Perspective and backstory

Every story is told from a particular perspective, from a specific point of view. When I’m working on stories, I find it helpful to shift that perspective, to stretch myself. I see the story from new angles, noticing aspects I didn’t earlier understand. I’ll tell myself the story from the point of view of a peripheral character or the dog. I don’t usually tell the story this way, but use it as an exercise to anchor the story firmly in my imagination.

I’ve been thinking about perspective since the flooding in May when I saw this blue heron. Normally, we only see these magnificent birds from below. I took this picture standing on the bridge looking from above. I had no idea they were this brilliant!


I love working on perspective and backstory, understanding aspects of story characters that I’ll never put in the told tale. What color does the big sister in The ghost with the one black eye have? Pink. Do listeners need to know this? No. If I told you every detail, you’d be bored long before the end of the story. It’s helpful to me in order to create characters that are fully formed in my imagination.

If I find myself losing interest in a story, I may change the image in my mind. I picture the family in The ghost as African-American. I’ll imagine the little girl in The Gunniwolf as Asian. Again, I don’t tell the audience how I’m seeing the story in my mind. They have their own pictures. Doing this freshens the story up.

When I teach kids about backstory, I tell them that I need to know everything about the story, that I should be able to answer any question they pose, without even thinking. Then they start slinging me questions!

And speaking of backstory, here’s the picture I took just before the one above.


A Galaxy of Giggles for next summer

How do you get an astronaut baby to sleep?

You rocket!

Baby is getting ready for our show A Galaxy of Giggles for next year’s Summer Reading Programs, which has the theme A Universe of Stories. Baby even has a jetpack!

Photo by Heather Harlan, Oct. 2018

Photo by Heather Harlan, Oct. 2018

It’s true. A couple of months ago, on my way to the Missouri Library Association performers showcase, I found myself at a Build-a-Bear shop in the mall. There I found the perfect pink jetpack, exactly the right size for my baby puppet. I ran to the car and got her so she could try it on. It fit! The pink even matched her leggings.

This is part of my process for creating a summer reading program. I think about what I already have that would fit the theme, I do research for new material, and I keep my eyes out for accessories for my puppets. For months now, I’ve been gathering space-related stories, songs, fingerplays and puppet hilarity. I’ve got a special puppet for the show and am working on possible voices and miscellany.

I also name the show and write a blurb. I keep it general enough that I can add ideas, but close to the prescribed theme. Here’s next year’s show description:

A Galaxy of Giggles

Hop on board this story shuttle for an out-of-this-world mix of stories, songs, stretches, puppets and general silliness with storyteller Priscilla Howe. Warning: there may be aliens!

Have suggestions? Let me know in the comments or by e-mail!

"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? 

Advice on telling jump tales

When I tell stories to older kids, I often start with a jump tale. You know, the kind of story where there is a sudden bit that makes the listeners jump. Afterwards, the kids usually turn to each other to laugh and talk about the jump. In order to bring them back to a place where they can listen, I give advice on how to tell these stories. Here's a clip from a show at a school in Quito, Ecuador last month, thanks to videographer Sandro Rota.

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?

Stories for grownups and older kids

The first time I told stories to adults in a performance in 1989, I was wearing silk parachute pants. I was nervous. My knees shook and my trousers shimmied. My palms were sweaty. Still, I kept the story strong in my mind and in my voice. The story I told then is one I still tell.

I grew to love performing for grownups. I mix it up, telling personal stories (often personal fiction), folktales and stories from books. My puppets stay home. I seek to connect emotionally, of course, but also to surprise the listeners, open a door to other points of view, offer shelter. I hope to delight. Often, listeners are surprised at how much they enjoy stories.

I gave a house concert not long after 9/11. One of the audience members said, "Thank you. For two hours, I wasn't thinking about world events." Often adults take stories in without showing emotion. For many performances, I thought one of my regular listeners was bored because of the way she sat, face static and arms crossed. At the end, she would come up to say, "That was great!" I now watch for this listening stillness. If the listeners are fidgeting, I consider why I'm not connecting. Maybe my story needs tightening, maybe I have left out a crucial piece of information that seemed obvious to me, maybe there's a problem with the venue.

