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!

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