Stories everywhere: "I got bit once"

I love that there are stories everywhere. Some good, so bad, some just plain weird. Some stories need coaxing out of hiding. Others leap into our ears unbidden.

Yesterday a friend and I went to the Goodwill Outlet*. We’d never been there, but had heard about this place. The goods—I use that term loosely—are sold by weight and are all higgledy-piggledy in big blue rolling carts.


Periodically, an announcement is made over the loudspeaker about new carts coming out. The customers stand reverently, silently, waiting for the carts to be rolled into place. They may not approach until the signal is given. Then they can rush the bins and start digging. It was fascinating.

Customers waiting for the signal to dig in

Customers waiting for the signal to dig in

As we poked our way through the clothes, furniture, games, shoes and more, we felt like tourists. Janelle mentioned to a woman digging into the clothes that this was our first time at the outlet. She stopped her methodical search to shake her head and say, “I pity you.” She didn’t elaborate, but I think it was because we’d missed this experience for so much of our lives.

After a little more conversation, the woman said. “I got bit once.” Bit? I immediately wondered if it was a flea or a rat.

Janelle asked, “What bit you?”

“A person.”

A person? A person! We immediately needed to hear the story. Our protagonist had found some shoes in a bin. The other woman wanted them and so used her choppers. Our acquaintance then said to the biter, “You don’t want to go there with me” In a menacing tone. She bought the shoes. We later realized we’d been so fascinated by this spontaneous storytelling that we hadn’t asked where she had been bitten. We also guessed that she would have kept the shoes even if they didn’t fit, after the indignity of being bitten.

We left the store with a few pounds of thrift store dregs** and a story. Guess which will last longer?

*While I do shop occasionally at Goodwill, I don’t think it’s a great business. They get stuff for free, and the CEO has a gigantic salary. Still, it keeps things out of the landfill and allows me to buy clothes and other things at prices I can afford. Modern dilemmas.

** I got a TV antenna. It doesn’t work as well as the one I already had, so it will go into my next yard sale. It cost $1.82.

Grimm for Grownups for Humanities Kansas

Last year I joined the Humanities Kansas Speakers Bureau, offering my program Grimm for grownups. It’s a different kind of program for me, involving more lecture and discussion, and as the title implies, it’s not for young kids. The organization subsidizes the performances so that far-flung communities will have access to interesting programs. Here’s what they say about what they do:

We believe that stories carry our culture and ideas change the world

Since our founding as an independent nonprofit in 1972, Humanities Kansas has pioneered programming, grants and partnerships that share stories to spark conversations — drawing people together and generating new ideas. These stories and ideas inspire each of us in Kansas to play a part in strengthening our communities and our democracy.

My program feels like a good fit. So far, I’ve enjoyed working with Humanities Kansas. Earlier this year I did the show in Goodland and Oakley, Kansas, for two very different audiences.

The backdrop to my storytelling at the Goodland Public LIbrary. In Lawrence I live a half block from the train tracks, so I felt right at home.

The backdrop to my storytelling at the Goodland Public LIbrary. In Lawrence I live a half block from the train tracks, so I felt right at home.

In Goodland, I had an evening performance for about twelve women. I told a mixture of Grimm tales, from the truly gruesome Juniper tree to the story Cat and mouse, which I also tell to children (though it has a bad end for the mouse), along with other tales. I talked about the Grimms themselves and why they collected stories, how they edited them, what was happening in the world at the time, and more. Discussion was lively, veering off into the art of storytelling in general. It was great fun!

In Oakley, the performance was in the afternoon. Along with the crowd of older folks, there was a group of high school students, mostly boys. These kids came a little early, so I told an extra story. It’s vitally important to engage kids immediately, or they’ll check out. Hmm, that goes for everybody, but adults are better at hiding boredom. At any rate, I told them a gruesome English folktale, Mr. Fox, a version of Bluebeard. During the program itself, I told a Grimm version of the same story, The fitcher’s bird, as well as the stories I told in Goodland.