With the advent of storytelling events such as the Moth, the general public is getting used to hearing stories for adults, specifically personal stories. Some of these are excellent, some are deadly therapy on stage. The best take a personal event and make it universal. To those who have just discovered personal storytelling, it's new. To the rest of us, it's as old as the hills.

On Tuesday, Valentine's Day 2/14/17), I'll tell true, slightly true and absolutely false stories to grownups, in a performance called "And they lived happily ever after...Or did they?" here in Lawrence, Kansas at the Union Pacific Depot at 8:00 p.m. Admission is a love offering,of course (passing the hat). Come see what I mean by stories for grownups.

Tips on telling funny-scary campfire stories (repost from 2009)

I've been transferring posts from 2012 to 2015 to this blog, as I upgrade my website. In the process, I've dipped into my old blogspot site, Storytelling Notes. I began blogging in 2004 and had some prolific years. In 2009, for example, I wrote 71 posts and in 2008, I wrote 163. Holy cow! I'm going to have to up my game.

Here's one from 2009, with updated photo and video. 

Night has fallen. The campfire flickers and pops, coals glow, listeners creep closer to the fire and the storyteller. It’s time for scary stories. But wait…some of the listeners are too small for the stories of La Llorona or hookman. It’s time for a funny-scary campfire story, just enough for shivers, not enough for nightmares. As many of you know, I’m best known for telling The Ghost With the One Black Eye, and many other classic funny-scary campfire stories. Here are a few tips for effective campfire storytelling for the youngest listeners.

1. Notice the body language of the listeners as you introduce the story. Suggest that the smallest children sit with an older sibling or adult. Some small children like very scary stories, but it’s kinder to the adults who have to be with the child later on to tell gentler stories to young children. 

2. Let the listeners know right away that this will be a funny-scary story, not a scary-scary story. 

3. Choose a story with a joke ending. You can find a few of these in Alvin Schwartz’ Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark series, in Simon Bronner’s American Children’s Folklore, or ask a ten-year-old who has been to camp. 

4. Err on the side of goofy characters, not scary, for young listeners. Build in a hand movement or repetitive phrase so the audience can join in. 

5. Sometimes even a funny story can scare a small child. Reassure the individual child that it will all be fine in the end.

6. For a little shiver, pause just before the punchline. This builds suspense and creates an even bigger laugh at the funny ending.

7. Don’t be surprised if children say “That wasn’t scary!” at the end. This is most likely not a true critique, just an observation--and sometimes a way a slightly scared child has of finding courage.

Once the little ones have gone off to bed, and you’re sure that those who are still around the fire can handle it, if you have time and inclination, then tell the truly scary stories.

Telling the real story

I'm reading a great collection of essays by Ann Patchett called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. In the essay "Fact vs. Fiction," she says this:

Who makes things up? Who tells the real story? We all turn our lives into stories. It is a defining characteristic of our species. We retell our experiences. We quickly learn what parts are interesting to our listeners and which parts lag, and we shape our narratives accordingly. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t telling the truth; we’ve simply learned which parts to leave out. Every time we tell the story again, we don’t go back to the original event and start from scratch, we go back to the last time we told the story. It’s the story we shape and improve on, we don’t change what happened.
— Ann Patchett at The Miami University of Ohio Convocation Address of 2005

Last week I attended and told at the Lawrence Story Slam. This is a Moth-style storytelling event, where people tell true stories, up to 8 minutes long. The day before, I decided to tell the emotionally risky story of the good beginning and bad ending of my last relationship. My ex-boyfriend no longer lives in the area, so I wasn't worried about his reaction, though at the same time, I left out identifiers such as his name and profession. 

I was aware of the tightrope I was walking in telling about this, wanting to tell  a story that resonated deeply with myself and with the listeners, to be honest about the difficulties I'd experienced, but not wanting to do therapy on stage. I don't want the audience to feel as if they have to take care of me. I hope I succeeded.

It was good to tell this one. It's a story I'll keep working on. As Ann Patchett says above, we shape and improve upon the story, we don't change what happened.

This picture is from a Story Slam in Kansas City a few years ago. 

This picture is from a Story Slam in Kansas City a few years ago. 

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!

Happy October!

