Monthly Archives: August 2013

Let’s Hear It for Storytelling Organizations!

Florida-old_postcard012I recently received an e-mail from Kaye Byrnes, the administrator/ treasurer for the Florida Storytelling Association (FSA), with some information related to our profession. Maybe it was the morning I received the message; maybe it was Kaye’s inimitable style—but I was so moved that I called and thanked her (because we are who we are, this took 65 minutes of phone time) for all the effort she has put into our state storytelling organization.

It wasn’t always like this for me. Having held more than a few leadership positions in the storytelling world over the past decade or more, I have repeatedly sworn that I would never do so again. The experiences were, by and large, too time- and energy- and gut-consuming for me. I even apologized to Kaye during that looooong call because I had tried—unsuccessfully, I am glad to report—to steer away would-be Board members from FSA service.

I should quickly note that I have nothing but admiration for FSA. It was honestly nothing personal. I just couldn’t understand, after all that time I spent in volunteer service to storytelling, why any of us would put so much effort into organizational work when our own careers were not exactly flying—usually because we put so much effort into organizational work! But that morning, it was as if the veil I had thought was permanently lifted off my eyes when I stopped donating my time were somehow reapplied and rearranged, more neatly and nicely this time.

I am not ready to serve on a Board again, not that anyone is asking. (Suffice it to say, I am not the world’s most effective leader.) But I suddenly recognized that just because actors don’t contribute hours and years of service to coach and support and give work to fellow actors (from what I have been told, the acting profession is way too cutthroat for that) doesn’t mean that the storytelling world has to follow that model. We are misunderstood and maligned in the real, outside, entertainment industrial complex world because no one can figure out what we do that everyone in the world doesn’t do for free. If, as we say, everybody tells stories all the time, then what are we doing hanging out shingles? Why should we get paid for something so patently instinctive? (The answer, of course, is that it’s like singing and dancing. You can do it in your living room, and you can do it for your school play, but that doesn’t mean you do it well enough for someone to pay you to see it.) The thing is, the storytelling work pie, such as it is, is larger than that of the acting world, simply because storytelling is everywhere. Storytelling is like love: There is plenty to go around. It expands when there are more people to share it. You can quote me on that.

Most storytellers work with all sorts of populations, but we all have our specialties. Some of us, like the storyteller Mij Byram, specializes in work with tiny children. their parents and teachers. Others, like Carrie Sue Ayvar, are known for bilingual and historical work. Susan O’Halloran has her diversity programs; Gail Rosen and Diane Rooks their bereavement storytelling; Loren Niemi and Annette Simmons their business clients. Others specialize in education, health care, community work, etc. As for me, I am primarily a storyteller for older adult and Jewish audiences, as well as college/professional trainings.

The point is, we are really not in competition for the same “roles.” The storytelling universe, like the bigger one, is constantly expanding. And storytelling organizations help tellers and audiences find each other, in the best possible settings, and for the best possible reasons. Thank you!


You CAN Go Home Again and Live to Tell the Tale

loveuThis is my last hour in my hometown in a New York City suburb. I have been visiting my family here for a week. In seven short days, I have kissed and cavorted with members of four generations. I am not anxious to leave them.

During the time we’ve been together, we have communed not only with each other, but also with those who are not with us. My mother’s half-brother reminds me, for the first time, of my beloved grandfather, who died 11 years ago. We have discussed various details of my deceased father’s personality. We have debated the job prospects of my niece back in L.A.

Through it all, we have told stories. Before becoming a professional storyteller, I never realized that I had grown up in a family of storytellers. For that matter, before becoming a teacher of storytelling, I never realized that virtually all families are families of storytellers.

My mother told me the following story off the top of her head when I was six years old, and she was 32: There was a Volkswagen named Pickles. She was very wrinkled, so she bought wrinkle cream. She spread so much wrinkle cream all over her body that she disappeared.

That’s not the kind of story I was thinking of, necessarily, and it doesn’t technically qualify as a family story. I was compiling an anthology at the time, and I was annoying my mother to contribute something. She told me this off the top of her head. The reason I bring it up is that years later, it is the story about her telling me this story that has become a family story. With time and reflection, I can see that growing older was something that was beginning to bother her (did I mention that she owned a Volkswagen), at a time when she had recently started attending college.  Imagining my mother’s feelings at age 32, when she was impossibly old to me at an age that now strikes me as impossibly young, is interesting. At least to me.