As in Goodland, the Oakley audience listened intently. They had lots of comments and questions about the lecture material. Our discussion ranged widely, and included two of the students telling short scary stories. When we talked about storytelling, I mentioned The ghost with the one black eye, the story for children I’m best known for. One of the adults called out, “Tell it!” After checking with the teachers that I could keep the kids past the hour, I did. A student raised his hand and said, “My mom used to play us a cassette with that story.” He recognized my voice., too. I put that cassette out in 1996!

After the performance, the librarian served gingerbread and apple slices, shades of Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and The Juniper Tree! The whole experience was excellent.

I’m looking forward to presenting Grimm for growunups later this year in Coffeyville, Wichita and Dodge City, and I hope elsewhere. For more info on booking this program, check out the Humanities Kansas Speakers Bureau.

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.

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.





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.


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!

My new friend Roman

I've made a new friend or at least acquaintance, down the street from where I live. Roman sits on a stoop most days, playing harmonica for whatever stotinki people will toss him. At first, I thought he wasn't playing songs, just breathing in and out. Then one day I heard the strains of "O Susannah." I usually have a harmonica with me, so I pulled mine out and played along. 

Since that day, I've stopped a few times to jam with Roman. He plays an echo harp (a harmonica with two rows of notes together), is a monarchist, speaks a little English, loves Scotland and Tom Clancy novels, and had part of his thumb bitten off by a dog so can't play the guitar anymore. He's generally cheerful, despite the lack of coins in the styrofoam box that sits at his feet. He's clearly gobsmacked to be playing harmonica and gabbing away with an amerikanka. We've played "Amazing Grace," "Auld Lang Syne," "O Susannah" and a few others. He promises to work on "When the Saints Go Marching In." Today I asked if I could take his picture. 

(Since I first wrote this, he asked me not to use the pictures. He has agreed to the following.)

He wasn't certain about this. I suggested that he might prefer one of us playing harmonica together:

A friend of his showed up and Roman took a cigarette and coffee break. He told me a story I've heard before, Feeding the clothes. Here's his version, roughly (he told it to me in Bulgarian): 

Clever Peter was invited to a wedding, invited to be the best man. He went to the restaurant for the party, but it was raining and on the way, his trousers got spattered with mud. When he arrived, he was completely ignored, see, he had all this mud on his pants. He saw what the situation was, you know, he was clever (Roman tapped his head here). He went home and changed his clothes. When he came back, everybody said, "Clever Peter! Great to see you, come on in!" Clever Peter asked what there was to eat and drink. "Roast lamb, whisky, rakiia, whatever you want!" He was served and began to pour the whisky on his clothes, smear the roast lamb all over. "Peter, what are you doing?" "Feeding my clothes. Obviously, you invited them and not me."

It in no way matters that I knew the story. What matters is the joy that Roman took in telling it. 



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. 

Storytelling at FISI

I didn't intend to tell stories at the Fulbright International Summer Institute in Pravets, Bulgaria. True, I'm always ready to tell stories, but I didn't go with that idea. I took a couple of puppets, on the chance I might need them, but that's something I do whenever I travel. Hmm, now this sounds like a case of "I just happened to have brought my sheet music..." 

On the first evening, a couple of the American students who had heard me introduce myself waved me over to their dinner table. "Would you tell some stories?"  I promised a performance outside the next evening. We began to spread the word. 

I found a little tower as a backdrop, with a wall for seats. By the end of the performance, there were around 20 listeners. I told a mix of stories, from the old favorite Ghost with the One Black Eye to The Twist-Mouth Family to Blood (a piece of personal fiction with an embedded Bulgarian folktale). It seems this last was the siren song for the mosquitoes, as they chased us inside. 

The response to the stories was good, but because many people hadn't heard about the performance, I got more requests. For the second show, I chose Sunday morning at 11.

