The Storytellers in My Life

Published December 11, 2011 by admin

I’ve said before that I’m very lucky to have a vast (and somewhat warped) imagination. Although I think some bits of that is inherent to an individual, in my case I can attribute a lot of it to circumstances when I was growing up.

My folks are both imaginative individuals in different ways. My dad can spin a yarn off the top of his head and make it sound entirely believable – something I can roll my eyes at or appreciate now, but growing up these stories were so likely to my impressionable mind I didn’t quite get that he was putting me on. So I completely believed when he said we were going to dig a crater in the backyard, throw a rock down in it, say it was a meteor, and charge admission – it sounded way cooler than a lemonade stand! I was incredibly disappointed when my mom broke it to me that he wasn’t serious (this was always her job for some reason). My mom was great at keeping me entertained, since like so many kids I had the habit of exploring and getting into things when I was bored (which was fine at home but not so much at public outings). My number one companion as a little girl was a stuffed dog puppet that followed me everywhere. Not only was mom adept at bringing him to life physically, but she had a flair for inventing stories about him when I was bored. An adept trouble maker that got out whenever I was asleep, was at school, or wasn’t around to watch over him,  I would hear all about how he broke into my school to see what it was all about, how he took bongo lessons so he could play people’s heads like drums, and ran up and down the neighborhood streets decorating them for Halloween at Christmastime. Of course everything was always put back to right by time I woke up/got home/etc. I’d like to think I’ve developed my own knack for this kind of on-the-spot storytelling, but it took many, many years to know when to be zany and when to pull back.

And The Sibling is equally gifted with a story. Growing up we had a high old time playing dolls and Barbies and probably came up with plot twists that Mattel or Disney never thought up. For some reason, at some point, we decided that a lot of our Barbies and character dolls had evil twins – so now we had twice the cast of characters to work with, and every time we thought we knew what was going on…say two dolls were going to get married… oh no! He’s really marrying her evil twin! But double oh no! It’s his evil twin, too! And oh mah gawd, two evil characters are getting married and they’ll form an evil alliance and think up even MORE trouble! It’s a shocker that I’m not working for Barbie, I tell you.

The most amazing part of this is our parents didn’t even know about this until we were sending all of these dolls off to our younger cousins years later and started cracking each other up over these plotlines as we were packing them away. “So I’m packing this one up…OH WAIT IT’S HIS EVIL TWIN!!!” And our parents began to wonder yet again what type of creatures they’d been housing under their roof for so many years.

Of course Reading Rainbow and shows like it  (CBS Storybreak and a few others came close but weren’t as good) also kept me on the edge of my seat. There’s one thing to read a book and there’s another to have it read to you, especially by someone who knows what they’re doing. It doesn’t matter if it’s on TV. I think there’s something to be said for keeping the oral tradition alive, and of course the educational aspects weaved in with this on the show made it pure genius. For a long, long time I don’t think I ever missed an episode and again I found myself memorizing the stories and trying to recreate them for my friends or with my dolls. Believe me, my My Little Ponies had the most literary adventures on the block and the kids next door and you haven’t lived until you and a group of seven-year-olds try to act out half of those stories. And at least when I was in grade school (this was soon after fire was discovered, but before the bronze age) we always had to take turns reading the assigned stories and chapters out loud in reading class. Apparently even then I thought I had to add flair to everything, because I remember at one point in first or second grade when we were reading some story about beavers I felt the need to make sound effects after every sentence (there’s no way to put it into type but kind of like cutesy chewing sound effects, like a beaver gnawing at a tree.) Thankfully this went over well with both the teacher and the class. Amazingly it never occurred to me to read it any other way.

Off and on I took to writing little stories – some for school, some at home because I had incredible, genius ideas (that were suspiciously like whatever movie/story/whatever I’d just seen or read) and had to get them out because I was that amazing! I’ve kept a few and I may have to scan and/or transcribe some up here – they’re fabulous. I wish I’d kept more, but I junked a lot in a fit of embarrassment at the scribbled illustrations and half-thought-out plots (I found my teen angst journals at the same time and unfortunately trashed those, too…the bits that I have left caused me to laugh like a lunatic when I finally read them again for the first time in years). But those that are left crack me up so hard I can’t take it. For the teachers that received some of those stories as assignments…I don’t think they could take it, either, but that’s not really the same thing.