So is walking around the park in which I cut classes (actually we cut lunch, but that’s too embarrassing to admit right off the bat) from junior high, kissed my 16-year-old boyfriend and ice skated. I have so many memories of my hometown, both good and bad, that, in communication terms, the “noise” can at times be overwhelming. That is to say, I sometimes quite literally have trouble seeing and hearing what is all around me in the present, because the past insists on intruding. This is not necessarily a problem; after all, I do not work and live there. But I keep thinking: How can I stop coming here, once my mom no longer lives in this town? How can I ever hold onto my past if I no longer walk these streets?

I know that it’s unusual to have one’s mother live in the same house for more than 50 years. I know it’s not common to be able to go home again. And so many people would like nothing less. But for me, the trip back to that New York suburb is a constant source of nourishment. I recall what I wanted, what I got, what I didn’t want, what I wasn’t able to get. It doesn’t always make me happy. But it reminds me that I survived it. Every bit of it. And that, at least, is deeply satisfying.

Stories Against Anxiety

I have been feeling a bit anxious lately. My financial and professional situation recently changed dramatically, and I am no longer young enough to go the usual route of job-hunting. Even spring chickens are having trouble finding work in this economy. I know spring chickens. And I am no spring chicken.

Then, in the past six weeks, I had an amazingly fortunate promotional coup that has brought in a lot of work for the coming year. (More about that in a later post.) Given that situation, one would have thought that the anxiety would have tamped down a lot. One would have thought.

Instead, I still lie awake at 3 a.m. worrying. Not about this year’s financial prospects. I worry about NEXT year. Why should the same people and organizations hire me again? Are there going to be MORE who will want to hire me? And, worst of all, what happens when I actually have to fulfill all the obligations I’ve taken on thanks to that PR coup? Am I going to be overextended and overwhelmed? Am I going to be able to handle it all? As they say in the financial world, past performance is no guarantee of future….

Then, fortunately, I recalled my storytelling training. I remembered that the step-by-step, sense detail-by-sense detail nature of storytelling teaches us mindfulness, aka living in the moment. I remembered that in the present, which is all I know for sure, I am well-fed and well-clothed (okay, sometimes my husband questions this assumption, but that, again, is for another post). I have my health and more-than-adequate shelter. Storytelling also tells us that anything can happen to anyone: the youngest, most foolish son always gets the treasure and the girl—eventually. Storytelling reminds us that tomorrow, as that great philosopher Scarlett O’Hara once said, is another day.

We storytellers are always touting the psychological benefits of our art form, but like any professionals, we can fall into the physician-heal-thyself, shoemaker-whose-children-have-no-shoes trap. We sometimes forget that we and our listeners are reminded every time we hear a story not that all will necessarily be well, but that endings are not usually foreseeable, and that conflict is often the seed of the most beautiful flowers.

Again, stories do not tell us that everything is always going to be all right. But there is at least an even chance that it will. We can never, ever know the story’s end until it’s over. Even with the help of the imagination that stories help us exercise, we can’t possibly imagine what that end will be. As another great philosopher once said, it ain’t over till it’s over.

Whenever I forget this, even for a moment, I will go back to this post. I hope you will, too.


A Storyteller Salutes Toastmasters International

I emcee VOX at Gizzi's in Delray Beach, Florida

I emceed VOX at Gizzi’s in Delray Beach

A wonderful professional storyteller friend of mine once denigrated “Toastmasters storytelling” to me. I don’t think she knew that I was an active Toastmaster from 1998-2006, or that I still write for the organization. I believe she was making the point that when Toastmasters tell stories, they do so in an instrumental way, that is, the story doesn’t succeed in and of itself as a work of art, but rather as a means to an end, presumably one that is business- or education-oriented.

Toastmasters storytelling is not only goal-oriented; it also looks different. It allows the teller to move around the stage at strategic moments, much like the paragraph breaks in written language. Sometimes it employs props, or other visual aids. Interaction, if any, tends to be more direct than the subtle co-creation of, for lack of a better word, aesthetic storytelling.

