People ask me how I became a storyteller. The question hangs in a split second of expectation: perhaps I know of a book… some little-known home-grown tome of tried and true tips. There are good books on storytelling, I’ve read lots of them, but that is not how I became a storyteller.
Starred, but invisible on my storytelling resume, is chance. By chance my father came from the mountains of West Virginia and had a reverence for the English language. He spoke “story.” By chance, my maternal grandmother studied “Literary Arts and Elocution” at a Boston college in the 1920’s. Her everyday language was peppered with Keats and Shakespeare and Noel Coward. By chance, she read folk tales and legends and mythology to her daughter. And by chance, her daughter, my mother, read them to me. I heard and learned cadence and turn of phrase by listening. By chance.
This weekend, as I do every October, I went to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. As I listened, I remembered that craft is not tucked into a book or master class. This weekend, storytelling was in the crisp fall mountain morning; it was in a red and white circus tent infused with the smell of damp grass and hay. Storytelling was in the incantations of my favorite tellers. Once. Once upon a time. There was a time and there was not….
I realized this weekend how I became a storyteller. The unwitting mentors were there. I learned to tell Greek Myths by reading Edith Hamilton and Homer, but mostly I learned by listening to Barbara McBride Smith. I learned to tell African folk tales by listening to traditional tellers like Charlotte Blake Alston and Baba Jamal Koram. I learned to tell Jewish Folk Tales by listening to Syd Leiberman. People ask me how I became a storyteller. Now I know: I sit up and listen.
None of us is a stranger to chance. And chance always leaves a story behind. Look. Listen. Chance left a story for you.