I grew up in a small southern Illinois town until my pre-teens and we often got a lot of local St. Louis-access shows by default. One of my favorites that could make me give up Saturday morning cartoon alternatives was Gator Tales. It was really simple – a guy (I forget his name) that stood next to a puppet stage or table and a gator puppet that interacted with him as he told the week’s story. I can’t remember a lot of them except for Nasty Jack (his version of the jack-o-lantern story), but I remember being transfixed and memorized every story to try to tell my friends (with mixed results. Hey, I was six and it was a thirty minute program! And even at that age I was determined to put my spin on things.) I actually got to meet the guy who did the show at some kind of social function and it was like being in the presence of a rock star. I didn’t know what to do with myself and was so shy I think I just stared up at him (and was disappointed he didn’t bring the gator puppet.) But to hear him tell Ananzi stories a few feet in front of me was total, utter magic.

I also had the lucky chance to watch Jim Henson’s The Storyteller series actually air on television. Now this thing scared the bejesus out of me as a kid, but it was a scare that I kept coming back to (It’s amazing that as a kid I watched the True Bride episode and could only be terrorized by the trolls and now I watch it and gravitate to Sean Bean. What a difference a few years make.).  As a teen I found a copy of all the stories in print form (and of course memorized them and revamped them) and finally got my own copy of the shows on dvd. This series is the closest thing to the magic described in the Old Stories I’ve ever seen. It is IT. For me, this is the vibe that faerie and folk tales are supposed to have. I love it and I kind of want to jump in my TV set and live there every time I watch the episodes. (Now I’d probably run up to the trolls and be all ‘TROLLS!! I LURV YOU TROLLS YOU ARE SO COOL, WAY TO BE ANTAGONISTS!!!’). In an ironic twist I started showing these to some of my young relatives a couple of years ago and saw many of the same emotions flitting over their small faces – terror and sheer curiosity.

Years later I was living in southern Indiana and had become a total library junkie. There wasn’t much to do, the Internet still had yet to become the Internet, and I had yet to get my license. And truth be told, I was a geek and wanted to know everything about everything (some things haven’t changed.) While there are so many compliments I could pay that library (and I will in a future post), Mr. Holden directed that place like a tightly run ship. I can’t remember if he was the one that brought in the children authors to lecture, but I do remember during his time that there were mini orchestra concerts, lectures on different topics – all sorts of activities. He allowed graphic novels on the shelves and found ways to encourage everyone. And because I was there so much he always said hi to me, always had encouragement and a kind word, which was so helpful because I often felt entirely disconnected from the ‘cool’ crowd in my age bracket – you know, the group that defines how you’re supposed to be at any given age.  He encouraged me to start building my own puppets and try my own thing. And he was also an incredible public speaker and storyteller.  During a Martin Luther King’s day event he did parts of Dr. King’s speeches and I still get the chills thinking about it. He sucked you in with his words, kept you dangling with his pauses, led you with every syllable.

When I was a senior in high school we were having a program where english classes would listen to a professional storyteller, sponsored by the library or something – somehow Mr. Holden was involved. We were all jammed into the high school library and waited…and waited…and waited. Coincidentally my english class had just gotten done with a public speaking assignment where we had to read a children’s book to our peers. (It was like I’d been preparing all my life for that assignment! )

I did Froggy Gets Dressed, obtained for me by my mom who was teaching pre-school at the time. I want to say I probably ripped off my performance somewhat from a version I had heard, but no doubt I added my own nuances – I’ve also loved doing voices and sound effects from a young age. You can imagine how much fun I could be at a family dinner. Anyway, my schtick was enough to crack up my classmates and sitting there in the library, staring at the empty microphone was enough to get those around me murmuring and thinking. And elbowing me. “Hey, if we’re gonna wait why don’t you get up there and do Froggy?!” some people around me asked. Now I’d survived how many years of public school and I knew that this could easily be a setup: let’s sucker the geeky girl into stepping behind a microphone! I’d done a lot of background roles in school shows and that sort of thing, but I had no illusions as to my lack of popular standing. I was likeable, but not LIKEABLE, and I definitely was not a masochist. And plus we were supposed to be there for class and my teacher was right there!

