There are so many thoughts I want to write about tonight. Like the children at the storytelling today–all 130 of them listening,sharing, laughing, singing. The adults, listening and sharing too.
Or the heat that slams us in the face, unbelievably heat that I have not experienced in some time.
Or the librarian who works so hard, writes grants, coordinates, brings along her grandchildren, always looking for the best thing for the people in her community.
Or my friend who offered her cabin to stay in while I’m 200 miles from home, telling stories.
Or the evening spent with my friend and her husband and their friend as they played bluegrass and old-time and I sang a few ballads.
Or the music of the tree frogs in the trees outside this cabin, after the sun went down.
Or the little girl who sang the Marine Corps anthem.
Or the convoy of military vehicles, filled with young soldiers in uniform that held up traffic, but no one blew their horns or seemed to care about a few lost moments.
Or the carnival set up in this blistering heat, yet filled with people willing to brave it for a little time with friends.
Or the people who came to listen to ghost stories in a converted icehouse on a hot July night.
Or going into a Goodwill store all these miles from home and running into a friend who is also far from home, here for a family reunion.
Or the phone call from ny granddaughter, telling me they had picked 4 gallons of blackberries for me and what did I wnat them to do with them?
Or talking to Kermit, the man who raises the blackberries and wishing I could mdeet him in person.
Or knowing my son the Sergeant Major will be gone on another trip before I can get home to say goodbye again–but he picked the blackberries before he left.
Or my daughter-in-law and granddaughters who are traveling in Ireland, listening to Irish music and perhaps finding new stories of their own.
It’s been an interesting day, filled with memories I’ve filed away for future remembering pleasure. It has been a day that reinforces what I’m doing and why.
(Forgive the typos. I am not so good on this laptop)
Before a recent performance, someone asked me, “How do you learn your stories? Do you just read them in a book and then tell them?”
How simple it would be if that were the case. Developing a story for performance takes time, research, thought, practice and a bit of luck.
Finding a story is not as easy as it may sound. I’ll use this summer’s library reading theme as an example. One would think that “One World, Many Stories” would be a piece of cake for a storyteller, right? And it is, in a sense. There are so many stories to choose from! Where to start? A teller could pick one country and develop a program on that country’s stories. Or pick a continent, and tell stories from that continent. Maybe just pick one story from each country, or each continent? Focus on bi-lingual stories? Stories about animals, or about peace? Environmental stories from around the world? True stories of immigrants to the US? Where to start, and what to choose?
Once a focus is found–let’s say, the teller chooses to tell one story from each continent–then it’s time to track down the stories. And further refine the focus in the process. After all, many continents have more than one country! Which to choose? Then it’s time to hit the resources to find the stories. Most storytellers have extensive personal libraries; almost all know many online sources for stories. We have to be careful about copyright, too–stories need to be in the public domain, be original versions of a traditional tale, or we need to have permission from the publisher or author to tell the story. That could involve the payment of royalties.
The work is not finished yet, though. The story may be selected but how to arrange it for telling? Will I tell it as found? Rarely does that happen! Or will I change it in some way so that it works better for my style of telling? When I’m telling with children, for example, I include participation whenever possible–a chant, song, repetition, parts for someone to play, maybe puppets or other props. I will read the stories looking for those kinds of telling opportunities if I need stories for young audiences. Subject matter is important–it is a topic they will understand or be interested in? What would I need to say to introduce the story? What vocabulary might need to be changed? Is the story too long, or too short? How can I modify it and still retain the original intent or the story–or should I modify it at all? How will this story fit with the program as a whole and with the other stories I’ve chosen to tell?
These are just some of the questions that went through my mind as I researched stories for my summer reading programs for this year. Different programs will have different questions. A ghost stories program may have me asking, for example, is the time/place accurate? Is this fakelore (made up folklore)? An urban legend? Are there other versions of the story available?
Once I’m satisfied that the story is one I want to learn, I begin the process of learning to tell it. I do not memorize stories; I learn their “bones,” the basic plot, main characters, setting, etc. Then I try describing the story to my husband, or maybe just to myself to see if I have the hang of it and if it’s really interesting. After that I try telling it, practicing until I have the story in the form I want it. If it’s for children, I may check my stock of puppets and props to see if I want to use any of them; I may work on a repetitive verse or song to add to the story, or I may find a song that works well to introduce or follow the story. I might want to use other props, too–“skinning board” might not a term that is familiar to all children, so I might want to bring one to show them. With this summer’s stories, I have brought a wide variety of items from my personal collection of world artifacts–matryoshka dolls, kokeshi dolls, rainsticks, flags, etc.–that add interest to the program. The kids have enjoyed seeing and discussing all of these things and I believe it has enriched the experience for them.
In performance, things can happen that change a story for the better. In one of the stories for this summer, there is a chant as the animals “run for their lives.” I had the children walking (with their animal puppets) in a small circle in front of the room. At one program, however, a little girl with the lead animal led the group all the way around the audience as the audience chanted “run for your life.” It was so much fun that at all future programs I’ve had the children circle the audience if possible. At another, when the lion in the story snored, a little one piped up, “That’s how my grandpa sounds when he’s sleeping.” After that, I’ve asked the children to make the sound of their grandfather sleeping. There are some real snorers out there, it seems!
