Tell me a story 

Storytellers counter an age of bits and soundbytes with the timeless power of an oral tradition

Once upon a time, Carmen Deedy had a once-in-a-lifetime gig in Monterey, Calif.

Deedy, whose parents fled Castro in 1963, grew up in Decatur listening to yarns that could go on for hours and learning the colorful turns of phrase familiar to both Cubans and Southerners. It seems almost inevitable that she became a professional storyteller.

She started practicing the craft in her 20s, during story time at her daughter's elementary school, and moved to touring, and to appearances on National Public Radio and at the Library of Congress. Then in 2005, Deedy was invited to speak at the annual TED (for "Technology, Entertainment, Design") Conference in Monterey.

Nonspeakers pay thousands of dollars to attend the invitation-only event for and about deep thinkers and futurists, and Deedy shared a bill with DNA pioneers, physicists, explorers, evolutionary biologists, graphic novelists and, via satellite, even Bono.

"At one point I was riding in a car with three Nobel Prize laureates," she recalls.

The ultimate venue for cutting-edge ideas seemed an unlikely place to find Deedy, who sees storytelling as the oldest, most primal of all disciplines. The TED Conference was like nothing she'd ever seen. She marveled at practical examples of scientific breakthroughs and prototypes for products of the future.

"I saw things I can't describe, things that we won't see on the market for 10 years," she says. "The hydrogen car was there, fully working."

Having grown up poor, Deedy was overwhelmed by the $6,000 worth of gifts and gadgets in her hotel room – presents she received simply for being a TED speaker. "It was like Christmas."

When her time came to talk, Deedy knew that, like other TED speakers, she'd be allotted exactly 20 minutes. Then she discovered her microphone wasn't working. So much for the epicenter of technological advancement.

Not only did she not get to make up for the time required to fix the mic, but she put an additional burden on herself: She decided to abandon her prepared remarks and extemporize. Deedy told the audience about the time she was driving her elderly mother to the mall during the holidays. They were having trouble finding a parking space. But immigrants, she noted, have a special tool – "parking-lot radar" – and her mother used it to identify a spot three rows over.

Deedy told her closer cars would be able to claim the space first. So her mother got out of the car, strode across the rows between them and the space, and stood in the spot to claim it.

"Anyone who's grown up in the South or has an ethnic parent has stood in a parking space, or been forced to stand in a parking space," she recalls explaining to the TED audience.

To the amusement and annoyance of passers-by, her mother waved Deedy over while telling other drivers, "'No, no, no, you canna park here – is reserved!" Finally, her daughter brought the car around. Deedy parked and asked, "Have you no shame?"

"No, I gave it up with panty hose. They're both too binding."

Then she noticed two young people standing nearby, watching the spectacle. "She's just like Momma," one said. "God, how I miss her." And while Deedy was thinking, "There's two of my mother? Have they cloned her?" the embarrassing, maddening moment turned into something touching.

"I'm going to drive you crazy for 10 to 15 more years," Deedy's mother told her. "Then, you're gonna miss me."

At TED, Deedy's funny riff on her mother turned into a reflection on the fragility of people and things we hold dear.

"Story is human connective tissue," Deedy told her listeners. "Story is so elemental, so essential that even when Lexus sells you a car, they don't really sell you a car; they sell you a story."

Yet storytelling may be more fragile than it looks. We live in a DSL-speed media culture that puts a premium on images and editing. Taking the time to spin a funny, instructive yarn that celebrates language and selective moments of silence can seem like an anachronism.

"Traditions of storytelling are vanishing," she told the audience. "Now we receive stories from other sources, so the storyteller has been relegated to the secondary or tertiary role in the community."

Deedy recalls warm applause at the end of the talk. Some listeners thanked her afterward, and famed photographer Rick Smolan, producer of the Day in the Life books, was quoted later calling her story one of the highlights of the conference.

But some voices from New Media weren't as impressed. "One of the kids from Google said, 'Oh, please. Storytelling. She told a story about her dead mother.'"

Rob Cleveland knows storytellers have something of an image problem.

"The biggest hurdle is when someone says, 'Want to hear a storyteller?' people automatically think of the little old lady at the library with a copy of Thomas the Tank Engine," says Cleveland, who's also an actor and comedian. "But really, it's a performance art."

Tales for tots are a foundation of the discipline and, for many, a regular source of income. A big, friendly man with a ready quip, Cleveland is storyteller-in-residence at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. He frequently entertains children at events such as "Pajama Storytime" at public libraries. But he says even stories supposedly told for children were never really just for kids.