I promised more pictures of Bulgaria in this post, but those will have to wait until I go back for the Fulbright in February. I'm currently preparing for four weeks of storytelling to kids who are learning English in Colombia. Look for pictures from that South American tour in the next posts.

Yesterday I had a fantastic time in Clay Center and Wakefield, KS doing three performances for elementary school students. The kids in the first two schools had never seen me, but the fourth and fifth graders (9-10 year olds) remembered me from three years ago. No, not true. They didn't necessarily remember me, but when I pulled Trixie out of the bag, they knew her, and when I reminded them of The Ghost with the One Black Eye, they cheered. If there is one story for which I'm known, this is it. It works all year, not just in October, but as long as we're in the lead-up to Halloween, here it is, yet again.

And if you're interested in how to tell funny-scary campfire tales, check out this blog post from 2009 (on my old blog). 

Happy October!

Five top tips for beginning storytellers

Doesn't Frankie look wise? 

Doesn't Frankie look wise? 


Today I answered an e-mail from a fairly new storyteller, asking for advice. It occurred to me to post my top five tips for beginners. I've posted these in other forms in the past, but never as succinctly. 

  • Only tell stories you like. To me, that's the one big rule. All the rest are just suggestions.
  • Tell, tell, tell. You'll learn and improve the more you do it. As storyteller Papa Joe says, "If you want to be a storyteller, tell stories. If you want to be a better storyteller, tell more stories."
  • Listen, listen, listen. Go hear as many storytellers as you can, so you can get an idea of which styles you like and which you don't. 
  • Find your own voice. In the beginning, we all imitate other tellers, but as you mature, your best work will be in your voice, not an imitation.
  • In the beginning especially, don't be too concerned about building a large repertoire. It's better to learn one story a year than to have fifty half-baked stories.

Oh, wait, there's one more...Have fun!  

Storytelling keynote speeches

I couldn't help myself—I had to throw in this visual pun. And no, that's not really the key to the city of Varna, Bulgaria, just a corkscrew made to look like a key. 

From time to time, I'm invited to give keynote speeches. What is key in a keynote? Here are a few things off the top of my head: knowing what the organization stands for, what the organizers want, and how storytelling fits in, finding points of connection with the listeners, being relaxed so the audience can listen easily, remaining both friendly and professional, staying within the time frame, choosing appropriate stories, and serving the whole experience up with a generous dollop of good humor. Hmm, this list applies to performances in general.

In the past year, I've given three keynotes. Because I tailor each keynote to the group in front of me, these were three very different presentations:

A keynote for early childhood educators was a mixture of why and how to tell stories and use puppets with young children, along with story stretches thrown in for good measure. I had ninety minutes to bring the listeners into the world of story and puppets. This was a keynote/workshop, with lots of audience participation.

In a talk for the Kansas Museums Association I encouraged museum curators to connect with their visitors through stories. I told some of my polished performance pieces as well as short snippets about story-filled museum visits.

My keynote for The Whole Person, an organization that helps people with disabilities live independently and fully, was a thank-you for volunteers. My goal was to remind the audience that we connect through our stories. Between my own stories I coaxed the audience into telling stories to each other. After suggesting that they continue to tell their stories after the talk, I then finished with a funny story. 

Each of these keynotes had its own flavor, but the main dish was story.

Looking for an interesting, fun and engaging keynote? Shoot me an e-mail

Bringing old stories to light

[This blog post was first published on the National Storytelling Network blog in May 2014]

What is that? See it, down there, under ages of dust and grime, just a glint of gold? Pick it up, use your shirttail to wipe it off. Wow! What a marvel! Needs a bit of cleaning, polishing, maybe a small repair or two, but it’s all there, a new story from the depths of tradition.

I’ve found great satisfaction in bringing old stories to light, specifically (though not limited to) long-form traditional stories. I started with Tristan and Iseult, not a terribly obscure story but one that is rarely told. In a remainder bin at a bookstore, I’d found a paperback edition by Joseph Bédier. One day while casting about in my office for a new story to tell, I picked it up and read it in one gulp.

Despite an archaic quality to the written language, I fell in love with this epic tale of good luck, bad choices, giants, dragons, fools, betrayal and of course, Romance. Call me fickle, but I later fell in love with another Medieval tale, Queen Berta and King Pippin, and now have a dalliance with Amleth, better known to audiences since the 1590s as Hamlet.

