storytelling library

Confession time: my storytelling library was a blot on the escutcheon of librarians everywhere for the last year and a half. My books were not in any order. The house needed so much work, I just plunked my work books on shelves willy-nilly. This is what about half of them looked like:

storytelling_books_before

Oh, they looked nice. Those homemade bookshelves garnered attention when I posted this picture on Facebook. But, sheesh, when I needed to find a particular book, I spent way too much time searching. Can you see that there's a collection of cat stories right next to a big book of world tales? Sacred Stories is right next to a collection of Scottish folktales, which is next to French stories. 

I know better. My first professional job was as a Slavic cataloger. It's important to have a system, in order to find materials easily. 

Last week, I organized my books. Not exactly Dewey Decimal, but close.

storytelling_library_after

Here's the order I use:

  • General reference
  • Books on creativity, including writing books
  • Reference books relating to folklore and storytelling
  • How-to books on storytelling
  • Collections of world folktales
  • Story collections by topic (e.g. folktales of cats)
  • Story collections by geographic area (e.g. folktales from France)
  • Literary (that is, not folktale) collections by author

It's not exact. Some areas are a little slushy. Eagle-eyed readers will see that stories from Shakespeare are tucked into the English folktale collections--that's mostly because the literary tales are on a shelf that's harder to reach, and because I have a program of folktales related to Shakespeare's plays. No, I don't have a card catalog (though I was lusting after a small one at Habitat Restore last week). Still, it's a great improvement. 

I think I'll go browse my collection for a bit.

Stories of my mother

I know it's a cliche but it's true: people live on through the stories we tell about them. I'm writing this two days before my mother's funeral.

My mother, Carol Edgelow Howe, grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. She and her three sisters often visited their grandparents in Westmount, Quebec. One Christmas, when she was about three, she was put to bed while her parents and grandparents ate supper. Little Carol was certain that Santa Claus was down the street by the corner.  She got out of bed and left the house alone on that snowy night. The family dog, a Newfoundland named Caesar, followed, then got in front of her. He pushed her back up the steps of the house. She was furious with him! How dare he keep her from Santa Claus!

 Maybe that visit? Mom was headstrong, even at that age.

Maybe that visit? Mom was headstrong, even at that age.

Mom had a powerful imagination, a lively mind and a wicked sense of humor. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1945, though the story is that the Dean had to call her father to discuss my mother's errant ways--reading novels rather than her assignments and dating boys. She was a looker!

I suspect she was a big daydreamer. In her later years, after my father died, we discovered that it was also Mom who was the dawdler. When I was in school, she was insistent that we not be late. I found some of her grammar school report cards and discovered that in fourth grade, she was late dozens of times!

After working at a florist shop and a nursery, as well as a lifetime of gardening and raising houseplants (her Cattleya orchids were always in bloom), Mom wrote garden columns for newspapers for forty years. Her last column was in September 2016 at age 93. Whenever I asked her for gardening advice, she always gave the same answer: "Why don't you call your Extension Agent?"

Mom was deeply invested in her church, St. Columba's in Boothbay Harbor, Maine and involved in the church's mission in Belém, Brazil. Not surprising, as my father was an Episcopal priest.

 My parents, early in their marriage.

My parents, early in their marriage.

Mom was concerned with issues of hunger and poverty. When she went to church, she always brought at least one can of food for the pantry. In her gardening articles, she suggested people "plant a row for the hungry," an initiative of the Garden Writers of America. Mom loved to spend time outdoors, to sing, to read--she belonged to two book clubs in Maine, where she spent the last thirty years of her life, until last October when we moved her to Kansas to be near three of her seven children.

 Mom in 2016

Mom in 2016

 All seven of her children in one place for the first time in ten years, 2017

All seven of her children in one place for the first time in ten years, 2017

We moved Mom to Lawrence, Kansas because none of us was close enough to Maine to help in an emergency. This proved to be prescient. In late February, she had a stroke. She'd been in assisted living, but moved into long-term care with hospice. All of her children were able to come to Kansas to say goodbye. We had the luxury of nine weeks with her after her stroke. My in-town siblings, Mary and Thomas, their spouses, and I spent time with her every day. She loved visits from my siblings' dogs, too.