"They were meant for everyone in the community," he says. "I always stop the adults when I see them leaving. The funniest thing is when adults stop seeing it as day care or babysitting, and start seeing it as a performance for anyone."

The movement to reclaim storytelling as an art for everyone began in 1973 with the founding of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tenn. Now more than 70 major festivals take place in the United States each year. They represent the backbone of a professional circuit that's created viable opportunities for born talkers.

But storytellers practice the most portable art form. They can turn up anywhere, from libraries and classrooms to churches and even corporate boardrooms.

Cleveland grew into the art in the 1980s, while touring as a comedian. When his twin children were born in the early '90s, he gave up the road and began to emphasize storytelling as both a performer and a publisher. It was a natural transition from his anecdote-laced stand-up performances.

"If you're giving a presentation, you can use storytelling techniques to explain why someone should invest in your company, or why your workforce should work harder," explains Cleveland, who leads workshops for law students, Sunday school teachers and others.

Live performances alone usually aren't enough to make a living. Deedy has a national reputation but earns most of her income as a children's book author, although she enjoys such occasional high-profile gigs as her upcoming storyteller's cruise in the Caribbean with Kevin Kling, hilarious contributor to NPR's "All Things Considered."

In the early 1980s, people in and around Atlanta with a hankering to tell stories found a resource in the Southern Order of Storytellers, which evolved from a storytelling class taught by Loralee Cooley at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center on Briarcliff Road. According to current SOS President Feriel Feldman, the students loved the class so much they didn't want it to end. Even though Cooley taught one more week for free, they were so dedicated they founded a permanent organization.

"Atlanta caught the zeitgeist and helped contribute to the movement," Feldman says. Now, SOS has 200 members – most of whom are tellers, some of whom are fans of the medium. Activities range from loose "cluster meetings," where members gather to share stories on specific topics, to bigger events such as concerts and festivals.

In the same way that storytellers of old learned their craft by sharing tales, tricks and techniques around the campfire, the camaraderie was crucial for Audrey Galex's development as a storyteller. "SOS," she says, "is like a greenhouse for storytellers."

Galex tries to live by the therapeutic power of stories for both individuals and communities. Her "signature story," called "The Story of the Earth," is adapted from the Talmud. It depicts two farmers who dispute ownership over a plot of land.

"It's a way to talk about the Middle East situation without having to shout, 'Two-state solution!' at the audience," she says.

Galex, who describes herself as "a Jew who's comfortable in a Muslim worship space," argues that interfaith storytelling is an ideal antidote to the anxieties following Sept. 11. She leads the Interfaith Story Circle, which meets bimonthly at the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam in East Lake, where a handful of participants swap parables and memories about rituals or inspirational figures. For her, the social act of listening to others' stories can be as important as telling one's own.

"When so many faith traditions are fearful of each other," she says, "I'm guided by the notion that once you've heard someone's story, they can no longer be your enemy.

"The world we live in is an increasingly global society, and we may be colleagues or lovers with people from different traditions. Storytelling is a way to find common ground."

Professional storytellers are a diverse bunch, from Irish-style balladeers to African griots to tall-tale swappers. But one demographic consistently underrepresented is young people.

"I'm 52 years old," Cleveland quips, "or, as they call me in storytelling circles, 'The Kid.'"

Andy Offutt Irwin, a perpetually boyish singer/storyteller from Covington, notes that, "the good thing about storytelling is that it doesn't matter how old you are. The longer you live, the more you know.

"But there needs to be more young storytellers," he says. "My cousin who's 28 came to see me in Oklahoma City and afterward said, 'Andy, you're a rock star!' And I said, 'Yeah, but everyone's 55.'"

Community elders, whether in primitive villages or at modern family reunions, have traditionally been the keepers of stories, so young people seldom have taken center stage in the storytelling movement. And the YouTube generation faces more distractions than ever.

Deedy worries that 21st-century communications habits are devaluing not just storytelling, but actual conversation: "Recently my daughter and I went out to a restaurant. It happened to be 'date night' and there were a lot of couples there, but they weren't talking to each other. They all had their BlackBerries out and were texting other people."

At the same time, she suspects that storytellers have always panicked over technological innovations: "I'm sure the first time someone started doodling the first alphabet on papyrus, a bystander saw that and declared, 'It's the end of storytelling!'"

Storytelling has an impressive track record in adapting to change. If the oral tradition can survive the pulp novel, the soap opera and the infomercial, it will adjust to the XBox and the iPod.