There were around fifteen listeners. I mixed it up, with the South African folktale Unanana and the Elephant, The Crooked Little Finger by Philippa Pearce, The Portraits (another piece of personal fiction) and Marina, a story I wrote in the voice of a Bulgarian woman in 1986 in NYC. I was nervous about it, anxious that the Bulgarian listeners understand that I tell it with great respect for Bulgaria and Bulgarians.

On Sunday evening, there were new arrivals to FISI. Some of these asked if I would do another performance. I set up a Thursday evening show, after supper, which had another twenty or so listeners. We were indoors, in a lounge a floor above the lobby. It was loud and a little challenging to perform in the space, but fun.

Because there were three listeners who specifically wanted to hear stories for young children, I began with The Gunniwolf, but then shifted gears to the gruesome Bluebeard variant, Mr. Fox. I also told The Great Sharp Scissors by Philippa Pearce and a few others. Some of the University of Michigan undergrads were there, at first doubtful and then completely engaged. Two of them afterwards asked for tips on doing presentations. 

I thought that was it. On Friday, people kept apologizing that they hadn't been able to come, as they were finishing projects for the last day of classes. I offered to tell one story at the final party, but there wasn't a good time or place for that. The music was playing and it was time to dance. Afterwards, back at the hotel, I was asked again. I told a short one, The Porcelain Man, a love story by Richard Kennedy. 

There were a couple of other times I performed: I went into the Bulgarian class for beginners twice, once with my puppets and once to tell a Bulgarian folktale. I practiced it in advance with Stefka, the teacher, to get the tenses right. (This picture is of that class. The baby showed up for the photo, asking for her "biba," also known as her binky.)

So I didn't intend to perform at FISI and did only in response to requests. All the same, I had a good time sharing the stories in my head. 

Thanks to Megan Lueneberg, Kalina Georgieva and Rada Kaneva for pictures.

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. 

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.

Story questions

A few weeks ago, on a whim, I started asking questions about storytelling on Twitter and in the Storytellers group on Facebook (if you're interested, the hashtag is #storyquestion) . I haven't had much response on Twitter, but the FB group has been a-buzz. Julie Moss Herrera asked if I would compile the answers, so here's the first installment. People sometimes respond to a post much later than the day I put it up, so I may miss some answers.

The first was, "What do you consider to be the essential elements of a good story?" 

Tim Sheppard, on Twitter, said, "Transformation is probably the most crucial element of a good story." I added, "Clear images, conflict, conflict resolved, personally significant and universal themes that answer the question, 'So what?'" Oddly enough, I didn't get any response to this one on Facebook. 

The second question was "What are the elements of a bad story, in your estimation?"

Limor Shiponi said, "Nothing that gives you a reason to tell it :) nothing different than what happened yesterday... and the day before... and..." I added my two cents (or 140 characters): "Excellent! I call it my "so what?" test. If it doesn't move me in some way, why am I listening (or reading or watching or...?"

Over on FB, the conversation started in earnest. Buckle your seatbelts and hang on for the ride. I've left out comments that didn't answer the question (the conversation drifted over to Aristotle and deus ex machina and fairy helpers):

I started with this: "I do think there are bad stories, as well as stories badly told. Here are a few elements: stories that are badly crafted so the listener can't follow, stories with too much extraneous detail, stories that end with 'and then I woke up.' It is, of course, a subjective matter, and one of degree. I need the story to pass my 'so what' test. Do I care in some way? Sometimes I'll hear a story told by a good teller, told well, but in five minutes I can't remember the tale at all."

Narrative Arts Oh-Assieux (a trickster, who has a different name in real life) said: "Impatient! I was just writing a few of the most important ones: Bad listening conditions, an unambitious protagonist, and/or a plot that pursues a moral at the expense of sound narrative logic."

Sara DeBeer Zeiger said, "Stories that are more like stand-up therapy sessions (which then leave the audience feeling concern for the teller."

Narrative Arts...what the heck, I'm calling him Narry from now on, added, "A story that neglects the overriding importance of action, e.g. a story that uses commentary instead of action to present the characters, or a story where there is no specific external action at all to manifest the character's inner conflict."