The stroke took a bit of her short-term memory and her ability to process writing, but Mom did not have dementia. She was aware and coherent for the few hours each day she was awake. She loved hearing e-mails and cards from family and friends. We read to her, brought her flowers from our gardens, fed her and advocated for her. We even had cocktail hour with her a few times. After the first one she told the nurse that she'd had almost a whole beer. Well, actually, she had three small sips and a couple of goldfish crackers.

In March, I wrote a blog post about storytelling as a respite. Now you know why. 

Mom died with a slight smile on her lips on Sunday, April 30, 2017 at 11:50 a.m. My sister Mary and I were at her side. 

RIP Carol Edgelow Howe, 1923-2017. 

If you feel so inclined, plant a row for the hungry or take some nonperishables to your local food pantry in her honor.

 

 

 

 

Making a living as a storyteller...

...is not easy. I think it was Elizabeth Ellis who said, "If anything can keep you from being a full-time storyteller, let it." If nothing can keep you from this work, then and only then, should you take it on as a full-time job. So that's where I am, where I've been since 1993, wanting only to tell stories, play with puppets, teach workshops, coach other storytellers. 

 Teaching teachers to use puppets in 2008

Teaching teachers to use puppets in 2008

I love storytelling. It's massively fun. It is also my business, make no mistake. I market my work, write contracts and invoices, track income and expenses, record mileage, file taxes (done, whew!) and all the rest of what it takes to keep a business going. 

Sometimes I need help. I'm fortunate to have been a participant last year and now a peer facilitator in ArtistInc, a rigorous program that trains artists and performers to be entrepreneurs. I've taken other classes like this in the past, such as Sean Buvala's Storytelling Bootcamp, but this is right here in my town. We meet for eight weeks to work on our arts businesses, and in the process, create a core group of artists in many disciplines with whom to work. We've maintained many of the friendships we made in last year's group.

 ArtistInc bag and notebook. Sorry about the cat hair--it's a fact of my life, alas.

ArtistInc bag and notebook. Sorry about the cat hair--it's a fact of my life, alas.

In ArtistInc, we set goals and rely on each other for accountability. We've had sessions on budgets, taxes, writing about our work, legal issues and more. Our homework assignments are practical. This week, we're reviewing artist statements. Here's my latest artist statement:

I live in my head. A lot. I make stuff up, I borrow from old tales, I reinterpret new stories. As a storyteller, I’m a tour guide to that space in my brain. I work without a script, without costumes, without props. When I’m doing it right, listeners laugh, smile, sigh and breathe together, connected in the space of stories. I perform at schools, libraries, festivals, special events, and in my own backyard, literally. My mouthy hand puppets come along to shows for kids. I tell more grownup stories to, well, grownups and older kids. We play together. Apart from being the oldest educational method in the world, storytelling is just plain fun.

The final session is a Pecha Kucha style Powerpoint presentation, using a set of slides that advance automatically every 20 seconds. My work is usually live, so last year was the first time I ever used Powerpoint. I'm redoing my presentation for this year. When I get it finished, I'll post it here. 

Soon I'm going to roll out a new business project, one that ArtistInc has helped me refine. Watch this space!

Storytelling as a respite

Storytelling is my profession, my passion, my vocation. It is also my respite from cares of the world. 

You may have heard about "the healing power of storytelling." By this, people usually mean that the listeners are healed. I know that stories can be healing but--and this is vital to understand--I am not in charge of this. I can choose stories with powerful themes to tell at times when they may be needed, but it would be sheer hubris to say that I heal others with my stories.

At the same time, telling stories is a way I find solace in times of sorrow. Sometimes it is the story itself that helps me, sometimes just the act of telling stories; sometimes it is eliciting laughter or contemplation in the listeners that brings me to an easier place.

When I'm feeling low during slow seasons, I invite myself to a preschool or two to tell stories. It works like a charm.

When my father died ten years ago, I was performing in Belgium. At the moment he died, I was telling one of his favorite stories, "The Twist-Mouth Family". I often tell that story in his memory now. 

What stories have you told that offer respite? What stories have you heard that bring you solace?

Community

My friend Kareen King prompted me to choose a theme for the year, a word to focus on. Almost immediately, it came to me: "community." In truth, I've been thinking about this word for a little over a year, since I moved back from KC to Lawrence. I moved back mostly because I missed my community. I live on the same street I moved from in 2010, just a half block east. I'm close enough to downtown that I can walk and often when I do, I run into friends. 

How can my storytelling add to this community? One way is through the Story Nights I do in the backyard. I had five last summer and will do more this next year.  

 My cat Frankie even attended!