Falling in love with the story, though, is only the first step. From there, we have to go farther, to create a story worth telling and worth hearing. Long-form traditional stories, generally at least an hour long and sometimes much longer, can be a rewarding challenge.

How do you tackle a long traditional story? What are the cultural considerations? How do you craft the language for modern audiences without jarring them or boring them? What do you do with conflicting versions? How do you practice the story? How do you break the work into manageable bits? How do you find the stamina for the performance? Where are the venues for stories like this? Will people really listen? What works? Those are questions we’ll consider in my workshop this summer at the National Storytelling Network Conference in Phoenix, Bringing Old Tales to Light: Long-Form Traditional Stories.

Many years ago, Liz Warren, Olga Loya and I started Going Deep, the long traditional storytelling retreat, because we wanted to tell long-form stories and play with the questions they raise. We found many storytellers who yearned to tell and hear this kind of deep story, but didn’t know where to start. We found storytellers who already tell long traditional tales and wanted a place to perform them and to talk about the process. We can’t cram an entire retreat into a workshop session, but we can at least catch a glimpse of that gold under the dust and grime. Hope to see you in Arizona!

Storytelling house concerts

Picture this: seventeen or eighteen grownups and older kids sitting comfortably in a living room, some on sofas, some in armchairs, some on kitchen chairs, a few relaxing on cushions on the floor, all listening to stories, then chatting about their own stories or about how the art of storytelling is not lost. A dog or two snore nearby. Every now and then somebody gets up quietly to graze at the table of goodies in the kitchen or to fill a glass. Maybe there's a break in the stories for snacks or maybe the performance runs for an hour or even more with no break. Maybe there are two or three storytellers tag-teaming. When the guests leave, they linger at the door to talk more about the evening and the connections that were made. They ask to be kept on the list for the next house concert.

That's the flavor of a storytelling house concert, in my experience. 

Here are some other considerations when planning a house concert, whether you're the storyteller or the host.

  • Find a place for the storyteller to stand or sit where the sight lines are best.
  • If guests have hearing issues, use a sound system. I know, it's a living room, but of course you want everyone to be able to hear.
  • Invite more guests than you think will come, at least the first time, as some adults think they might not like storytelling. The second time, they are sure they do like storytelling and they talk it up everywhere. 
  • Be clear in the invitations about the age range of listeners (that is, if young kids are welcome).
  • Send out invitations about three weeks in advance, with a reminder the week before. Facebook works well for invitations.
  • If the storyteller is performing near the front door, provide an alternate entry for guests who arrive late. At my house, I ran Christmas lights from the front door to the back, with a sign requesting late-comers to follow the lights, in order to avoid interruptions.
  • If the house concert is really a garden concert or a campfire concert, discuss this with the storyteller. 
  • Let guests know in advance if they will be expected to pay or contribute in some way. You may have a set fee, you may pass the hat, or the program might be free. The performer and host will arrange this in advance.
  • Potluck? Perhaps. Unless the house concert is at my own house, I don't provide the food or drinks, just the stories. One good friend had the house concert catered. Yum!
  • Have fun.

I love performing at house concerts! If you're in the Kansas City area and would like to host one, let me know. If you're a storyteller who gives house concerts, feel free to leave your tips in the comments section. 


Shakespeare's inspiration

"Hmm, now that's a good idea..."

I've got a new program, Shakespeare's Inspiration, in which I tell versions of the stories William Shakespeare drew upon for three of his plays. That's right, his ideas were not entirely his own. Are anybody's, even the Bard's? He drew upon folktales and existing books to create some of the world's best plays.

I'm having so much fun with this program, I can hardly stand it!

I began working on this using Patrick Ryan's Shakespeare's Storybook. Pat's collection pairs seven plays with versions of the stories that inspired them. Since his versions didn't completely resonate with me (they're good, just didn't suit me), I dove headfirst into the source notes, emerging with three stories for three plays: the English folktale "Cap O'Rushes" for King Lear, the Irish folktale "The Haughty Princess" for Taming of the Shrew and "Amleth" from Book 3 and 4 of the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus for Hamlet. I'm hoping to add Romeo and Juliet to the mix. My goal is to get the students interested in the story so they can enjoy the play even more.