Sometimes I tell stories one way, at different times the other.  But in any case, I wouldn’t be a storyteller without Toastmasters. I have written, told and even recorded stories since I was young, but I rarely wanted attention from a crowd, and certainly not from strangers. I didn’t even have a wedding due to my fear of having all eyes on me! With the single exception of standing in a classroom in front of students, I couldn’t bear the spotlight.

Now, looking back, I have such regret about missed opportunities that I must constantly remind myself that I am fortunate that at least I found this organization when I did. Only after obsessively attending and participating in Toastmasters club meetings for a couple of years did I venture into the professional storytelling world. Before, I hadn’t had the slightest interest in anything but writing and teaching. And I certainly didn’t have the skills I have now.

Storytelling and  public speaking can blend together very nicely and effectively. I have said that I think of teaching, speaking, acting and storytelling as sort of like the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and Canada. In each case, the four share many things in common, and so at first glance you’d think it would be an easy leap from one to the other. But similarly in each case, the similarities melt away the better you know them. I think that’s a good thing, because we have so much more to discover.

From time to time, an audience member will tell me that I’m so good, I am “really an actress.” Or a student will refer to a storytelling performance as a “speech” and a storyteller as a “speaker.” I am working on stopping this from bothering me, but with mixed success. Storytelling is storytelling, I tell myself, and my interlocutor. It succeeds and fails on its own merits. But that’s not really true. Storytelling is aesthetic communication, whether at a Toastmasters convention or around the kitchen table. We gatekeepers do no one a service.

Toastmasters, on the other hand, is a gift to us all.

What Will Your Biographer Write?

I have been thinking more than ever these days about my dear friend Florence Ferreira, who died December 10, 2012, at age 51. Some may call it morbid, but in some ways, I am a sort of walking, talking shrine to my friend, wearing her clothing that her loved ones gave me after her death, fostering her cat when her beloved fiance is out of town, and generally doing my best to make every moment of life I have lived since her death matter.

That’s no easy task. Last night I was so pooped after a long day out of the house that I sank into the couch munching pretzels and chocolate and devouring a movie I had seen at least once before. Ditto the previous night, hopefully sans the snacks, but I can’t even guarantee that. There are so, so many moments of life that will, most likely, never make it into the final, authorized version of our lives. Lost moments, those too hard to explain, and those that just plain make us ashamed—not because we robbed a bank or shot an innocent bystander, but because we simply did not do the right thing, because nobody, or nobody who would have objected, was watching.

We cannot live our lives as if a drone were recording every millisecond for posterity. That’s waaaay too much pressure. But those of us who have read biography—as opposed to autobiography or memoir, which are self-created and self-editing, if not always self-serving—know that some lives, in the final analysis, contain more of the wheat than the chaff.

I think of Florence’s life. So damned short, and yet to her biographer, if there ever is one, brimming with meaning. Yes, she watched many, many movies in her downtime. (And being seriously ill for a decade before her death, she had more than her share of downtime.) Yes, she deeply regretted all the books she never got to write, all the lectures she never got to give. But when I look at the narrative of her life, I see a trajectory, a narrative arc, that was rich and forward-moving. I see a train that was mostly on track, particularly during those last, desperate years. She was intensely aware that life was short, not in the cliched sense, but in the sense of water poured into our palms, through splayed fingers.

With that knowledge, she didn’t become an ambassador or a rock star; her stage was limited. But she still exists in the lives and work of everyone who knew her, whether we are conscious of the fact or not. She lived, and she lives, in virtually every sense of the word except the one that goes to the supermarket in the middle of the day and cries out in the middle of the night in pain.  Her story, literally, continues.

I won’t go into the details of Florence’s legacy, because I am not ready to address it here. My point is simply this: Someone could be writing our biography, or more likely our obituary, tomorrow. What would be the arc of our lives, when they are over?  What will be the meaning?

Life review, which is an established technique devised decades ago, requires older adults to find, and resolve, the crisis points of their lives before they pass on. Memoir, which I often write for clients, provides an impressionistic, aesthetic framework for reviewing events and insights. In neither case is it necessary to have had a life containing material for a major motion picture. We have all read novels that are not plot-driven, but rather character-driven. (This is harder to do, albeit not impossible, in film.) The beauty and/or the meaning, I submit, derive from a mixture of form and substance.

The overarching, narrative arcs of our lives do not need to resemble the OdysseyCasablanca or Star Wars. We just need to be aware that they exist, and to live our lives accordingly—whatever that means to each of us.