My cat Frankie even attended!

I'm also thinking about how the stories we tell can build up or tear down a community. I want to tell the stories that build up community. Sometimes that's through shared laughter, sometimes it's through specific ideas the listeners get from the stories. Last week I told Grandmother Bear and the Hurtful Words to a group of 2nd graders. We talked about what one might say after using hurtful words. I explained that "just kidding" isn't kind. One little girl raised her hand and said, "But what if you were really just kidding." That gave me pause. I suggested that it might not be a good way to kid, because it could truly hurt somebody's feelings. Sometimes the stories we tell can encourage kindness in a world that doesn't always feel kind.

I'm going to veer off topic from storytelling but still on the topic of community. I've been the recipient of great kindness from friends and family, that is, from my community, in working on my house. Some has been moral support, some financial, much has been actual hands-on-let's-make-this-place-livable work. I'm deeply grateful. Here are a few pictures of the results: 

 The freshly plastered yellow wall, freshly painted trim and green wall of my office, thanks to Kate, Tim, Samrat, Mary, Andy, Marie, Paul and Janelle.

The freshly plastered yellow wall, freshly painted trim and green wall of my office, thanks to Kate, Tim, Samrat, Mary, Andy, Marie, Paul and Janelle.

 The freshly plastered dining room, thanks to Thomas, Kate, Tony and his guys, Sarah, Mark, Tim. 

The freshly plastered dining room, thanks to Thomas, Kate, Tony and his guys, Sarah, Mark, Tim. 

 The painted living room, thanks to Kate, Paul and Anthea.

The painted living room, thanks to Kate, Paul and Anthea.

 The bedroom, with help from Kate and Deborah.

The bedroom, with help from Kate and Deborah.

 The puppet room (they're just out of sight)--oh, I did this room myself.

The puppet room (they're just out of sight)--oh, I did this room myself.

 And most recently, the bright and clean kitchen, thanks to Kate, Thomas, Paul, Marie, Robin, Susan, Bonnie, Aaron, Jamie, Diane and Tim.

And most recently, the bright and clean kitchen, thanks to Kate, Thomas, Paul, Marie, Robin, Susan, Bonnie, Aaron, Jamie, Diane and Tim.

I had immeasurable help also from Mary, Rick, Mary W., Andy, Jeanette, Mike, Bob, Kareen, Tzveta, Marie G., Joanna-banana, Dave, Steve, Tom O., Sarah, Joyce and all of you who listened to me drone on and on about the house. I hope I haven't left anyone out.* Thank you all. You matter. WE matter. Community matters. 

*I also had professional help from Earl Moise of Rising Son Plumbing, Jeff Hardie of Electric Plus, Andy Martin of Martin Hardwood Floors and Tony Backus. They all did a great job!

Blagolazh, the Bulgarian joketelling and storytelling competition

I did it! I performed in the Blagolazh, the storytelling and joketelling competition in Gabrovo, home of the House of Humor and Satire. In Bulgarian. Even before I began looking into coming to Bulgaria on a Fulbright grant, I dreamt of attending this event, part of the Biennial of Humor. The word "blagolazh" means "sweet lie," but it's different from US liars contests, where contestants invent the most outlandish stories. The rule was that the stories had to be folktales, nothing made up by the contestants. There were two themes this year: health and work, or the opposite of these (smoking, drinking, laziness).

I first visited this wonderful museum in 1984. Outside the museum is a statue of Clever Peter, one of the Bulgarian tricksters.

I submitted my application to the Blagolazh a couple of months ago, appending two stories from my repertoire that I intended to tell. I wrote out my versions in Bulgarian and then my friend Tzveta kindly made them grammatically correct. Since March, I've been working on these stories. In April, I was accepted as one of the tellers. 

I arrived on Saturday. This was a busy day in town. The Biennial of Humor had begun with the juried art show of cartoons, photographs, engravings, etc. That evening there was an enormous carnival (look for a blog post soon with carnival pictures). With the other guests, I watched the hour and a half parade from reserved seats, then went back to the hotel for a reception with the mayor. She had been in the parade dressed as Marilyn Monroe. Last year she was Scarlett O'Hara. It was a crowded reception, so I only caught a glimpse of the mayor.

We were due at the museum at 8:30 a.m., so I said goodnight to my dinner companions early. In the morning, the museum was shimmering with excitement. First, children from Mickey Mouse Kindergarten (Мики Маус) performed for us, singing and dancing in traditional dress. I've noticed that this is a trend at many Bulgarian events. 