First, I explain why Shakespeare is important (at the excellent suggestion of Sharon Benson). Here's the nutshell: 

Shakespeare’s plays have lasted over four hundred years because he tells great stories, with strong characters, clearly showing universal human strengths and weaknesses. He does this with beautiful, interesting, often funny language.

Then I give a brief synopsis of King Lear, before telling "Cap O'Rushes" (known also as "Like Meat Loves Salt."). Though it doesn't end tragically, as King Lear does, the beginning is very much the opening of the play. It's fun to see the students realize that it is also a Cinderella variant.

I do the same with the other two plays, telling the synopsis, then the base story. The story of Amleth, taken from the 13th century Danish history, is the most intense. As a story of revenge, it's also the most violent, which is why this program isn't for younger kids. The students listen in profound quiet, taking in the images in all three stories. 

Then we have a question and answer period at the end. It's important for the students to have that reflection time, even just a couple of minutes.

I've prepared a study guide for the program, so teachers will have ideas for extending my storytelling. 

I told all three stories together last summer and have told them in bits since then. Two weeks ago, I performed the whole show four times in one day, for sixth grade classes (11-12 year olds) in Salina, KS. It went well! Here's a response from Debbie Webb, the teacher who arranged the school visit: 

[...Priscilla's] stories pull in her audience through voice and actions. She brought Shakespeare to a level the students could understand, and they were taken aback at how his stories were a part of their lives today. She enriched the lives of my students and left them wanting more. I, the teacher, can’t wait for Romeo and Juliet to blossom and be told.

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? 

What informs our work as storytellers

I've been thinking about Eric Booth's idea that 80% of what we teach is who we are.

As I've mentioned before, it's why I'm comfortable putting workshop outlines on my blog. I know that if somebody else used my outline, it would be a different experience. I'd like to extend that theory, to add that though we change and grow throughout our lives (or at least I hope we do), we are who we were at age five. We add on to our selves through our experiences, thoughts and dreams, but I think we each have a unique spark that we always have had. 

The first time I thought about this clearly was when I was in my early thirties. My sister and I went to visit a childhood friend. We hadn't seen her in many years, but we felt immediately at ease together because we were all at our core the same people we were when we were young. 

What does this have to do with storytelling, you ask? I'm just feeling my way around this idea. When I'm working well, I am my authentic self, not putting on a larger-than-life storytelling persona nor covering my inner light with a self-deprecating bushel. I'm bringing all of my Priscilla-ness to what I'm doing, whether it's a performance, workshop, residency, in-service or coaching session. There's an essence of each of us that shines through when we do our best work. If I think back on the last month and a half, I can see how this esence came out when I told Grimm tales in a bar, Tristan and Iseult in a gallery, in my keynote speech to the Kansas Museums Association conference, with preschoolers at libraries and families at outdoor Halloween shows.

When I attend storytelling perfomances that touch me, it's because the storyteller is being the best of who they are and who they have always been (and yes, also that they've chosen good stories and have compelling storytelling styles). 

Just something I've been ruminating on lately. What do you think? 

(My mother says that I had been crying, but my father asked me to smile for the camera, so this is how I complied.)

Telling long stories

In preparation for telling Tristan and Iseult for the first time in years, today I made a crib sheet. I won't use it in performance but will glance at it before I go onstage tomorrow night. I'm amused that I can fit this 95-minute story on a 3.5 inches (9 cm) square piece of paper. The paperback underneath the crib sheet is my favorite version.

People often ask how I can remember such a long story and tell it with few stumbles. 

First, I love the story. Without that, the performance would be awful. Loving the story is only the first step. Yes, I do practice. Here are some other ways I wade in neck-deep:

  • I tell about it, talk around it.
  • I imagine each character in turn, considering what they look like, how they stand and move, the expressions that cross their faces when nobody is looking.
  • I look for real people in my life on whom to base the characters. 
  • I read and reread the source material, looking for variants online and in books. I look for writings about the piece. 
  • I get to know the settings and make sure I'm clear about the sequence of action
  • I play with the story, telling bits of it in an accent or singing it.
  • I tell it to myself as I swim laps and as I walk, to get the rhythm into my body. Sometimes I bounce a ball rhythmically as I tell it.
  • I break it into smaller pieces and choose a spot in the middle or near the end to practice, so I don't get stuck at the same point every time. 
  • I consider what Doug Lipman calls the MIT, the Most Important Thing (since the last time I told this tale, my life has changed and so has the MIT for me).
  • I tell portions to myself as I'm falling asleep and then dream about it. 