The spinners of stories are finding and creating new platforms, including open-mic nights at bars. And in some pockets, they're getting more formal training. At Kennesaw State University, for example, students can get a degree in theater with an emphasis in storytelling. Younger voices also are part of the mix on National Public Radio shows such as "This American Life" and the "StoryCorps" segments of "All Things Considered" – which have become major venues to amplify the storytelling tradition.

Book publishing can also provide a boon to storytellers, but there are trade-offs. Cleveland has a day job as director of development at Atlanta-based August House, which publishes almost entirely the work of professional storytellers. August House also tries to bring storytelling to the 21st century – or maybe a better way to say it would be, to bring the 21st century to storytelling. Most of August House's "Story Cove" line of books feature their own websites, with Flash animation versions of the stories (read by the actual tellers) and related games, as gateways for children.

"Some people call digital technology the tool of the devil," Cleveland says. "But if you have kids who are computer-literate before they're book-literate, you can play them a clip of the story, and then let them look at the book. It's finding new ways to pass the oral tradition down."

One of the challenges for storytellers – or someone writing a story about tellers – is to capture spoken subtleties and to distill the virtues of a long tale. Cleveland acknowledges that a certain magic can be lost when you write down a story meant to be told aloud.

"Stories from the oral tradition are not meant to be written down," he says. "Ever seen a movie adaptation of a book and realize that they couldn't do on screen what the author can do with words? Well, we have the opposite problem. Sometimes you can't capture with words the emotion that you can get from seeing the person's face and hearing their voice."

Of course, some aspects of mass communications and technology have taken the basics of storytelling and run with them. Cleveland points out that the most popular narratives in our culture – Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter – are, at the basics, all the same story. "They're all Arthurian legend," Cleveland says. "They all have an orphan boy with a talisman – a light saber, a ring and a wand – and Obi-Wan, Gandalf and Dumbledore are all Merlin."

But big franchise films and TV shows sometimes get blamed for all that's wrong with pop culture, from fostering short attention spans to focusing on special effects and merchandising. Storytelling can serve as a potent counteragent.

"The quiet moments, the serious moments of storytelling most affected me," says Andy Offutt Irwin, who gravitated toward the craft after Deedy introduced him to it and helped him get his first gig. "The sky's the limit. People will accept anything if it's good, and it's a literary audience. It's great not playing to the lowest common denominator."

Irwin's award-winning anecdotes about his fictional octogenarian Aunt Marguerite, founder of "Southern White Old Lady Hospital," touch on themes of mortality and race relations. He isn't worried that younger potential listeners are losing the ability to appreciate a good, rich, unhurried story.

"I think the whole attention-span thing is a little overworked. We're competing with the Internet at the marketplace, but not at the actual gig. Storytelling appeals to all ages. I know it can because I see it all the time. Donald Davis retired as a Methodist minister 20 years ago, which should give you an idea of how old he is, and he can still make an 18-year-old pass milk through his nose. That's what I'm shooting for."

The best output of a professional storyteller can work like an epiphany delivery system – entertaining for sure, but infused with universal insights. In Irwin's 11-minute story, "It's All Good," a highlight of his spoken-word CD Book Every Saturday for a Funeral, he talks about Aunt Marguerite's 1948 Chevrolet pickup truck.

For 30 years, Marguerite has let neighborhood teenagers work on it, tune it up and rebuild the carburetor, until the car has the status of local legend and rite of passage. "No car in all of Georgia has had its oil changed more."

One day, the latest 18-year-old boy to work on the engine loses a little spring from the carburetor's butterfly valve – ping! Gone forever! He feels embarrassed in the presence of Aunt Marguerite and the other boys. "It's all good," says the boy, putting a brave face on his mistake, and Aunt Marguerite thinks about how she likes that piece of slang. The 1970s, when "bad" was good, confused her.

Marguerite sends him to the Covington hardware store – to Mr. Jenkins, who had been working there "since the middle 1800s." Learning of the problem and inspecting the carburetor, Mr. Jenkins finds a spring and, looking through a jeweler's stone with a swinging magnifying glass, cuts it to the proper length using needle-nose pliers and an alligator clip.

And then, having "old-man wisdom," Mr. Jenkins resists putting the spring on the carburetor himself. He hands the boy the carburetor, and then the spring. "There you go," he says. The boy comes around the counter to attach it – click – and it was just the right length and the right size and the right tension.

The boy goes back and all the teenagers gather round. Marguerite puts on her reading glasses. "Well, that looks good. Did you put that on there?"

"Yes, ma'am, I did. It's all good."


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