Then there was the children's Blagolazh. The kids, age 4 to 12 with a couple of adult helpers, sat at big tables with microphones, like a press conference. They each told a story or a joke, all were encouraged by the audience. May they continue to tell stories! 

After the jury awarded the prizes to the children, it was time for the grownups. After we took our seats at the tables, we introduced ourselves and the first round began. Some stories or jokes were told in dialect, some in standard Bulgarian. I understood a lot, but not all. I told a story about Nasrudin Hodja at the public baths to begin. Though the Hodja is the Turkish trickster, the Ottoman Empire extended into Bulgaria for 500 years, so his stories are here as well. I thought we were going to tell just one story and the jury would make a decision about the next round, but no, the jury invited us all to tell another short one. Uh-oh. I had two stories prepared in Bulgarian. Fortunately, my friend Roman the harmonica player had told me a short Clever Peter story on Friday. I silently blessed him and told that story. 

While the jury deliberated, some of the past winners told stories and jokes. They're no longer eligible to compete but came along for the fun. 

To my surprise, I made it to the second round. I told the second Nasrudin Hodja story I had prepared. We were asked for another, so I told a joke. I'm still not certain that it translated, but everybody laughed. 

I thought we were going to have to do another story. In English, it would have been a snap. I've got a zillion stories in my head. In Bulgarian, it's a challenge. I was searching for one in my rattled brain and decided to explain that I didn't have another Bulgarian one but did have one from Vermont. The jury decided not to ask for another. Whew! While they went out of the hall to deliberate, we heard more from the past champions.

The grand winner was a young man, the youngest by far in the group, Orlin Kisyov (I think I was the second youngest, and I'm 53). It's nice to have a new generation coming along! This is one reason it's important to have the children's Blagolazh.

Here's Orlin, with the director of the House of Humor and Satire, Tatiana Tsankova:

And a view of the older kids at the table.

Many of the contestants, including prize winner Snezhanka Doncheva, were in traditional Bulgarian dress. I wish we'd had a picture all together. 

And I won the prize for "Vivid Presentation by a Foreigner." 

Not only did the House of Humor give us all a collection of stories from the 2013 Blagolazh, but they gave me quite a few books of stories and jokes. I was invited to visit the archives, which I did on Monday after the Blagolazh. I'm constantly bowled over by the generosity of Bulgarians, and the staff and direction at the House of Humor and Satire were no exceptions to this. Huge thanks especially to Veneta Georgieva-Kozareva and to the director, Tatiana Tsankova.

Apart from the prize of being included in this incredible event and hearing stories and jokes, I was given a Gabrovo clock. Look closely at this picture. Can you tell what time it is? Look below the Fulbright disclaimer to find out! 

My goals going into this event were to have fun and not to embarrass myself. I succeeded!

Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

The time on the clock is 9:48. The hands run backwards. I think this could be used as one of those brain training exercises, like using the non-dominant hand. Definitely not the clock to look at when I'm in a hurry and need to know the time!

Cats!

A few weeks ago I went to visit my friend Barbara in Veliko Turnovo as she was finishing up her Fulbright. It was fun visit her and to walk around the town that was my introduction to Bulgaria in 1982, when I went to a summer seminar there. 

As we were walking up the hill in the old part of town near her house, we noticed a few cats on a wall. Then there were a few more. 

There must have been some sort of a signal, because cats began to pour down the hill.

The black and white one seems to be the hall monitor, making sure everybody is keeping up. I was glad I had my camera ready.

Here are a couple up close:

All these cats live on the street, finding food where they can (such as at Barbara's door).

This reminds me of a Bulgarian folktale I've told for years, which I call The Village of No Cats.

There was such a village, where the people had never heard of cats, but they certainly had heard of mice. They had mice everywhere: mice in the houses, mice in the barns, mice dipping their tails in people's coffee, mice running across their toes and their noses in the night. It was terrible.

One day Clever Peter was passing through this village and he asked why they didn't have cats.

"Cats? What are cats?"

Clever Peter saw a chance to make a little extra money. He went to a neighboring town and gathered up a sackful of stray cats, which he sold to the village of no cats. The people were pleased to see these creatures make quick work of the mice, but Clever Peter began to worry that he'd be discovered as a cheat. He started to leave town, walking quickly and looking back as he went.