Julie Moss Herrera said, "For me a good story needs some dialog to carry it forward as well as action."

Rachel Ann Harding said, "A bad story seems to occur when the teller is not listening to to the audience."

Mary Grace Ketner, who with Megan Hicks over at Fairy Tale Lobby often examines similar questions, added, "A story whose ending does not derive from the actions of the narrative."

Rob Vanderwildt from Belgium chimed in, "Evaluating a story as a 'bad' story has much to do with your intuition and your own references. I agree with Mary Grace Ketner, however, what to think of the famous 'deus ex machina' for example? Though storyteller and story are a unity especially at the moment of telling, both play different roles. Sometimes a storyteller makes a 'bad' story worse, sometimes he/she may raise it to a 'better' level."

Leeny Del Seamonds said, "A bad story is one that is confusing to the audience and doesn't make sense. And the teller is definitely not in tune with the audience."

Roger Armstrong's comment was about the discussion: "Given my part-time-in-retirement preaching job, I'm loving substituting "sermon" for "story" in the above discussion. It becomes even more practical and, for me, important."

Mary Jo Maichack made me laugh with "To quote Woody Allen (well, as far as memory serves), '...long, boring and pointless.'"

Ruth Stotter said, "Even a dull or weak story can be translated to an exciting performance. and a great story can become pointless or boring with a bored or dull teller. I am very forgiving if I got something from the experience of seeing and hearing the tale. What I do object to is hearing personal tragedies told and then learning later the person did not really get divorced three times, have a mastectomy and lose their toddler in the waterfall. If the teller invents a positive experience - e.g. "The day I won the lottery" - I am not distressed at being used as I enjoyed the tale. But to be roped in with compassion when it is an invented disaster- and not informed of this even after the applause (allowed to go home wanting to send roses to the teller) makes me feel betrayed."

Csenge Zalka said, "Assuming your audience is something they are not. Stupid, most often. Or younger than they are."

Narry added to Csenge's remark, "Or afraid of the dark."

Ruth had another thought: "I love the Koestler quote about story endings: Ha ha, ahhhh or aha. and elizabeth ellis added a fourth - amen. There does seem to be a moment of something (truth/insight/laughter) that leaves the listener "satisfied." That it was worthwhile concentrating and focusing on the tale. I listen to a lot of "so what" tales where I feel I wasted my time. I didn't "get to know the teller", have an enjoyable listening experience, and the story didn't communicate anything. Lest this sound too critical, a "story" might just be a description of what is on your desk - but if at the end I see/know you in a new way something has been transformed and I am content."

Simon Brooks asked, "Aren't all stories good? I think the only time a story is poor is One Poorly Told..."

Narry answered, "I am sorry to disagree, Simon. Alas, I think some stories are poorly made, e.g. deficient in plot logic or excessive in commentary, or delivered to an inappropriate audience, e.g. a tale best suited to children but delivered to adults, or suited to adults but delivered to children."

Csenge said, "Oh, there are definitely bad stories. 18th century French literary fairy tales,for example. I break out in hives from those. "And then the prince cried out and fainted from love, tears streaming from his eyes..."

Simon refined what he'd said this way: "I was referring to folk tales which are already 'made', but those points you raised, excessive in commentary, or delivered to an inappropriate audience, do pertain to folk tales too and would say that is all part of what I consider poorly told. But yes, with original or personal tales, or a set made up and tied together with poor, illogical plot, weak characters, do make for a terrible 'story'. And too add to that list: a story which has not been worked on enough and is too loose, sloppy and as a result cannot end soon enough but lasts forever! And your first comment - bad listening situation can make the best story the worst no matter if it was the best telling ever! Yes, yes, yes!"

He continued, "Other points, I love Japanese stories, and maybe because I like the endings. But this book I have of French tales I cannot get through because the endings seem to fall flat. They end, they just STOP! The book is called The Borzoi Book of French Fairy Tales!