Sometimes a turn of phrase works so well that I store it away to use in that story in the future. I may find that a longer pause works well in a story, or changing the tempo. Always there is room for change and improvement. Working with children in participation stories can be like improv as the kids will say completely unexpected things, refuse to say anything at all, or want to take the story in a new direction. I have to be quick on my feet to keep the story on track while still enjoying and acknowledging their surprising additions to the telling. In adult audiences there are occasionally those who don’t understand storytelling is about listening and want to talk to me while I’m telling, or there are (rarely, thank goodness) hecklers who can make a performance real work. It’s all part of the job, and a teller has to be mentally nimble to field all of it as it comes. Unlike theater, most storytelling is not a carved-in-stone script and there is no director to keep things moving right. The storyteller manages it all alone.
Once a program is developed and performed a few times, I evaluate. I take some things out, add some, tweaking here and there to get it right. A program is never really carved in stone; new things are added, others removed, wording is changed depending on the age/understanding level of he audience…there are many variables constantly in play.
So when someone asks me, “How do you learn to tell a story?” I might just be at a loss for words. Maybe I should just direct them to this post. Or maybe I should just say, “Do you really want to know? Sit down. This might take a while.”
Yesterday was a storied day. Stories in an auditorium, stories 3 floors up (and no elevator), stories in a gazebo as the evening settled in–little people, seniors, parents and teens and joining in on chants and songs, many hands raised to participate and help tell the stories. Peacocks, dragons, lions, kings, kokeshi and matryoshka, maracas, mbira, and stories, stories, stories filled the day.
and struggling towns,
friendly, helpful librarians, incredible cheesecake at a small town restaurant, sweat, heat, thunderous storms and rain-lashed interstate, drilling rigs, oil leases, lush vegetable gardens–it was a day of visual and sensory variety, one of those road trips that has its own special atmosphere, in an area where the sense of place cannot be denied.
Northern West Virginia has had many economic ups and downs: the rush of the oil and gas boom in the early 1900’s, the rush to industrialization with steel mills and glass factories, the exodus of people after World War II when men saw there were other places with more opportunities for their families, the downward spiral as West Virginia was bypassed by interstates and businesses relocated to places with better access, the struggle to retain the remaining factories and workers, the coming of Chinese steel and the loss of more jobs, and now a second drilling boom as the Marcellus gas field is being developed. Some things remain the same, like growing vegetable gardens to provide for one’s family, church, and for those who continue to live here, holding on to home and all that it means to West Virginians. They preserve what they can–a railroad depot, a round barn or former school–so that future generations will know who they were and what was once here.
Many of the jobs for this new boom in the gasfields are held by people from out-of-state, just as happened in the first boom. The difference this time is that there are local people in need of the work, while in the 1900’s boom the local population was scarce and most owned farms that keep them employed (although many left the farms for the more lucrative work in the oilfields). The Wheeling newspaper has a long list of new oil leases on its front page, so similar to the Oil Review that was published in Sistersville in the early 1900’s, where drilling activity was the main trust of the daily news–and the activity was extensive, covering several columns each day.
Even with this boom and the income being generated, it will take a while for the impact to be felt. Not everyone benefits, of course–those with mineral rights to lease and many businesses are seeing revenue flow, but others can only watch the trucks passing by and continue to find their livelihood elsewhere. Town and county leaders, I am sure, are looking for ways to protect their communities’ interests and environment while still reaping some economic benefit from this whirlwind that will not last forever. Like many, I worry about what the hydrological fracturing is doing to the land and water. The process involved setting off nitroglycerin charges deep beneath the surface, to “frac” the rock so that oil or natural gas can seep into the wells and be extracted. This may well be yet another instance where West Virginia is the source for the wealth of those outside its borders as another extractive industry takes our natural resources and leaves behind a damaged land–like the coal and timbering industry did in the past, and as coal continues to do today.
Some towns have found a way to thrive without reliance on the drilling boom. Small manufacturing and retail businesses have surfaced; some residents are commuting to Pittsburgh, Morgantown or Fairmont where the jobs picture is bright and opportunities are available for those willing to drive. Commuting may not be an ideal solution but it will keep some places going as they rebuild to meet new realities.
Storytelling seems a simple pursuit in the midst of such economic complexity. And yet, as everywhere, people in this region too were ready to hear stories. We journeyed together through tales from many lands–India, China, Japan, Africa, South America and Mexico, sharing songs and laughter and magic. One young man of fourteen helped me load my car, talking almost non-stop about the stories we had told that morning. He said, “It’s a special day when you get to help your favorite storyteller!” He remembered when I came to his library almost ten years ago, and the stories I told then. At another library, the librarian said, “This has been wonderful. I’m just sorry we didn’t have you here before now.” Music to the storyteller’s ear, and a reminder to keep finding stories and songs that others will want to hear, that might have meaning for someone who needed just that story, just that song.
I left at 6:30 in the morning, before the sun was full risen. I drove home in the dark through thunderous rains and lightning, often able to drive only 30 miles an hour and struggling to see the lines on the road. (We need the rain, but maybe not so much at one time.) When I finally turned onto my road at 10:00 pm it was a relief to see we had gotten only light showers and not the damaging downpours. As I drifted off to sleep, my mind was on those children and adults who came out on such a hot, humid day to listen to stories. I will never get over my amazement that people come to listen. I will never stop being inspired and motivated by faces looking up expectantly as the stories begin.