When I perform, I watch the images in my head and tell them, not the words. It's not a new piece for me, but I haven't told the whole story since 2009. In all, I've probably told Tristan and Iseult fifteen times. I know it not by heart, as I don't memorize word-for-word, but in my heart. 

Advice to new storytellers

Here's another long post, of interest to storytellers or those who want to learn. 

I asked this important question on Twitter and the Facebook Storytellers Group: Do you have a first piece of advice you give to beginning storytellers?

I've taken a few liberties with the responses, changing the order a bit and leaving out a couple of tangents. 

Mary Hamilton chimed in first with the advice that was offered most often: "Tell only stories you truly love." To me, that's the one hard and fast rule of storytelling. All the rest are merely suggestions. Kate DuddingMichael D. McCartyMarilyn Hudson and Beverly Comer agreed with this. Beverly added, "On the subject of telling stories that you love. Remember it's OK to have a favorite age group to which you tell stories. That can change over time, too. I love the wee ones... although I enjoy telling stories to all ages. I know, however, some folks might run for the hills at the thought of telling stories to toddlers and two's or preschoolers. You know what.... it's all good... it's all OK." I added a little piece, too: "I also am likely to give old friend Papa Joe's advice: 'If you want to be a storyteller, tell stories. If you want to be a better storyteller, tell more stories.' Is that foolproof? No, but if you're open to learn as you go, you may go far."

Julie Moss Herrera refined it a little: "Tell stories that you love and that love you back."

Mark Goldman did as well: "1. Tell stories you love. 2. Save all your money!

Thea M. Nicholas said, "Practice at least one more more time."

Pam Faro said, "I encourage them to do 2 things: Listen to as many storytellers as you can - there's always something to learn. Tell as often as you can - there's always something to learn."

Robin Bady took it in a different direction: "There are four things necessary to tell a story

1. a story
2. a storyteller
3. a space
4. an audience

have fun!"

David Thompson said, "Unless you are ready to live in the land of myth and legend, don't."

Danny Turner said, "Be passionate! Because if you aren't you'll never make it." Then he added, "Be true to your story, your audience and yourself. Nothing else matters"

Liz Weir gave the excellent advice, "Listen!" 

Sara deBeer suggested this: "Use the phrase 'Now I'm going to tell you about . . .' The obligation to 'tell' can seem overwhelming; to 'tell about' is much less loaded for some people."

Steve Daugherty said, "Watch their eyes (the members of the audience). Are they imagining your scenes and stories? Are they with you? Are you managing to keep "just one step ahead of them?" If so, you got em. Now, throw the curve ball. Take a wrong turn."

Michael D. Cohen gave this idea: "Record yourself--and then listen to yourself. You will hear what you are doing right, and what you are doing wrong. You will also get to to enjoy the audience's reaction (which you were probably too busy or nervous to fully take in)."

Mel Davenport said, "Relax, relax, relax....let the story do the work...."

Anthony Burcher made this observation: "So many folks say, 'I can't sing, can't dance, can't act, but I can talk--I must be a storyteller.' No, we are an art-form as valid as all the others. Everyone can and should tell stories, but only the artists with true talent should charge money for their tales."

Pat Musselman's advice could apply to life in general, too: "Be yourself. Don't try to mimic another storyteller. Let your true self come out."

Gregory Leifel said, "Commit some time to assist the storytelling world through volunteerism, and it will pay you back as a more complete teller and grow your audience."

Diane Edgecomb had a different take, "Storytelling has nothing to do with memorization!"

Marilyn Kinsella said, "Putting your words and you images into the telling of the story will allow you to remember it...forever."

Traphene Parramore Hickman had a piece of advice for teaching new storytellers: "The first thing that I do with beginners is walk out , look each in the eye and tell who I am. Then I bow. Then I asked what I had done and have each do it. They learned to stand up straight withour all that silliness of being imbarrassed. The I tell a simple story and ask who want to to it. It is amazing how well they do. I try for nothing but possitive reenforcement."

