The Democratic Folk Art of Storytelling

quiltYesterday I had the opportunity to work with a dear friend and professional storyteller. (Note: If she lets me use her name, I will do so with pleasure.*) She wanted a bit of assistance on a story she is developing. Ever since I entered the world of professional telling, I have seen this woman’s name and heard her praises. She is one of the most effervescent, kind, generous, talented people I know. Not surprisingly, she gets a lot of work, primarily telling folktales in schools, libraries and family festivals.

This storyteller, whom I will call Madam X, is also a Chautauqua teller, meaning that she takes on the persona of a historical figure to tell stories from that character’s life. Chautauqua tellers dress the part, know everything there is to know about the figure they are portraying, and even answer questions after the show in that persona. The reason I say this is to explain that Madam X has a range that extends past folktales.

So what was she doing “picking my brain” (her term, which always sounded a little painful to me, so I wore a hat) over Mexican food yesterday? Here is where it gets interesting.

(1) Madam X has done many, many favors for me; as I said, she is generous. When she needs help, I am there, if I possibly can be. Still, this begs the question. Why was she calling upon me?

(2) I have a Ph.D., have worked as a writer and editor for 25 years, and teach storytelling studies on the university level. But so what? This gives me a certain imprimatur and a tiny bit of prestige, I admit, but mostly on paper. There are storytellers and writers who are far more advanced than I am who never finished college.

(3) I do a lot of personal storytelling, teach how to do it, and am a very comfortable, lifelong writer.

And #3 is really the point. The beauty of a folk art is that those who do it well learn from experience. Degrees, status, a fancy pedigree of schools and teachers is meaningless. I’m not saying they don’t help a teller learn the craft. I’m saying they are just facts and pieces of paper if you don’t do the work. You do the work over and over, develop your own style, and it either hits or misses. In other words, you succeed or fail with audiences on merit alone. (This doesn’t have anything to do with the marketplace, of course, which depends on all sorts of other variables, like luck, contacts, even appearance.)

I have spent many, many years getting degrees. Madam X, a college graduate, by the way, has spent many, many years as a professional teller. So on the one hand, she is a more experienced performer than I. On the other, she is not as experienced in developing personal memorate, that is, creating our own stories. So while in folktales, she is the “professional,” when it comes to personal storytelling, I suppose I am, at least more so than she.

I would not say status does not matter in professional storytelling. Again, it’s the marketplace thing. The veterans of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, are, by and large, the elite of our industry, and even among that group there is a hierarchy of the most popular performers. But it is primarily a status based on one thing only: How well do you do what you set out to do? I say “primarily,” because once again, it is a matter of the marketplace. There are sensationally talented people who for one reason are another are not Festival regulars.

On my radio segment, The Public Storyteller (91.3 FM, or Sundays at 4 p.m., or, I invite non-professionals to share stories of their lives in South Florida. And lo and behold, some—not all, of course—but some of those stories are as entertaining and engaging as anything I’ve heard on a festival stage. That’s what I love about this art form. Remember the “Dueling Banjos” scene in the movie Deliverance?  Some people can pick up a banjo and make it sing like a bird, without ever having taken a lesson. It’s an expression of hard work coupled with their hearts and, for lack of a better word,  souls. It’s the same with storytelling. I’m not suggesting that anyone who feels like it can bring a 2,000-person audience to tears, as I’ve seen many times at the Festival. But anyone, anyone, anyone (have I said that enough?) can tell his or her own story well, given half a chance. Anyone cannot, if my own experience is any judge, play Mozart.

I have no doubt that Madam X will shine at personal storytelling. Meanwhile, I am thrilled to be able to help in any way I can.

*I just got permission to name Madam X. She is Carrie Sue Ayvar.

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  • Carrie Sue Ayvar  On July 11, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    As my Mama taught me, the smartest people are those who recognize that they don’t know everything and are wise enough to ask for help. I know enough to ask the best!

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