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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Finally, I'm back with the next column on storytelling. So far, I've discussed how storytelling might help you become a better writer. But now it's time to leave writing behind and discuss storytelling for storytellers.

A common question asked of professional storytellers (as well as of comic book writers, fiction writers, and magazine editors) is, "How did you become a professional storyteller?"

The flip answer is, "You start telling stories then find someone who will pay you to tell stories." The flip answer is also the bare bones of the correct answer. And, of course, there's more to it than that.

The first part -- you start telling stories -- is absolutely correct. It's the one, definite, required first step you must take before you can ever become a storyteller, professional or not. In this respect, storytelling is no different than writing. There are a lot more people who talk about the novel they're "going to write" than there are people who talk about the stories they're "going to tell," but you simply can't become any kind of a storyteller unless you start by telling someone, anyone, a story. All you need is one person who will listen to your stories and you can legitimately call yourself a storyteller. With many storytellers, myself included, the one person is a child.

Children love to hear stories. If the child is yours, they'll love to hear you tell them stories. The stories can be true stories, fairy tales, folk tales, or stories you make up on the spot for your child. Your child will enjoy the time the two of you spend together, exploring a world of imagination and wonder. You can still read books together, but you can also tell stories which are just for you and your child. The child can star in the story and offer suggestions for what should happen next. I have lots of stories which will never be told to an audience but which I treasure because I made them up with my son.

In case you think your child is an easy audience, think again. Just because your child will enjoy the stories you tell, don't think your child will let you get away with sloppy stories. No way, no how. Children have an amazing memory for stories. I can't tell you how many time my son called me down for changing the wording in a story from one telling to the next or forgetting a scene from a story. I eventually convinced him it was okay for the words to change a bit as long as the story stayed consistent.

If you aren't a parent but are an aunt or uncle, you can experiment on your nieces and nephews. Or perhaps the neighbors have children and won't mind you entertaining their children with stories. I'm not saying children are a requirement, but they do make it easier to get started. Plus, once they get into school, you can volunteer for reading and storytelling opportunities in your child's classroom. A class full of students make a perfect test audience for a storyteller. This was certainly an important part of my development as a storyteller.

Whether you have children you can tell to or not, you should also get online and search for local and statewide storytelling organizations in your area. Most states have a storytelling organization and those organizations are always interested in finding people interested in becoming storytellers. From a state organization, you can learn about storytelling events in your area, storytelling groups (which are the storytelling equivalent of a writing group), workshops, and other storytellers in your area. The people in these organizations are generally friendly and very interested in helping new people learn about storytelling.

Every organization will have someone designated as the contact person for information. Contact that person by email. If the group has an online listing of members, search it for other storytellers in your general area. Contact those people by email. Be polite, of course, but simply explain that you're new to storytelling and are looking for information. You can ask if they know of any storytelling groups which are open to the public (most are, in my experience) or of any local performances, workshops, or classes. Meanwhile, go ahead and join the state storytelling organization. It not only shows dedication, but you can get unanticipated benefits out of the membership.

What's an unanticipated benefit of membership? For me, it led directly to my first professional storytelling gig. A few months after joining the North Carolina Storytelling Guild, out of the blue I was invited to take part in a storytelling festival being held at a library in a small town about 30 miles north of me. The festival organizer had a small budget and couldn't afford to pay much to the storytellers she was inviting. As such, she specifically looked for members of the Guild who lived within reasonable driving distance. I happened to be within that range and happily accepted.

So, yes, I got my first storytelling gig by sheer luck. That happens. It probably even happens a lot. I'm confident I would have managed to land a spot at some other local library system festival. Had I not been invited to that festival, I would have still answered a call for tellers from another local library system a few months later. I already had significant volunteer time at my son's school and would likely have been welcomed based on that. But having a festival under my belt made it much easier for me to get the second gig. The second gig made it easier to land the third. After that, the whole thing just sort of stated snowballing. As other storytellers learned who I was, they were happy to recommend me for other festivals or for individual performances which they couldn't accept. In other words, success breeds success.

I realize this column is probably short on practical advice, but this is the path I followed when I set out to become a professional storyteller. As with any artistic endeavor, success is a combination of talent, perseverance, and luck. I'll aim for advice more readily applicable to everyone next time out.
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