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.

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. 


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

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

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

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

Here are a couple up close:

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

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

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

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

"Cats? What are cats?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

©2015 Priscilla Howe


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

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Goldilocks and the Three Bears


 She saw them go out,

Bumbling, mumbling, stumbling.

Took a gamble.

What it would be like

To live another life?

Not tall, blonde and angry,

But short, dark and─


For porridge, clawmarks and all

For marriage and children or none.

Honey, sugar, sweetie.


Dawdle into the den

Crochet hook near the ladderback,

Fishbones under the rocker,

Jug of mead by the recliner.


Clamber up scarred stairs,

Drifts of fur, scuffed treads

Past the clawfoot.

To the bedrooms.

Mothballs and cedar.

Futon, feather, trundle,




Exit, pursued by a bear.

©Priscilla Howe 2014


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

Story poems

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

Here's the first one:  

Little Red Riding Hood, by Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1

Little Red Riding Hood, by Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1

If Little Red Had Followed Her Intuition

Feet tap,
tappity tap

Down the street.

Crack, back,Wolf pack.


There—By the wall.

Skinny, tall

Whiskers twitch.

Sharp teeth.

Pants sag.

White tee.

Dirty paws.

Nothing to do.

Nothing to be.

Nothing to lose.

"Nice hoodie!"

Look away.

"What's the matter?

Cat got your tongue?”

Head shake.

“I’m not the bad guy.

Just looking for fun.

”Run, run!

Fly, fly!

to the gate

to the steps

to the door

find the key

"Gran, it's me!"

Wham, slam


©2014 Priscilla Howe

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

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?

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."