The villagers began to wonder if there was something Clever Peter hadn't told them about the cats

One said,  "What do they eat, once the mice are gone?"

They began to follow Clever Peter, to ask this serious question. "Peter! Peter! What do cats eat?"

He walked even faster, but called back to them, "Meat!"

The villagers, though, misheard him. "Me? He said 'Me!' These are man-eaters! We're in danger!"

So they took their brooms and chased the cats out of the village. Of course, the mice came back, but that was certainly better than those bloodthirsty cats.

And now I think I know where the cats went when they were chased out of town: Veliko Turnovo. 

 

Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

©2015 Priscilla Howe

Under the yoke

In this first week, not only am I settling in to my apartment and life in Bulgaria as a Fulbrighter, I'm also settling in to the language. One way to do this is of course, to speak it as much as possible, from little conversations with the building manager (from whom I cadged some plant clippings for my windows) to chat with old and new friends, to banter in the shops. I also came across a film festival celebrating one hundred years of Bulgarian film about four blocks from my apartment. On Wednesday, I went with Eireene, another Fulbrighter, to see the film of the epic Bulgarian novel, Under the Yoke. I read the novel 30 years ago in the original Bulgarian. I slogged through it for months, wrestling with author Ivan Vazov's now-archaic words. I'd stumble upon a word I couldn't find in the dictionary and would ask my roommate for a definition. "What on earth are you reading? Oh, Pod Igoto. That word is obsolete," she'd say. 

It was fun to see it on the big screen, from 1952. Full of high drama, significant looks and not a little bloodshed. Here are a couple of clips. The first is a lovely musical scene, the second is the entire film. 

Today I went back to the theater to watch a film about the first Bulgarian communist uprising in 1923, Septemvritsi, or Heroes of September, also from the 1950s, also full of high drama, significant looks and bloodshed. I may go back for some more movies this weekend.

Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

On my way to Bulgaria

 I'm taking a break from obsessively packing, unpacking and repacking for my short trip to Bulgaria. This is for the Fulbright International Summer Institute, not the larger Fulbright which will take place next February-June. For the current trip, I'll be gone for a little over two weeks. I'll be outside of Sofia for most of this first trip, but will live in the city on the Fulbright. Thank you to everybody who has supported me emotionally, financially and physically.

Along with the baggage preparations, I'm making sure the house is okay for my house sitter, paying all my bills, doing laundry and pacing. I might need to go for a swim to get rid of some of this excess energy. 

I'm tremendously happy that I'm going on this trip. I just found this music video with views of Sofia, reflecting my mood. 

Goldie

Don't worry, this isn't going to become the story poem blog. I'm on a roll, though, so here's the second in my series. Story poems don't have to be only about familiar folktales. For me, this was a natural jumping-off point. 

 Jessie Wilcox Smith, Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Goldie

 She saw them go out,

Bumbling, mumbling, stumbling.

Took a gamble.

What it would be like

To live another life?

Not tall, blonde and angry,

But short, dark and─

Hungry.

For porridge, clawmarks and all

For marriage and children or none.

Honey, sugar, sweetie.

Satisfied.

Dawdle into the den

Crochet hook near the ladderback,

Fishbones under the rocker,

Jug of mead by the recliner.

Relaxed.

Clamber up scarred stairs,

Drifts of fur, scuffed treads

Past the clawfoot.

To the bedrooms.

Mothballs and cedar.

Futon, feather, trundle,

Bundle

of

dreams…

Exit, pursued by a bear.

©Priscilla Howe 2014

 

Comments? Which familiar stories would you like to see a poem about?

Story poems

I've got a new rabbit trail I'm following these days. I love that my work allows me to do this. I'm playing with story poems, leading to a residency with third through fifth graders (ages 8-10) that will take place this fall. What's a story poem? Exactly what you'd think, a poem that tells a story. Have I ever written a story poem? Not that I can remember. One of my goals, in preparation for this residency, is to write one narrative poem each week. I'll also be looking at advice on teaching poetry to kids, which I'll meld with my own teaching techniques, honed for the last 25+ years.

Here's the first one:  

 Little Red Riding Hood, by Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1

Little Red Riding Hood, by Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1

If Little Red Had Followed Her Intuition

Feet tap,
tappity tap

Down the street.

Crack, back,Wolf pack.

Wait.

There—By the wall.

Skinny, tall

Whiskers twitch.

Sharp teeth.

Pants sag.

White tee.

Dirty paws.

Nothing to do.