Csenge added to this, "I would argue that there are bad folktales as well. Some of the tales censored out of Grimm were censored out with a good reason. "Hey, let's beat the Jews/Gypsies/mentally disabled, it's funny!" type folktales have always been on my blacklist..."

Simon and Narry went on to agree about this. 

Brian Fox Ellis put in the last word (so far) in this discussion: "I heard a gentleman stretch a 2 minute story into 20 and repeat himself often with unimaginative vocabulary. Flat, flat, flat."

So those are the first conversations. Do you feel enlightened?

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.

You do WHAT?!

My friend Granny Sue is organizing a storytelling blog hop (the internet answer to a pub crawl?) and she asked for blog posts about who we are and what we do. If you're a family member or old friend, you probably know this stuff, but it occurs to me that many readers don't know my background or the range of what I do. So here goes...

On a plane, at a party, in a networking gathering or in many other places, the question comes up. "And what do you do?"

"I'm a storyteller." 

"What? What does that mean?"

"Well, I tell stories." I launch in, "I tell folktales, my own stories and stories from books. I don't read the stories, I tell them. When I work with young children, I use puppets, but I also tell stories to adults and older kids." 

The next question is often, "Can you make a living at that?" Yes, I have done so since 1993. 

"How do you get your work?" I jump into the list of things I use to market my work: this website and blog, directories and rosters, postcards, e-mails and my favorite, word of mouth. 

"How did you start?" I have a couple of answers. One is that I babysat when I was a teenager and would make up stories to tell to the kids. Another is that I was a children's librarian and learned to tell stories in my job. I always tell people how lucky I am to do work I love. 

Still, these answers don't ever tell close to the whole story.

You can find me telling stories in schools, libraries and at festivals. I tell for kids who are learning English, you can find me hanging out with the stroller crowd with puppets, I might be at a school telling character ed stories, I love telling stories in Juvenile Detention, I've told stories to high school communications classes and forensics students, I teach a workshop (or series) called "Storytelling, Storywriting." Before performances for kids, I often play "Name that tune" with the listeners, playing on my harmonica. Afterwards, the puppets might greet the audience.

Is that all? Nah. I tell Medieval stories to older kids and adults, including The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, my longest story, which clocks in at 95 minutes, and Queen Berta and King Pippin, which I translated from Old French and Modern French. I was one of three co-founders of Going Deep, the Long Traditional Story Retreat. Last week I did a one-woman show for adults called Blood, Guts, Spies and Fat Naked Ladies, a wild piece of personal fiction based on truth about the year I lived in Bulgaria in the early 1980s (yup, during Communism). I've got a large collection of stories of the Turkish trickster Nasruddin Hodja, most of which I translated from various languages.

What else? I coach storytellers, I teach workshops on using puppets with young children, story stretches and songs, storytelling, writing. More? Oh, right, I give house concerts, conference presentations and keynote speeches, too. Weddings and anniversaries? Yessiree.

When not performing, I search for stories in English, French, Bulgarian and Russian or do (or avoid) office work. I travel around the world (all over the US, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Argentina to date, with an upcoming trip to Chile) telling stories. 

Some of the personal stuff: I'm a reader, a talker, an adventurer. Though I live in Kansas, I'm a New Englander at heart, the youngest of seven kids. I love to cook, eat, play around in the garden, hang out with friends, listen to music, swim, walk. I have a four-legged office assistant who is meowing at me now to feed him. 

I also like pie. I'm still looking for the best restaurant pie on earth. Fruit, not cream.

Nasruddin teaches the wise men

Here's a Nasruddin story from a Bulgarian source:

Nasruddin Hodja was a shepherd at one point. One day a couple of wise men were passing by. They asked him for something to eat. The Hodja poured them a bowl of sheep yogurt, then gave each a spoon two meters long. 

"Hodja, thank you for the yogurt, but how do you expect us to eat it?"

"I thought you were the wise men! You feed each other, of course."