I had yet to truly embrace that while I am basically a kind, loving, and good person with a quiet side, I am also a royal ham and an instigator.

Finally my teacher (Bless you Mrs. Rueger!) heard all the muttering and…totally went along with it. This was new to me – a teacher encouraging off the cuff behavior!? Whaaaa?!

And that was how I found myself yanked up and shoved behind a microphone. Now I should say that while I’m socially shy, public speaking doesn’t bug me and never has. I may get jittery but as long as I have something to work with, I love it. With a microphone to shield me I can do whatever the hell I want and know that I don’t have to deal with the audience one on one – bring it on! By that point I’d been on a stage and I’d done a lot of singing gigs around town for women’s groups, library groups, church services, lodge meetings, town events, etc. It wasn’t the microphone that freaked me out. It was that the audience was the same group of people who could potentially annihilate me in an hour when we got out to the hall. And the little fact that for the project I had the book in my hands – sure, I had the text memorized (it was required), but during the actual presentation  I had the book in my hot little hands. Never underestimate the ability for illustrations to give you a safety net.

Now I had no book.

But I started anyway. Slowly, shakily, until I began to gather some steam. For those who are unaware of this literary masterpiece, Froggy Gets Dressed is the story of Froggy, who has to put on ten thousand layers so he can go out and play in the snow (I won’t spoil the plot-twist ending for you.) And for each clothing item there was a sound effect that you could vocalize and have a high old time with, along with providing killer voices for Froggy and his mom!  And since I had no book, now I could add goofy motions! (And you wonder why I wasn’t the girl everyone wanted to be around in high school!) About halfway in I suddenly realized I had no idea what came next. My mind blanked. And I looked out and also realized that the audience was with me. This group of high school seniors were acting like little kids (ring-led by some kind souls in my class who were shouting out the sound effects with me and having a high old time).

So I improvised. I don’t even remember what the hell I had Froggy wearing – swim fins, a fur coat, a hula skirt, god only knows what…I think I eventually got back to winter wear. I may have had him undress and re-dress a few times if I forgot an item. But it was a riot. I was having a good time, people were amused, and this group of holier-than-thou teens were cheering by time I turned around to vacate the microphone…

…and turned smack into the guy who was supposed to be the main event and had shown up late.  And Mr. Holden the library deity. Now I wouldn’t think anything of it, but at the time I was mortified – ohmygosh! Mr. Holden caught me usurping his program! He would tell my parents! He’d ban me from the library! He…was…cracking up along with everyone else!? Really, the only person that didn’t looked amused was the actual storyteller. I can’t remember what story he actually told – some rural Americana-type story. He wasn’t bad, but it was more of a performance than audience interacting. And for me, the difference between storytelling and someone getting up and doing a one-person show is that the audience is a part of the world. They’re drawn in and included in the tale in some way.

It was an utter shock to my system when a bunch of my peers admitted later that I’d totally creamed the guy with what I had done. That hadn’t been my intention at all – I was just out to have fun and amuse everyone. And really, that’s what I still do with my ideas, whether it’s something I’m writing or telling off-the-cuff to amuse a friend or the child of one of my friends. I like taking people with me when I have an idea. Writing and storytelling are all well and good – sure, a writer writes for themselves…kind of. But a real story doesn’t fully exist until there’s someone else to hear it and feel the life and magic in the tale.

And that’s something I never hope to lose. Because sure my ideas are a little zany and offbeat at times, but I want people to think about them and feel them with me. I want to give others the spark that I was so lucky to have growing up. Otherwise idea-land is a fun place to play, but it can get  stale and lonely with only one person living there.

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