Nothing to be.

Nothing to lose.

"Nice hoodie!"

Look away.

"What's the matter?

Cat got your tongue?”

Head shake.

“I’m not the bad guy.

Just looking for fun.

”Run, run!

Fly, fly!

to the gate

to the steps

to the door

find the key

"Gran, it's me!"

Wham, slam

Safe.

©2014 Priscilla Howe

I'll keep you posted on how this project develops. Suggestions?

Storytelling, storywriting and the Common Core

Rather than carp about the Common Core State Standards, that is, what students in each grade all over the country will be expected to learn, I thought it might be instructive to link the CCSS with some of my programs, in small bites. I've been working on a flyer for school systems about my writing in-services, workshops and residencies, in which I include the following useful information: 

From third grade through high school, the Common Core State Standards ask students to write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.

That's what I do in my Storytelling, Storywriting program. And if we're thinking about storytelling as a pre-writing tool (which of course we are), when I tell stories to kids, aren't I also giving examples of developing real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details and clear event sequences? Yes, indeedy! 

There, now, that connection with Common Core State Standards wasn't so painful, was it? 

On taglines and logos

For the past many years (ten? more?) I've had the same logo and tagline on my printed materials. The tagline All my stories start with a seed of truth seemed catchy at the time, a way to describe my style.

The sprig of green signifies to me great possibility. A story could go anywhere!

I still believe that, but it's time for a change. That tagline works best for my original stories, which I often describe as "personal fiction." I'd like my tagline to reflect my work in general, possibly with features and benefits (yikes, marketing jargon!) included. It would be great if it also brought a smile to the reader. Of course, I want my PR material to invite connection first, and eventually bookings.

In my garden, I remind myself that it's okay to move, dig up, prune, toss or give away plants that don't suit the space, I can do the same with my tagline and logo. Maybe I'll end up using the sprig again, or maybe that will go in the compost pile. 

My process so far has been to write about what I do, looking for keywords and ideas. I've used the mindmapping website bubbl.us to organize my thoughts. I have done trademark searches. I don't want the ugly surprise of finding I've used somebody else's trademark. In doing a search, I discovered that my favorite idea turned out to be somebody else's favorite: Storytelling—feeding hungry minds since the dawn of time. Not the whole thing, but feeding hungry minds

Here are a couple of my ideas for storytelling in general, to be placed after my name: 

Storytelling—growing curious listeners since the dawn of time

Storytelling—the oldest educational method and entertainment system in the world (I've used a variation of this for years)

And a few ideas that would go after my name:

Funny, smart, engaging stories since 1988

Making connections one story at a time

Growing curious listeners one story at a time

Cultivating curiosity and laughter one story at a time

I seem to like the garden metaphor. Wonder why? Garden tour time! Here's a picture in front of my house (weeping cherry, Russian sage, rudbeckia, marigolds, lilac, Egyptian onions, iris, clematis, roses, cockscomb, rhubarb—and that's not counting what's on the other side of the walk):

And a view of the back garden (dogwood on the left, hostas, moonflowers in the foreground, enormous snarl of tomato plants and a volunteer melon in the background): 

And while we're at it, here are some of the houseplants in residence on the porch (an older picture, so the nightblooming cereus isn't in flower today):  [Houseplants on the front porch, by the swing]

That's the garden tour for the day. Back to the point. Distilling what I do into one phrase or sentence, and then making sure that one line hasn't been used for something else or won't be misconstrued is daunting. Am I trying to do too much? Should I have a different slogan for educational work than I have for entertainment? Should I have one for work with young kids and another for work with older kids and adults? I so want a one-size-fits all solution, since I'm able to tell stories in so many different situations (stories with puppets for young children, epic tales for older kids and adults, work in Juvenile Detention Centers, stories for ESL listeners, weddings, anniversaries, festival shows, library performances, keynote speeches and more). 

Any suggestions? Is there some giant idea I'm completely missing?  Send me a comment below. Thanks!

Crooked fingers, one more time

I know, I've written about crooked fingers a few times now. I can't seem to help myself. In the US, maybe once a year, kids in the audience will notice my crooked little fingers, and once in a while, there will be an audience member with clinodactyly. In Argentina last year, I was startled to see about five pairs. This year, in Chile, I think I saw twelve pairs! First, here's mine in the foreground as the audience and I did Shaking Hands.

Here are a few of the others I saw:

That's my finger on the left and a young boy's on the right.

