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.


I learn by going where I have to go

I love the line from Theodore Roethke's poem, The waking: "I learn by going where I have to go." I often don't know where I'm going until I set out. In renovating my house, I froze in the face of the massive project. I couldn't do anything for days, despite friends and family offering to help me organize the project. Then my dear sister-in-law Kate suggested I just prime one room. Once I began, I saw that I could continue. I learned by going where I had to go. 


Starting is what moves me along. One coat of primer moved me to choose the final color, which pushed me in the direction of the trim, which led me to blinds and curtains, and so on. 

So it is with stories. I often need to start in order to know where I'm going. Like my house, stories are also never finished. I'm always shifting my telling to the audience or even to who I am at the moment. Sometimes starting out is, as Donald Davis recommends, just telling about the story. Sometimes it is a small piece of research that awakens my curiosity. 

With every new story, as with every house project, I learn to trust that whatever comes out will be fine. Or if it isn't, I can make a new plan, change the story, change the design, just keep creating as I go along.


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:


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.


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.

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!

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. 

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

What's on the other side?

(Warning: this is a thinly veiled effort to link my home-grown produce to storytelling. I apologize in advance for the strained metaphor.)

This summer, I have a volunteer cantaloupe growing in my garden. I've eaten one small melon already and yesterday picked this second. It looks like a regular melon, a little rougher for being organic.

I started thinking about how we take things at face value. "Here's the story." That's it. Here's the cantaloupe. Sometimes, though, we look at the other side, taking the story from a different character's point of view or veering off in another direction. Authors such as Gregory Maguire in Wicked or Jon Scieszka in The True Story of the Three Little Pigs do this.

I've been working on a new program, which includes a folktale connected to King Lear. The program is a set of stories, versions of which inspired Shakespeare's plays (more on the program in a later post). I'm telling Cap O'Rushes, a Cinderella variant, that begins with the king asking his three daughters how much they love him, just as in King Lear. Rather than going on with the life of the king and the elder daughters, Cap O'Rushes tells the story of the exiled youngest. It looks at the other side.  

This ties in with the story preparation step of getting at the backstory, in order to understand the unspoken aspects of a tale, and to telling the story from another character's point of view or continuing a thread of a side story away from the original. In doing so, the original is changed in my mind. I hadn't realized I'd be doing that not as story prep but as the story itself in this particular program. I love it! One of the joys of being a storyteller lies in playing with possibility.

Here's the other side of the cantaloupe: 

Looks like a happy hedgehog, doesn't it? Maybe I should be writing about the Grimm tale Hans, my hedgehog instead of Cap O'Rushes.