This is a variant of the story of the difference between heaven and hell, or the allegory of the long spoons. A man died and went to hell. He was ushered in to the dining hall, where the table was piled high with delicious food. The people around the table looked miserable, as they had long chopsticks  splinted to their arms and couldn't get a bite of the food. Then he went to heaven, where there was also a table piled high with delicious food. Once again, the people had long chopsticks splinted to their arms, but they were happy, as they were feeding each other. 

By the way, I love sheep yogurt when it isn't too, well, sheepy. I think it might be when the ram is in with the ewes that it gets a gamy flavor. When I lived in Sofia in 1983-84, I would go to a little hole-in-the-wall shop where they served sheep yogurt in season and biurek, a delicious pastry. The line was usually out the door when they had sheep yogurt for sale. 

Nasruddin and the lost ring

Here's an old favorite from Turkey. I think I heard it first in Bulgaria as a joke. Was it the same joke-telling session where I heard about the inebriated fellow who was trying to spear an slippery olive on his fork? He chased it all around the plate and finally gave up. His friend picked up the fork and decisively stabbed the olive. The first man muttered, "Hmmph. I tired it out."

Nasruddin Hodja and the lost ring

One evening, a man noticed Nasruddin Hodja searching the ground under a street lamp. 

"Hodja, what are you looking for?"

"A ring, my son, I lost a ring." 

The man stopped to help the Hodja look. After several minutes, he said, "Hodja, are you sure you lost it here?"

"Here? I didn't lose it here. I lost it over by the house."

"Why are you looking here, then?"

"The light under this street lamp is much better than by the house." 

The ring in this picture was a present from a family friend who had lived in Turkey. It's a puzzle ring, formed by four linked rings that only fit together one way. 

Nasruddin and the sheep's head

Here's another story about the trickster Nasruddin Hodja. Or Nasreddin. Or Nastradin Odzha. Or Saradin. Or Hoca Nasrudin. Or Mullah Nasredin. Or Juha. There are lots of variations on the name, as well as lots of variations on the stories. Try putting the stress on the -din, not on on the -ru-. This one is from Croatia.

Nasruddin and the sheep's head 

When he was a little boy, Nasrudin's father gave him some money to buy a roast sheep's head.  On his way home, Nasrudin ate the whole thing.  He arrived with just the skullbone.
"What is that head, my son?"
"It's a sheep's head."
"Where are the ears, then?"
"The poor thing, it was deaf."
"Where are its eyes?"
"Unfortunately, it was blind."
"Where is the tongue?"
"The miserable animal had none."
"There's no meat on its face."
"It was very skinny, had the mange."
"Well, why on earth did you buy it?"
"It has good teeth."
"And so do you!" said his father.

How many donkeys?

Many years ago, I translated stories I'd found about Nasruddin Hodja, the Turkish trickster, from Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian, Croatian and French sources. I've begun playing with these folktales again, reworking them for performance. My idea is to put one up here on the blog every now and then.  I've only done one all-Hodja show but I'm considering doing more. If you tell them, it would be great if you give credit.

This one is from Bulgaria, the home of Clever Peter (Khitur Petur), who is the wise fool of that country. I especially like the stories in which the two tricksters appear together. Because the Ottoman Empire ruled in Bulgaria for 500 years, it's understandable that Clever Peter always gets the better of Nasruddin Hodja.  I've heard this story in other versions; this one was retold by Angel Karaliichev. Here's my take on it:

How many donkeys?

The Hodja was taking his five donkeys to market. He counted them to make sure he had them all. Good, five. He got tired of walking and climbed up to ride on one. After a bit he counted them again. Only four! He must have lost one. He got off the one he was riding, looked on the side of the road, in the ditches, in the trees, then looked back and counted once 

more. Whew! Five. After a while, he got tired again and rode for a while. When he counted, he only found four again. He got down, looked around, counted and found all five. This happened over and over.

His friend Clever Peter came along. "Clever Peter, can you help me? I keep losing one of my donkeys. When I'm riding, I have four, when get down and look back, I have all five. Would you count my donkeys?" Clever Peter counted, "One, two, three, four, five...six! One of them has only two legs."