Here are two more pairs. The girl in the last picture was quite excited to have her fingers photographed, so it's a bit blurry.

In Chile, I told the audience about my fingers at the beginning of the sessions. I explained that if I didn't, somebody would notice, and then that kid would tell the next kid who would tell another until nobody was listening to the stories. I also explained that my father had them and six out of seven kids in my family have them.

I have never minded having unusual fingers. I guess I've never minded being a nonconformist in many ways. I tell the students about this genetic mutation partly to tell them that it's okay to be different. These differences make the world a more interesting place. 

Western Kansas views--and pie

Last week, I drove almost seven hours to Western Kansas to tell stories. First I was at the Scott County Public Library for a Young Author Celebration on Sunday. What a fun group made up primarily of Mennonite families! I'd thought that the kids would see me in the next couple of days at the Scott City Elementary School, but it turned out that they were mostly from the Mennonite school. (Don't worry, I'll get to the pie soon. I will say, though,  that I've had excellent pie made by Mennonites at Iris' Cafe near Ulysses, KS many years ago.)

On Monday and Tuesday I told stories to kindergartners through fourth graders (ages 5-10), in small groups in the library. It's a treat for me to tell in the school library instead of in a cavernous gym or cafeteria. It makes so much sense to have the storytelling in the library. Even though it was only the first full week of school, the kids were wonderful listeners. At this time of year, the kindergartners are still really preschoolers, the first graders are still really kindergartners, and so on. The librarian and music teacher were my gracious hosts at the school. 

On Monday afternoon, I decided to go sightseeing. I'd never been to Monument Rocks, strange white rock structures about 18 miles northeast of Scott City. They're also called chalk pyramids. Here's the view from the distance, with the flat, flat land all around. (Flat like the top of a pie, not the lattice kind though.)

Getting closer...

This is called the keyhole. (Nothing to do with Key Lime Pie. Hold your horses about the pie.)

And there's another clump of rock formations across the road.

Across Kansas, there are abandoned houses and barns. I put a picture of one up a couple of years ago, in fact the last time I was in Scott City (working with junior high school kids that time). Here's one I saw on the way back to the motel in Scott City on this trip. (I didn't actually have pie in Scott City, but I had a nice chile relleno. The pie story is coming.)

The land out here is fenced in, sometimes with wood posts often made of hedge, a.k.a. Osage orange, wood that is resistant to insects and rot. It also burns hotter than any other wood, but has to be in a wood stove because it sparks like crazy. I used to burn it in my stove in Lawrence. (Not the oven, which I had to clean well when I moved as cherry juice had spilled over when I made a pie.)

When the white settlers came, there weren't lots of trees, but there was plenty of limestone. (I think they also made good pies after they'd planted fruit trees.) Post rocks can still be found around Western Kansas. Here's an example, with more in the background (from the rest area somewhere outside Great Bend).

 

Some of the most impressive buildings in Kansas were built of this limestone. This is the Kansas Mercantile, in the Old Ness County Bank Building, also called the Skyscraper of the Plains in Ness City. (Almost there.)

Okay, about pie. Many years ago (maybe 11?) I was telling stories in southwestern Kansas libraries for a week. I do love a good piece of pie and am usually on the lookout when I'm on the road. After the performance in Ness City, I stopped by at the Kansas Mercantile. On the door was a handwritten sign, "Thursday special, pie and coffee." I paused. What day was it? Yes! Thursday! 

About six or seven people sat around a table, relaxing as I wandered around the gift shop. One volunteer asked if she could help me. I didn't get to the point (of the pie) yet, but asked about the building. I had recently bought my old house in Lawrence, which was built in 1882. She took me on a tour, even up to the unfurnished top floor. On the way down, I asked about the pie. 

She was happy to cut me a piece of cherry pie. It was magnificent, one of the best in my quest for restaurant pie. Homemade, with a pit or two that snuck in to tell me it was made with fresh cherries. The woman who made it stopped by while I was eating. As I ate, I sat with the crowd at the table. They asked me where I was from and what I was doing in Ness City. One older gent had a harmonica in front of him. "Are you going to play that?" I asked. He had only been waiting to be asked. He had mild dementia, but retained his love of music. The others around the table sang along with the old tunes he played. 

I got back on the road that day headed down to Dodge City, with the sound of How much is that doggie in the window and Daisy, Daisy in my ears and the taste of excellent cherry pie in my mouth.