Ruth Stotter was succinct: "Find your own style"

Judy Sima said, "Start simple, choose a story you love, practice and find someone supportive to give you feedback."

Lisa Facciponti's advice was some she'd been given: "A very long time ago, Bill Harley said, 'tell it like your life depends on it.' It has stuck with me all these years and given me courage needed in the moment."

Andre Heuer reminded us, "Relax, enjoy and trust yourself..."

Ward Rubrecht gave another piece of good life advice: "Make mistakes, then learn from them."

Elizabeth Ellis' advice was also a bit of life advice, "Don't forget to breathe." Sharon Gilbert agreed with this.

He who is known as "Narrative Arts Oh-Assieux" had several recommendations: "Find a comfortable venue with an air of time past about it. Adjust the lighting. Dress well." He added, "Wait until people are listening." Then, "Let your stories live their own lives, unfettered by your dogmas."

Megan Hicks said, "A beginning storyteller sought me out after a showcase today to ask for just this sort of advice. Having witnessed her showcase, the advice I gave her was, 'Decide where on the spectrum you feel most comfortable -- as storyTELLER or storyPERFORMER.' I don't know why, but that continues to be an important consideration for me to keep asking myself." This is an interesting consideration, and a little sidetrack in the conversation formed, but I'm saving that for another time. 

Tim Ereneta said, "I always tell beginners: you have permission to make two mistakes. Four would be even better."

Though this wasn't the last word in the thread (I've taken liberties with the order here), I want to end with Arif Choudhury's comment: "Play, have fun...oh, in case no one mentioned this before...TELL STORIES THAT YOU LOVE!"

Have more to add? Put them in the comments below.

Five steps for successful school assemblies


A few years ago, I wrote about how to hire a storyteller. This one is for performers as well as for principals, librarians, teachers, PTA/PTO members—anybody who books performers. (In the arts world, these are called "presenters," but that confuses people, so I'm using "bookers.") These suggestions come from my 25+ years as a working storyteller.

Notice that the steps on the list apply to life as well!

1. Connect and communicate. Essential!

Performers: Answer e-mails and phone messages promptly, be clear about what you do (and what you don't do—don't promise what you don't enjoy), ask about audience size, venue and special circumstances, explain rates and other fees, sign and send contracts in a timely manner and be available for follow-up questions.
Bookers: Answer e-mails and phone messages promptly, be clear about what you want, give information about the audience size, venue and special circumstances, sign and send contracts in a timely manner and be available for follow-up questions.

2. Be prepared. Not just for Scouts.

Performers: Tell the booker about any pre- or post-performance materials you have available, know how long it takes to get to the venue and allow extra time, arrive early, know your material inside and out.
Bookers: Make sure the teachers and other staff know about the performance and schedule, provide pre-performance materials or links, make sure the venue is set up appropriately, contact the performer in the week before the assembly.

3. Be flexible and be kind. Things happen: road construction, bad weather, electrical outages. If need be, go back to step one. 

Performers: Remember that school staff work very long days. Bring what you need, including sound system, if possible.  If the room isn't set up as you wish, work together to try to make it right. If there's something you need, ask politely. Respect time limits, school resources and audience needs.
Bookers: Realize that the performer has visited many, many schools, and has good reasons for the set-up requests. Know that the performer may never have traveled to your site before. Show the performer where the restroom is and offer water. If there's a long gap between performances, let the performer rest in the staff room.

4. Expect the best. Good will and good expectations go a long way toward an excellent show.

Performers: As storyteller Carol Birch says, "The best people want you to succeed, and your audience is made up of the best people." Before I begin a show, I silently bless the audience. It should go without saying that you should be excellent at your craft (go back to step 2 if you're unsure). 
Bookers: You've chosen a wonderful event for your venue. As you introduce the performer, let the audience know this. 

5. Enjoy the show! Assemblies should be fun as well as educational.

Performers: Love your work and let it show! 
Bookers: Stay for the assembly if you can and be a good model for the listeners (including other grownups).

Have more suggestions? I'd love to hear your ideas! Use the comments section below.  Want this in a .pdf? Send me an e-mail. 

©Priscilla Howe 2013